Could Pride and Prejudice be the perfect isolation read during the coronavirus pandemic? Funny, escapist and romantic, it just might be.
After having watched the series starring Colin Firth a few times over the years, I felt like I knew the story well enough not to bother reading the book.
But when Helen Garner wrote about reading it in her book Everywhere I Look, I thought I’d give it a try. (Plus I wasn’t sure whether I could consider myself a ‘real’ reader if I’d never read this king of classics.)
And Pride and Prejudice was every bit as engaging and impressive as you would expect.
I’m not sure if I need to introduce the storyline to anyone, but essentially it centres on a family with five marriageable daughters. Set in England in the early 1800s, the search for a husband is government by many rules of society, with both pride and prejudice centre stage in any relationship.
The protagonist, Elizabeth Bennett, is clever and questioning, but this doesn’t prevent her from hastily forming her own negative opinions when she meets Mr Darcy, who is not as effusive and charming as his companions.
The story revolves around the development of her relationship with Mr Darcy, and the unravelling of all of her misconceptions about him, and the evolution of Mr Darcy’s own behaviour.
Other storylines include the eldest sister, Jane’s relationship with the charming Mr Bingley, and the seemingly disastrous pairing of younger sister, Lydia, with the badly-behaved Mr Wickham.
Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice with great humour and wit, and retains its bite two hundred years later. The truths about relationships that she reveals also have enduring relevance. Each couple exposes different forms of relationship, from Mr and Mrs Bennetts’ resigned and loveless relationship, to Jane and Mr Bingley’s good-natured mutual adoration, after their false start.
Austen’s depictions of her family are often hilarious, especially her snobbish mother and her silly sister, Lydia. These two characters lift the mood of the novel from brooding romantic drama, blending it with a comic exploration of personality and social structures.
I also found Mr Collins, a cousin who was ridiculously formal and pretentious in the language he used towards the girls, and it felt like readers were invited into the joke, as the girls restrained their laughter.
This book of manners is funny, insightful and romantic – the perfect balm for these uncertain times.
Here are some of my favourite quotes from the book:
“Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chane. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other, or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation, and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.”
“I cannot comprehend the neglect of a family library in days such as these.”
“Reflection must be reserved for solitary hours; whenever she was alone, she gave way to it as the greatest relief; and not a day went by without a solitary walk, in which she might indulge in all the delight of unpleasant recollection.”
“… and more than commonly anxious to please, she naturally suspected that every power of pleasing would fail her.”
“She had better have stayed at home,” cried Elizabeth; “perhaps she meant well, but under such a misfortune as this, one cannot see too little of one’s neighbours. Assistance is impossible; condolence, insufferable. Let them triumph over us at a distance, and be satisfied.”
“For what do we live, but to make sport of our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”