Jane Austen
MSRP: $10.00
PAGES: 367

CHUD is a
classy place, I tell you what. We eat finger sandwiches and commiserate about
international politics. We indulge ourselves in clever jests about the failing
relationships of our peers and elders. We read literature and then discuss it
for hours, using words like "demiphobe" and "constancy".

we are such intellectual guys and gals, our fledgling book reviews section is
getting a visit by the grand dame of Victorian fiction: Jane Austen’s Pride
and Prejudice
. One of my favorite things about literature is that
rarely does the discourse ever come to a complete stop. Except in the case of Tristram
, there will always be more to say about any individual work, at
least in the foreseeable future. The nice folks at Penguin Classics have
decided to give us a shot at this classic of near-romance; either that, or they
have decided to take advantage of the modest marketing campaign for Focus
Features’ brand new adaptation of the novel, which stars Keira Knightly and
some effeminate Mr. Darcy. An lo! a new edition is born.

I’m not
condemning Penguin’s decision to release a new edition of the book. It’s
perfectly called-for, seeing as how the new film is targeted at the new
mid-youth, and they have the potential of striking a set of fresh readers. This
edition also has additional editorial comments made by Viven Jones. These notes
are helpful in explaining Austen’s contextual references and idioms of
language, and are contained in the rear of the volume.

So, it’s
confession time, and of the many I could spring on you chewers, it’s most
appropriate for me to admit that I am a Jane Austen apologist. My generation
has limited appreciation for the two Giant Victorians, Austen and Dickens, and
I frequently go out of my way to expound the great qualities of both. Neither
are recognized enough (measured against my vigilantism) for their biting wits.
Despite the efforts of hundreds of English teachers the nation over, some folk
still don’t recognize that Pride and Prejudice is dripping with
satire; it’s elegant, refined, dignified, and it’s funny as hell.

is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good
fortune, must be in want of a wife," begins the novel, and I dare you to
read with a straight face, even despite the archaic commas. It is widely
regarded as one of the best opening lines in an English-language novel, and
with good reason: the tone is immediately and effortlessly set. There will be
romantic complications; there will be wry humor; there will be jealousy; and,
oh yes, there will be blood.

The novel
originally came out in three volumes, which are divided neatly across the page
numbers. Austen had a deft hand for establishing a complex narrative with a
short word count, and each section of Pride and Prejudice stands as fine
demonstration. A decent momentum builds through the pages, an isolated
structure for each discrete section that also includes a backbone narrative
that rises and falls in a familiar three act structure.

backbone is the relationship between Elizabeth Bennet, Austen’s heroine, and
Mister Darcy, the man recently voted the best hero in English Literature, and
most likely to make his wife leave the bedroom after sex. The basic plot is
simple — as well as being too easy to simplify — and has been aped hundreds
of times in fiction and film. Elizabeth Bennet is a girl of marrying age in a
family that well-to-do but couldn’t certainly stand to marry up in the social
strata. Mister Darcy is a genteel man in fine position and with an even finer
fortune. Naturall, he and Elizabeth hate each other from the outset.

As I
said, it’s too easy to simplify, and I attribute this to the mound of
imitators. We, as a modern audience, know where the narrative is aiming, and
that makes it easy to discount the specifics of the story’s progress. It’s in
the finer details, though, that Austen is at her most engaging. Her narrative
voice may be distancing in a modern context, but her dialogue and some of her
characterizations are immediately appealing.

Not all
of her characters are master works, unfortunately. The character of
Elizabeth falls too much to Austen’s
satirical intentions and never emerges as anything more than a spoiled child. I
find it odd, and a bit unsettling, that Miss Bennet is held up as a paragon of
femininity among a few literary sects. Too much credit is given to the
criticisms of this book that place it at the forefront of the battle of the
sexes. Miss Bennet is a poor figurehead for such a revolution, and Mister Darcy
is a self-contained counterpoint to any argument springing from
Elizabeth‘s character. It’s an
interpretation you’ll encounter frequently if you spend any time reading about
the book, and it has a lot of proponents — I much prefer (and believe there is
more textual evidence) the interpretation of the novel as satire.

It might
be to the novel’s credit that it appears so widely in the canonical evidence
for differing philosophies — I hold it up as an example of driest humor;
certain horrid girls praise its prophetic consideration of women’s issues.
Often the most successful works of art are those that not only appeal to a
broad audience, but appeal to different cliques of that audience in different
ways. Pride and Prejudice is a book that bears the evidence of
careful construction, and of willful mass appeal. While the structure of its
characters may have a few divots, and the narration may grind like a Ford with
the parking brake on, the remainder of the composition is smooth and solid,
offering fine examples for students and casual readers alike of good dialogue
and effective drama. It survives , and is endlessly adapted to the screen, not
only because of the Harlequin audience, but because of a lasting contribution
that shouldn’t go overlooked.

you have, for example, a David Mitchell novel sitting by; because, really, with
the advantage of time, quite a few authors have done all this better than
Austen. Still, it’s good to know your roots.

Judging the Book by its Cover

Keira Knightly will sell movies;
Keira Knightly will sell books. I’m curious to find out if either (or both)
claims are actually true. Knightly sure wouldn’t have been my first choice to
play Elizabeth Bennet. She’s a decent enough actress, but her poise is
completely wrong for the character. The wistful look that Knightly is giving no
one in particular on this cover just makes her look as if she is indulging in a
bit of childish fantasy, or playing the easiest game of hide-and-seek with
poor, blurry Matthew MacFayden. It’s a lazy, inelegant design, but I wouldn’t
kick it out of my bed.

8 out of 10