Sherwood Smith's Reviews > Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
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Some years back in one of my APAs, someone castigated Jane Austen's books like this: "All those daft twits rabbiting on about clothes and boyfriends and manners."

Since then, I’ve encountered other variations on the theme that a modern woman ought not to be reading such trash because it sets feminism back two centuries.

Well, much as I laughed over the first caveat, that isn't Austen. It sounds more like the silver fork romances inspired by Georgette Heyer. Austen's characters don't talk about clothes at all, outside of air-headed Mrs Allen of Northanger Abbey, who doesn't think of anything else.

Austen sticks her satiric quill into young ladies who think and talk about nothing but beaux, such as poor, luckless Anne Steele in Sense and Sensibility. Manners are emphasized but not manners without matter; Austen saves her spikiest irony for hypocrites.

I think it's important to remember that whereas Heyer was writing historical romances in the silver fork tradition, Austen was writing novels about contemporary life, especially the problems facing young women in her own walk of life, the country gentry. She criticized herself in a much-quoted letter to her sister Cassandra, saying in effect, 'the problem with Pride and Prejudice is it's too light and bright and sparkling.' Many have misinterpreted this remark. It seems to me, on close reading of her elsewhere, that she meant the novel to be taken more seriously than it was.

What is it about, really? It's about the wrong reasons for marrying, and how those can affect a woman for the rest of her life. Of course a hard-line feminist can point out that novels about marriage are hideously retro for today's woman, who has many choices before her. During Austen's time, marriage was the only choice a woman had, unless she was rich enough to shrug off the expectations of her society, or unless she was willing to live on as a pensioner to some family member or other, which more often than not meant being used as an unpaid maid. Of course there was teaching, but the salaries for women were so miserable one may as well have been a servant. The hours and demands were pretty much equal.

If one looks past the subject of marriage, the novel's focus is about relationships: between men and women; between sisters; between friends; between family members and between families. As for marriage, Austen sends up relationships that were formed with security as the goal, relationships that were sparked by physical attraction and not much else, relationships made with an eye to rank, money, social status, or competition. And, with abundant wit and style (or as she’d say, with éclat), she offers some truths about the differences between love and lust, and what relationships based on either mean to a marriage months—or decades—after the wedding.

The fact that Austen doesn't use modern terminology doesn't make it any less real than a contemporary novel that has a supposedly liberated woman romping from bed to bed for forty pages while in search of the perfect relationship. The message is the same, that women who mistake falling in lust for falling in love are usually doomed to a very unhappy existence. And in Austen's time, you couldn't divorce, you were stuck for life.

I've had dedicated feminist friends give me appalled reactions when I admit to liking Austen. I don't consider reading Austen a guilty pleasure, as I do reading Wodehouse. I consider Jane Austen a forerunner of feminism. She doesn't stand out and preach as Mary Wollstonecroft did. Her influence was nevertheless profound. Again and again in those novels she portrays women thinking for themselves, choosing for themselves—even if their choices are within the conventions of the time. What the women think matters.

In Austen’s day (and too often, now) female characters were there as prizes for the men to possess, or to strive for, or as catalysts for male action. These days we call them refrigerator women. Jane Austen gave her female characters as much agency as a woman could have in those days, and the narrative is mostly seen through their eyes.

The famed relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy makes it very clear that they were first attracted by one another's intellect—those two were clearly brain-snogging before they ever got to the fine sheets of Pemberley. It is also clear that the man—his higher social and economic status notwithstanding—had to earn the woman's respect, and rethink some of his assumptions, before she could see in him a possible partner. There is no dominant male making the decisions: those two are equal right down to the last page, and Austen makes it clear that it will continue to be so after the marriage.

Each time I reread the novel, I notice something new, but in the meantime, will I continue to recommend it to young women just venturing into literature? You bet.
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Reading Progress

October 18, 2008 – Shelved
April 15, 2012 – Started Reading
April 15, 2012 –
0.0% "How many times have I read this? I lost count after ten, years and years ago. I think after ten rereads begin to truly pay off. (If the book lends itself to rereading in the first place.)\n \n This time, noticing silences between characters who in modern times would be talking."
April 21, 2012 –
100.0% "Fascinating, the boundaries of delicacy--instances where nowadays people would be tweeting to the world, Austen's characters keep silence."
May 7, 2012 – Finished Reading
March 6, 2014 – Shelved as: fiction

Comments Showing 1-21 of 21 (21 new)

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message 1: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell 'Brain-snogging'! ILU.


message 2: by Sherwood (new) - added it

Sherwood Smith Moira wrote: "'Brain-snogging'! ILU."

:-)


Chachic Love the brain-snogging bit too! Wonderful review. :)


message 4: by Sherwood (new) - added it

Sherwood Smith :-)


message 5: by Sherwood (new) - added it

Sherwood Smith I don't know that readers are ignoring it as not always taking it in. I think we who have been reading Austen all our lives forget that her language isn't immediately accessible, because it's now in our DNA, so to speak. But all these aspects you mention are there to be discovered...that and how funny her novels are, as well as wise.


message 6: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Sherwood wrote: "But all these aspects you mention are there to be discovered...that and how funny her novels are, as well as wise. "

I think that was what surprised me most when I finally did seriously read her, having been a snotty Bronte-obsessed anti-Austenite for a shamefully long period of time. God she's funny. But she's only funny if you're really paying attention.

I have to think the giant Austen movie boom did her a disservice - the same thing happened to Edith Wharton - the dialogue is good and it's an excuse for gorgeous exteriors and fancy clothes, and what gets left out is what really makes the books, the voice of the narrator. That first famous sentence of P&P: how are you going to get it into an adaptation? Voiceover? But then it's an externalized commentary on the exteriors and clothes, not an intrinsic criticism of the era the author was living in and presenting. So what you get is Austenland with all the Silver Fork descriptions of clothes &c she left out, about half the dialogue, and not much of the brilliance.


(Confession: I own and adore the Thompson S&S and the BBC P&P, ooh yeah. And the BBC Middlemarch. Haven't liked any of the Wharton adaptations, tho.)


Alison that and how funny her novels are, as well as wise

This is what delights me when I re-read P&P: every single time I burst out laughing because Austen is so funny.


Katharine Kimbriel Have you tried the BBC Amanda Root Persuasion? Masterful performances -- the silences speak volumes.

Moira wrote: "Sherwood wrote: "But all these aspects you mention are there to be discovered...that and how funny her novels are, as well as wise. "

I think that was what surprised me most when I finally did ser..."



message 9: by Sherwood (new) - added it

Sherwood Smith Katharine wrote: "Have you tried the BBC Amanda Root Persuasion? Masterful performances -- the silences speak volumes.

Oh yes, I've seen it several times. (Though I always skip that dreadful kiss in public at the end.)



Katharine Kimbriel A little something for those who are hanging onto the romance and not the character studies. I don't think they'd be that lost to their location, either - but eventually their first kiss might have gone that way!


message 11: by Bill (new)

Bill Swears I liked your approach to reading Jane Austen, and I agreed with much of what you said. I also tend to think that anybody who disapproves of Austen as anti-feminist either hasn't read her work, or didn't understand the text.

I think that feminists who don't take the time to understand where the movement came from are a great part of the political polarization that surrounds feminism today. That polarization is injuring the movement right now. Heck, I've got a woman in my office who truly believes that women shouldn't be allowed to run for political office, or be put in charge of military vessels because women are too emotional. This may not seem to be a logical follow on to my comment about divisiveness, but if women are pushing back against feminism, it's arguably caused by a distrust of agendas, rather than any real world evidence that women in political or military power positions are less competent than men in similar roles.


message 12: by Sherwood (new) - added it

Sherwood Smith True . . . but human are so varied that one can take pretty much any theory, paradigm, or whatever, and find an entire spectrum of response, from total commitment to rug=chewing enmity.


Katharine Kimbriel Moira wrote: "Sherwood wrote: "But all these aspects you mention are there to be discovered...that and how funny her novels are, as well as wise. "

I think that was what surprised me most when I finally did ser..."


Moira, I forgot this when I posted, but the first line of P&P is in the version that was done in the 30s/40s. My Ex was appalled -- he didn't realize that that was the situation for women at the time.

Once again, having no clue about history beyond wars and dates rears its ugly head!


message 14: by Bill (new)

Bill Swears Sherwood wrote: "True . . . but humans are so varied that one can take pretty much any theory, paradigm, or whatever, and find an entire spectrum of response, from total commitment to rug=chewing enmity."

Explicitely recognized, as well as the reality that Alaska attracts a certain sort of conservative Libertarian conservative (duplication of conservative intentional) that can say "I don't do politics, but ..." and then proceed to denounce almost any agenda that displeases the tea-party, without ever copping to having made a political statement.

Still, It's difficult to comprehend how feminism has become a liberal party agenda item, instead of simply a necessary restructuring of the rules in order to meet our societal requirements for fair treatment of all people. After all, "women" is a fairly large demographic category, and instances of discrimination against women because they are women have hardly gone away.


Leajk I can't believe I haven't seen this review earlier, you said everything I wanted to do in my review but more eloquently!


message 16: by Sherwood (new) - added it

Sherwood Smith Thanks for reading! :-)


Elizabeth Moore You are SO, SO right! About everything here, Austen. Today's readers who dismiss her have no capacity for appreciating that she was, if not ahead of her time, a woman for all-time. Her themes, like those in great literary works, are universal and timeless.

Another century from now, Austen's works will continue to resonate.


message 18: by Sherwood (new) - added it

Sherwood Smith I quite agree.

Thanks for reading!


Elizabeth Moore The ONLY sequel, Sherwood, that I have ever read and actually enjoyed is Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife. The author pays homage to all things Austen, yet puts this fantastic character duo between those fine sheets! I have never laughed so hard, or been so thrilled that someone else imagines them in a perfect marriage.


message 20: by Sherwood (new) - added it

Sherwood Smith :-)


message 21: by Mara (new) - added it

Mara Louk Short and simple. This is what I like to read, haha. I agree- but it isn’t my favorite. I may read it again when I’m older.


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