I had hoped to be writing this review with lots of new insights, observations and enthusiastic descriptions of the book. My expectations going into this were rather high, after all. It’s been labeled as one of the top 100 most loved books of all time and touted as Austen’s best novel by several friends of mine who count themselves as fans of hers. So I really wanted to love this and to be able to say that I, too, was a proud Austen fan at the end of it.
Alas, I cannot make that claim. The key points that stuck out for me are not that different at the end than they were only a few pages in.
First Point: Language. The language remained a buffer between me and an in-depth involvement with Austen’s world throughout the entire book. Whatever insecurities I may have about admitting that point it doesn’t make it any less true. And what’s more, I think I would have been able to see past all those words that required me to go back to the dictionary yet again if there had been more passages, lines or witty observations that I loved. But in the end my copy is riddled with highlighted words and written-in definitions with a shockingly small number of passages or lines that were highlighted because I thought they were great for whatever reason. For those of you who like numbers I will sum it up thus:
Number of great passages, lines or descriptions I highlighted because I liked them: 17
Number of words I highlighted because they required a dictionary look-up: 59
Now again, I am fully aware that this book is written in proper English which is shockingly different than the slang-laden, over-conjugated hybrid Americanized version of English that I speak. But in the end it did not flow the way that books I label as “great books” tend to flow. And to emphasize this I will point out that I’ve read a decent amount of Charles Dickens who also wrote in proper English and I don’t recall having that much trouble with him. I recall sitting down and reading David Copperfield for hours at a time and being captivated enough that there was actual flow to the reading. I never got that sensation with this book.
Second Point: Characters. Elizabeth is terribly witty, no one is going to argue about that. And her arc is somewhat engaging since we see her go through the various emotions one would expect a well fleshed-out character to go through: the titled prejudice, the feelings of inferiority and embarrassment, the guilt, the accompanying self-blame, the hope and counter-acting realism, and, at long-last, the love which is, of course, the entire point. But I would not put her in the same company as some other characters that I have loved over the years. I just didn’t connect with her on that level.
And the only other character who even gets a chance to be multi-dimensional is Darcy who, for all his soul-bearing letters and plot-advancing background remains relatively mysterious throughout the book. And that is simply because we’re following Elizabeth’s point-of-view most of the time. We don’t get to see what’s going on behind Darcy’s stern looks so we just don’t get the chance to connect to him.
The rest of them? While they certainly have entertaining elements, they’re all way too one-dimensional for my taste. Jane is sweet and kind without a negative word to say about anyone and remains so (save for one tiny conceding statement about the irredeemable quality of one character) till the end. Mr. Bennet never stops being a recluse who is terribly irresponsible in regards to managing his family. Mrs. Bennet never stops being an exploitative twit. Lydia never learns anything above superficial obsessions, nor does her new husband Wickham. Mr. Collins never stops being the worst kind-of self-righteously judgmental asshole and Lady de Bourgh never learns to see anyone outside of the qualities assigned to them by their station. (And the other characters don’t even get enough pages to be anything other than passing names.)
And don’t get me wrong- I understand that Austen’s main point is that they don’t change, they don’t learn anything from the events of the book and therefore they don’t grow. I assume she’s demonstrating that often people we see in everyday life have the same lack-of growth. And that’s a valid point. But it doesn’t make for an interesting read.
Third Point: Austen’s quirks, I guess you would call them, as a writer are… well, rather annoying to me, to be perfectly honest. The whole not identifying the speaker thing got on my nerves like there was no tomorrow. And her habit of making the reader painfully aware of how irritating a character is for prattling on incessantly about inane topics by having them prattle on incessantly about inane topics for pages seems like a waste of ink. I will quote myself here: "Really? Like we couldn’t tell after the first paragraph? Does Lydia or Mrs. Bennet really have to keep going on for another… two pages?! Ugh!"
And this bugs me most of all: it seemed like there was almost a shift of POV sometimes. We’d be following Elizabeth’s train of thought, and then there’d be this background information that Elizabeth had absolutely no way of knowing just sort-of stuck in there with no transition whatsoever. Where did that come from? Who is actually narrating this thing? In the very last chapter there is a sentence that begins “I wish I could say” when talking about Mrs. Bennet’s appraisal. Who the hell is the ‘I’? And why haven’t they said anything before the second to last page? What is that?!? I understand third person omniscient but saying I is first person observer, isn’t it? And sure, you can change POV if you want to. But you have to do it with purpose, not just stick it in there with no warning and no stylistic meaning to demonstrate its value! That drove me crazy!
Final Point, and this is the big one: Austen’s whole world is simply one that I don’t want to be in. If I thought that a good marriage was the most important thing that could ever happen to someone in their lifetime then I might have been on the edge of my seat over Elizabeth and Darcy finally getting their heads out of their asses. But I don’t think that. I am far more interested in the challenges that people surmount and the reason they make the choices they do and the struggles involved in real growth than I am in anything having to do with marriage. And this book has none of that. It’s all very surface level proper English parlor-room tea-time discussions, no depth.
Hell, we don’t even know what these people do when they’re not having discussions about marriage. No one seems to work in this book- no one has a job, no one even has interests! I mean, we see Elizabeth reading books and playing the piano but she doesn’t seem terribly interested in either of those activities. I’m not saying that passion is the most interesting thing in the word, but it helps. And it tends to lead to desperation which is an amazing motivator that can get characters to make huge shifts that are fascinating to read. There’s way too much composure and propriety for my tastes. Too much marriage, not enough actual love.
And yes, I get that this is the world she was writing in. In Austen’s time if a woman was not able to secure a financially stable matrimony then she was, for all intensive purposes, irrevocably doomed. And I understand why Austen was so intent to make that point in her writings. But as a woman who values all the things that now exist in my life because society doesn’t function that way anymore I find that horrifically depressing to read about.
So in the end, I am not a fan of Austen. I do not like reading about the matrimonial concerns of woman in the world of the landed gentry, I do not like Austen’s writing style and I therefore do not see myself trying out Sense and Sensibility, no matter how many movies they make about it. But, I am proud of myself for having read this because if I hadn’t I would have missed this behemoth of a figure in classic literature and not known what all the fuss was about. I wouldn’t have known about all of those dislikes and I wouldn’t have known what I now know about myself. It’s a point well made that what we dislike says just as much if not more about us as what we do. And it's good to know that from first hand experience.