On Reading Pride & Prejudice 100 Times

Jacques-Emile Blanche “Portrait of Lucie Reading”

Thursday

To unwind from the semester, I’ve been treating myself to a leisurely read of Pride and Prejudice. I used to read Austen’s novel ritually at the end of each semester, perhaps for the same reason that Kipling’s World War I soldiers become “Janeites” in the short story by that name: the novel is a healing place of repose after the mad scramble of the school year’s final weeks. (Okay, so the semester is not quite trench warfare, but you get the point.) Then, however, I added P&P to my Early British Literature survey and it lost some of its magic.

That can happen when you teach something regularly. There are ways around this danger, which I’ll explore in a moment, but let’s look first at how the narrator of Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes describes the problem. The Dr. Starkie in the passage is a Flaubert scholar:

Does Dr Starkie’s reading of Madame Bovary contain all the responses which I have when I read the book, and then add a whole lot more, so that my reading is in a way pointless? Well, I hope not. My reading might be pointless in terms of the history of literary criticism; but it’s not pointless in terms of pleasure. I can’t prove that lay readers enjoy books more than professional critics; but I can tell you one advantage we have over them. We can forget. Dr Starkie and her kind are cursed with memory: the books they teach and write about can never fade from their brains. They become family. Perhaps this is why some critics develop a faintly patronizing tone towards their subjects. They act as if Flaubert, or Milton, or Wordsworth were some tedious old aunt in a rocking chair, who smelt of stale powder, was only interested in the past, and hadn’t said anything new for years. Of course, it’s her house, and everybody’s living in it rent free; but even so, surely it is, well, you know…time?

Whereas the common but passionate reader is allowed to forget; he can go away, be unfaithful with other writers, come back and be entranced again. Domesticity need never intrude on the relationship; it may be sporadic, but when there it is always intense.

The concern here is legitimate. I’ll never forget my delighted surprise when, reading P&P for the first time as a high school student, I was blindsided by Darcy’s marriage proposal. I’ll never have that experience again, and each year tell my class I envy those who are new to the novel.

Of course, there are surprises that come with multiple readings, so that’s one consolation. For instance, this time through I’m discovering that Austen rides Mr. Collins far more relentlessly than I previously realized. His hilarious attempts to be a passionate lover so tickle her that she jokes about it over and over. First there’s this lead-up to his marriage proposal:

“Almost as soon as I entered the house, I singled you out as the companion of my future life. But before I am run away with by my feelings on this subject, perhaps it would be advisable for me to state my reasons for marrying—and, moreover, for coming into Hertfordshire with the design of selecting a wife, as I certainly did.”

The idea of Mr. Collins, with all his solemn composure, being run away with by his feelings, made Elizabeth so near laughing, that she could not use the short pause he allowed in any attempt to stop him further…

Then there’s the moment when Charlotte, having wooed Collins, sees him coming to propose. Austen leaves it up to the reader to detect the contrast between “love and eloquence” and “long speeches.” Charlotte clearly wants the courtship to be over as fast as possible:

But little had she dared to hope that so much love and eloquence awaited her there.

In as short a time as Mr. Collins’s long speeches would allow, everything was settled between them to the satisfaction of both; and as they entered the house he earnestly entreated her to name the day that was to make him the happiest of men; and though such a solicitation must be waived for the present, the lady felt no inclination to trifle with his happiness. The stupidity with which he was favored by nature must guard his courtship from any charm that could make a woman wish for its continuance; and Miss Lucas, who accepted him solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment, cared not how soon that establishment were gained.

Collins goes on to inform the Bennet family of his rapturous feelings:

[H]e proceeded to inform them, with many rapturous expressions, of his happiness in having obtained the affection of their amiable neighbor, Miss Lucas…

Then there’s talk of the wedding:

After a week spent in professions of love and schemes of felicity, Mr. Collins was called from his amiable Charlotte by the arrival of Saturday. The pain of separation, however, might be alleviated on his side, by preparations for the reception of his bride; as he had reason to hope, that shortly after his return into Hertfordshire, the day would be fixed that was to make him the happiest of men. 

I haven’t included every passage in which “happiest of men” appears, but the constant repetition of an inane cliché pretty much sums up Collins. Austen, like Mr. Bennet, finds Collins to be an infinite source of satiric amusement.

So reading with special care is one way of keeping the classics fresh. Another is to observe how each wave of students brings in fresh perspectives.

I’ve long contended that the classics must constantly be interpreted anew as each generation has its own frame of reference. Here’s a new take on P&P I just received from student Melodie Shanks.

Class dynamics are as central to the novel as the marriage plot, and, while one can pick up the class cues in various ways, it’s hard for Americans to experience the urgency of the issue. It therefore helped Melodie to think of the novel in terms of our immigration debates.

On the one hand, there are the gentry who, like Americans with birthright citizenship, feel themselves entitled to their privileges. Then there are the middle class who, like the immigrants, are hungry to join this privileged class.

The gentry have grown complacent and arrogant and, in any event, don’t have a lot of spark. They are not a source of new energy, as can be seen in the pale and sickly Miss de Bourgh, her rigid mother, and the diffident Miss Darcy.

The middle class characters, by contrast, have a tremendous amount of energy, as do many American immigrants. They aren’t always principled—think of Wickham, Caroline Bingley, Miss Bennet—but at least they don’t stand languidly at the edge of dance floors. No wonder Miss Darcy runs off with Wickham.

If Darcy were to marry Miss de Bourgh, the gentry class would fold in on itself, retreat to Pemberley, and become irrelevant:

Miss de Bourgh was pale and sickly; her features, though not plain, were insignificant; and she spoke very little, except in a low voice, to Mrs. Jenkinson, in whose appearance there was nothing remarkable, and who was entirely engaged in listening to what she said, and placing a screen in the proper direction before her eyes.

One reason for America’s success is the constant new waves of immigration, which keep the melting pot bubbling. In Austen’s world, the middle class offer this kind of fresh energy to Austen’s gentry class. That’s why Darcy is smitten with Elizabeth: she is the vital life force that will save him and rejuvenate society. There will be no French Revolution if these two can get along.

Seen through this lens, P&P warns us that cracking down on immigration will not make America great again but rather cause it to stagnate. Melodie helps make the book relevant for a new generation of readers and gives the old generation a new way to think about it.

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