Anne's Reviews > Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
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it was amazing
Recommended for: mainly women

Critics who consider Austen's works trivial because of their rigid, upper-class setting, wealthy characters, domestic, mannered plots and happy endings are almost totally disconnected from reality, as far as I can tell. What can they possibly expect an upper-middle class English woman to write about in 1813 but what she knows or can imagine? Sci-fi? A history of the American Revolution? A real-life exposé of underage exploitation in the garment district of London? Come on. What other setting can she be expected to tackle with authority? Austen's value lies in her portraiture: her characters are believably human in their concerns, vanities, failings and quirks. The plots serve largely to showcase their interaction and thus, her observations of human nature, which are pointed, accurate, and hysterical.

Here, in her best work (my opinion), her technical skill as a writer also shows in Pride and Prejudice's tight plotting and economical casting; there are no superfluous characters or wasted chapters here. My college lit professor used to go on and on about this novel as a revolution of literary form in that dialogue drives the plot as much as exposition; I'll buy that but it doesn't thrill me for its own sake as much as it did her. It does mean, though, that Pride and Prejudice is a relatively smooth and lively read, that we learn about events and characters as much from what they say to each other as from what Austen narrates to us. The banter between Darcy and Elizabeth isn't empty flirting, it's a progression, a chart of their ongoing understanding/misunderstanding and a way to take stock of plot developments as well as an enjoyable display of wit.

Austen's heroines are famously caught between love and money are famously criticized for always getting both in the end. I've got no problem with this wish fulfillment. Keep in mind that being married is basically the only possible 'job' available to a woman of her position--marrying a rich dude is the only viable escape from the life of poor-relation dependency Austen herself lived, there's nothing reactionary or anti-feminist about it. The other option--becoming a governess--is barely respectable, putting a woman into an ambiguous class limbo of social invisibility that translates directly into a loss of safety and self-governance. Expecting Elizabeth to, what, become a doctor? is silly and anachronistic, and perhaps if that's your preference you'd be better off reading Clan of the Cave Bear, with Ayla and her bearskin bra, or what have you.

Pride and Prejudice is simply a joy to read, a dance of manners and affection between the leads and a parade of human silliness in the supporting cast.

edited to add: some thoughts specific to the Patricia Meyer Spacks annotated edition I received as a gift for Christmas 2010:

It’s quite remarkably handsome, and sturdy, and useful for whacking spiders if you are that sort of person. Generously illustrated with color and black-and-white sketches, engravings, and reproductions of earlier editions, household objects, relevant artwork, contemporary cartoons, diagrams and fashion plates.

My attention wandered during the editor’s introduction in what turned out to be a horribly familiar way. While I appreciated Spacks’s discussion of historical background, her warnings about the subtlety of language and characterization, and the dangers of identifying too much with our favorite characters because Austen stacks the deck for that purpose, etc etc, it was a sort of technical appreciation--dry, and a little bit soulless. I was, perhaps, impatient. At some point as I yanked my eyes back to the pages I kept trying to read, I realized: Spacks is a Professor Emerita at the University of Virginia--my former stomping grounds (wahoo-wa!) (...sorry, that happens)--it’s more than possible she was MY professor back in 19. I don’t remember her name or face, but certainly her style, the steel trap of her mind, and the mildly pushy feeling of her obsession with language all felt very very familiar. So, grain of salt: I may have some kind of baggage here.

That said, this is a must-own for the serious P&P fan. As with any annotated edition, I wouldn’t recommend it for a first or even third reading of the book--these notes take up half-to-full pages, sometimes continuing to the next, and only if you’re already familiar with the text of the book itself can you spare attention to wander off down these other roads. Keep another straight copy of P&P around for when you just want to read the thing. Some footnotes are simple definitions, or style notes: some are mini-essays that include their own cited references. Spacks includes centuries of Austen scholarship in her notes, not just contemporaries, so points of view vary widely. There’s quite a smorgasbord of textual commentary to pick through, and you’re sure to find little tidbits that strike you as especially resonant or horrendously wrong and weird.

Two tidbits I liked: first, a primary source. One note, in discussing the complicated British class system of the day, refers to a table constructed by one Patrick Colquhoun in his A Treatise on the Wealth, Power and Resources of the British Empire, in Every Quarter of the World (2nd ed., London, 1815, pp 106-107)--a table which lays out exactly where, for instance, Darcy stands in relation to the Bennett family. He’s in the “second class,” they’re in the fourth. Clearly people put a lot of time and effort into codifying and arguing about societal structure, status and behavior, and I think that would be a fascinating thing to read.

Another note I lingered over involves Mr. Collins, a character we love to hate. Here's the upside of an annotated edition: I’d never bothered to give Mr Collins much of my attention, since he’s icky--but Spacks points out the oddity of a snippet that I'd always ignored before. In bidding Elizabeth farewell from Hunsford, Mr Collins apologizes profusely for the humbleness of his style of living, as if he considered her socially above him--and this is a complete 180 from his incredibly condescending proposal of marriage earlier in the book, where he deigns to presume he’s taking a burden from her parents by opting to support her. Also, Spacks has a lot to say about Elizabeth's inconsistency and lack of generosity towards Charlotte Lucas--traits I'd noticed in past readings without following through to some of their logical conclusions and their connections with Elizabeth's later behavior.

Definitely worth the purchase price! Add it to your collection, but don't make it your only copy, since it's hard to tuck under your pillow.

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Reading Progress

Started Reading
January 1, 1994 – Finished Reading
February 25, 2008 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-23 of 23 (23 new)

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Alison Well-said!

Annie Bravo, Anne. I applaud.

Jacqueline Quackenbush Great review!

When I picked this book up a lot of people assumed I would hate it since I'm usually known as the ranting feminist within my group; I can go on repeated tirades about Twilight and the negative message it holds for women, so most expected I would do the same here. The difference is, as you have so eloquently pointed out, that Elizaberth's character is the most girl-power type of figure you could realisticly hope for in this time period and setting,and if there is one thing I am more dead set on than feminism, its historical accuracy ;)

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pritty Oh that was a great review! You made me want to read the book! Fantastic!

message 5: by Rula (new)

Rula A fantastic review. It is indeed full of working class

Patrícia THIS! You rock!

I mean, when people compare Pride and Prejudice with Jane Eyre I get a bit mad... and this is the reason! People don't seem to understand that Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre are from different social classes and what's acceptable to one is not acceptable to the other (mainly, it's perfectly acceptable for Jane Eyre to seek employment but it would be difficult for Elizabeth Bennet to do the same). Plus, I think Jane Eyre is set in Victorian times? Another reason why they shouldn't be compared, me thinks. :p

Both heroines are strong in their own manner and act accordingly to their situation. ^^

Fuglsang Thank you for this review! Most reviews here show such a lack of historical understanding I can hardly believe it. Thank you very much.

Anne Thank you, everybody, for your kind remarks and review likings and whatnot.

Mary & Diana, I hope you had/are having a blast. I'm completely in the tank for the 1995 miniseries with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, too, despite the changes they made. So, if you haven't seen that, consider it.

Micha RE: Mr. Collins> While I used to think he was a total creep, now I am not so certain. It seems to me that many of the male characters of Pride & Prejudice have some variety of social flaw or another – particularly where shyness is concerned. Our introduction to Mr. Bingham, for example, shows us that he is terribly awkward when talking to women, particularly Jane who he loves so dearly. This is similarly shown in the character of Mr. Darcy who lacks the social grace of Elizabeth Bennett and come across as rude rather than socially inept. I think Ms. Austen puts the character of Mr. Collins in a similar position of feeling awkward and shy towards Elizabeth Bennett and Jane who are both beautiful and intelligent as well as socially clever. He is so obsessed with his patroness’ wealth and status that it seems almost a joke of the novel, but I don’t necessarily think so. I think Ms. Austen felt a little sorry for him, knowing he would probably be perceived the way he so often is. Perhaps the line of text to which you refer is her manner of asking her readers to have a bit of empathy for him.

Micha Sensational review, by the way - it was a pleasure to read!

Parikhit Great review. I absolutely loved the book!

message 12: by Anne (new) - rated it 5 stars

Anne Thank you, Micha and Parikhit!

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AmblingBooks You recommended it for "mainly women"? As a 50 year old male, I love the story for the very thing you mention, Anne, the main characters' "dance of manners and affection". The courting ritual, so well illustrated in the book and all the movie versions make me chuckle all the way through them.

message 14: by Anne (new) - rated it 5 stars

Anne wrote: "You recommended it for "mainly women"? As a 50 year old male, I love the story for the very thing you mention, Anne, the main characters' "dance of manners and affection". The courting ritual, so..."

Sure, why not "mainly?" "Largely"? "Mostly"? I haven't taken a poll or anything--maybe there's one extant, lurking about the site somewhere? we should check--but I feel pretty comfortable guessing that the majority of P&P fans identify as female.* You don't think you're special? I think you're special! And also awesome, clearly, because, shyeah, look at your taste in books.

*Mind you, I fully realize in saying "women" so briefly that I'm working under exclusionary definitions of gender, limited to the two most recognized: cisgendered women and men. But they're just the groups I'm most comfortable making broad generalizations about when discussing ANY liking. I've only known one transgender man & we didn't get into book topics (nor would his own taste be a big enough sample.)

I'd rather not make any assumptions about the gay folk either, although my immediate circle & therefore sample population is way wider there.** To be sure, a gay male friend of mine adores the book while my best lesbian friend would probably use it as a temporary shim for something until she could repair it properly, but that's hardly probative. And also works well with "mainly."

**I am not attempting to say any of this is about you in a personal way, Ambling, just trying to recognize my own limiting speech.

Angie Great review and defense of Ms. Austen. She uses character study that would appeal to her audience. Pride and Prejudice has some great morals about behavior. Adding some feminist notes:

I don't think every novel has to be about storming the gates of inequality and Austen uses a quieter form of feminism. As you point out, the best Lizzie can realistically hope for is an advantageous marriage. To Lizzie's credit she would rather be poor and unwed than unhappy. On top of that, the men and women aren't really presented as that unequal. Darcy loves Lizzie for her free spirit and intellect, what more could a feminist ask for in a romance novel? She challenges him mentally and it turns him on. Even men today often prefer the vapid flirt to engaging conversation. On social significance front, the book points out many times how unfair it is that daughters can not inherit their fahter's estate. (Granted it isn't fully illustrated since Lizzie and Co aren't thrown into poverty.)

Most importantly the novel is enjoyable to read and can't a feminist *swoon* at least a little for Mr. Darcy?

Angie John wrote: "The fact that she wrote and reproduced what was absolutely expected of her time and place, is not exactly a great defence for her."

I'm a believer in the American justice system. The burden of proof is on the prosecution. You do not charge Ms. Austen with a crime yet attack the defense.

A major plot point in Pride and Prejudice is that women can't inherit. It is openly stated, described as unfair, and creates some of the tension of the novel. It's a moderate feminist statement. Imagine if all books were just about social injustice or if every female author could only write stories with strong feminist arguments. I judge books based on what they are and even more importantly whether or not I enjoyed them. As the reviewer Anne says, the one thing Austen is great at is character. I think her books continue to be popular because we can still see her characters in those around us. Austen was making social statemets with her characters even if they were limited to her spehere. There is also that old adage, write what you know. (Pardon me, Anne, for jumping in on your review.)

message 17: by Angie (last edited Jun 27, 2014 04:21PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Angie Again, I repeat, write what you know. My guess is Austen's life was very different from the women you mentioned. I am not sure if any were quite on Austen's level of wealth or were nobility. Mary Shelley's mother was a known feminist, Martinueau had a stern mother and a number of health problems, and Bronte's mother died when she was young and then she was sent to a school with such poor conditions, it lead to the death of her two older sisters and damaged her own health. I don't think you can divorce who you are and what your experiences are from what you write. So Austen, who is 20 - 30 years older than all you mentioned, wrote romance novels which was what was expected of women at the time but it is what she knew. She also did so with wit, humor, great characterization, and social commentary.

message 18: by Anne (new) - rated it 5 stars

Anne I would say that all of the above women were far more well-traveled than Austen was or could ever be, and how can the scope of her world be irrelevant? Austen died in 1817, having lived almost entirely in her parents' home in the Regency era: Martineau to take one, was a Victorian who moved to London at age 30, at which point she was earning her living writing, and having been patronized in the most practical way by high society, actually visited the USA for an extended period, met former president James Madison, observed girls' education and mixed with abolitionists. Is it in any way surprising she has a broader view of life than Austen?

Ran across this link today. Suggestive.

Blake Schreckhise I just love Jane Austen's humor. Much of it I probably missed because it can be subtle at some points and totally blatant at other times. I don't read a whole ton of classic book but most don't have near the humor as Jane puts in her novels.

message 20: by mark (new) - rated it 5 stars

mark mi Excellent review!that's how reviews should be!

Junius How about a Sci-Fi / Garment district combo Anne? :)

Thanks for your review. I've started the book a few time but always gotten side tracked. I will stay the course this time; it seemed a pleasant journey.

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Doo filk Interesting...!!

Deborah Ademola Thanks for this excellent review. There is too much tendency for modern readers to try and contort classic literature to today's sensibilities. Austen lived in a different world, and she herself would have been nothing like the women of today.

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