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Monday, March 12, 2012

Review: Pride and Prejudice

The Annotated Pride and PrejudiceThe Annotated Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this 1813 novel, Austen creates one of literature’s most enduring heroines in Elizabeth Bennett, one of five sisters whose mother is frantic to marry off. But in true Austen style, Elizabeth refuses to hasten her choice of a mate. She will not marry for any reason but love, despite the fact that her family’s fortune is modest and that even the family estate will be entailed to a distant relation on her father’s death. She receives proposals from two eligible bachelors—the ridiculous Mr. Collins and the prideful Mr. Darcy—and disdains them both.

Mr. Darcy is, of course, Jane Austen’s most beloved hero. It is no coincidence that he was voted the Austen canon’s most eligible bachelor on the website, where viewers were encouraged to pick their favorites. His aloof manner, his struggle against his love for Elizabeth, and his eventual redemption make him a far more attractive catch than even Mr. Bingley, whose easy manner and jovial nature win over Elizabeth’s sister Jane.

It is said that some women—most women?—love a project, and Mr. Darcy certainly qualifies. His first proposal to Elizabeth outlines all the reasons he should contain himself, despite his feelings, prompting his beloved to ask why “you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character?” (My husband summed up this proposal as “I love you, but you suck.”) But, as Elizabeth concedes later, Mr. Darcy “improves upon closer acquaintance.” He is in fact somewhat prideful, but also a socially uncomfortable person; some of what Lizzy mistakes for pride can be attributed to the fact that, as he admits, he has “not the talent which some people possess … of conversing easily” with strangers.

Eventually, Elizabeth will realize that her own pride and prejudices have been at least equal to Mr. Darcy’s, and that she is not as infallible a judge of character as she thought. And Mr. Darcy will, of course, get the girl.

The modern reader will need to slow down the constant chatter of the world that has shortened our attention spans. This is a book to be savored in its complex plot (only lightly traced here), its beautiful language, and its subtlety. No character screams, throws fits, or snatches up a pistol. Insults are veiled in civility; in some cases one must read between the lines. Read slowly by the fire and you will be satisfied.

One edition I recommend is The Annotated Pride and Prejudice, edited by David M. Shepard (Random House, 2004). Presented with the text in a side-by-side style, the annotations are helpful in understanding certain mores of the times as well as obscure vocabulary. Sometimes the notes are superfluous (don’t most of us know what effusion and stately mean?), but not intrusive. This edition also includes maps, a chronology of the story, and an interesting bibliography.

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