Thursday, January 5, 2012

Pride and Prejudice: First Thoughts

So I’m only 20 chapters in and already there are a few things that I just have to comment on.  Since I am still so early on, the bulk of this will not pertain to the story but rather to the first things that struck me about this classic book. 
1) The language is NOT what I’m used to.  It’s not quite Shakespeare- I don’t need an English lit teacher to decipher every line, but there’s a lot in common with Shakespeare.  First off, there are quite a lot of words that simply don’t exist in modern vocabulary anymore.  Shew is used instead of show as in “a women had better shew more affection than she feels” and "chuse" is used instead of "choose".  And they sometimes sound like Yoda.  “Are not you…?”  “Will not he…?”  I’m sure it was common place at the time, but it trips me up a little as I’m reading.  Secondly, there are a lot of references to things that I’ve never heard of- like ragout (a heavily spiced stew) or loo and piquet (card games).  These fit perfectly well with the story but require me to keep a wikipedia page open whenever I’m reading.  Not that I couldn’t guess by the context and be close, but my curiosity dictates that I know just what it is, not approximately.  Thirdly, and this I hate admitting, but there are simply quite a large number of words I just don’t know because my vocabulary is sadly limited.  I have been looking up the definition for at least one word per page.  Indolent. Panegyric. Laconic.  Iniquitous.  These words do not exist in my daily vocabulary and without my dictionary next to me I’d be perpetually lost in a sea of near understanding.  All in all, I hate to admit, it kind of takes me out of the story.
2) The conversations are a little hard to follow.  Not because of all those words I’m not familiar with, but because Austen is not a fan of ending sentences with “Elizabeth said” or “Mr Collins remarked” or in any other way denoting the speaker.  Which, in a conversation between two people, alone in a room, is not a big deal.  But in a conversation of four people, or five or six in which two were talking when a third piped in and then was interrupted by a fourth who was making an offhand comment from their conversation with a fifth it gets a little hard to follow.  Luckily, the characters are strong enough that you can usually tell who’s speaking by the third or fourth scene with them, so I suppose it’s not the end of the world.
3) There are some timeless universals which, I believe, are what make the book so beloved despite the somewhat dated language.  The embarrassment one feels when one’s mother is speaking overzealously in front of one’s friends, or worse- the object of one’s affection.  The efforts one puts into sounding smart or witty or well-educated when presenting oneself to a new group of people.  The intricacies of a specific family: the pecking order, the comic relief, the pontificating one, the stupid one, the secret (or not so secret) favorite.  The near-death feeling of having decidedly put one’s foot very far down one’s throat in front of someone one hates.  All of these come through brilliantly clear in Austen’s writing and make me feel silly for being at all annoyed by all those obsolete words I trip over.
4) The English parlor room must have been a truly magical place.  From what I can tell, every manor of repute had one and it was the place where every major thing that ever occurred in a manor took place.  Quiet evenings spent reading books by the fire, card games where stately men squabbled over politics, tea parties where women discussed the merit of a proposed marriage and meetings of the two proposed that determined whether or not the all-important proposal would come about.  It could be calm and comforting or a battle field strewn with the corpses of civilized conversations.  Having never been in an English manor I can’t imagine what having one of these magical places inside of one’s own home must have been like, but it seems like it would have been the source of endless excitement.
5) Literary professors and English scholars who know a hell of a lot more about classic literature have already written countless essays on this so I’ll keep my point brief by simply agreeing that the first line of the book is one of the best first lines of any book ever.  “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”  Bam!  The entire world, described in one single sentence.  The name of the game is marriage.  And every single person is playing that game, whether they want to or not.  If they’re not actively moving around the pieces on the game board they are being positioned by those playing.  I’m not sure I’ve encountered something so simply yet beautifully summed up so quickly.
 As I said, these are simply my first thoughts.  I’m sure I will have many others to share as I wade deeper into this pool of matrimonial monopoly.


  1. Wow! I never realized you hadn't read P&P (I sort of make the blind assumption that any woman I am good friends with has read this book - because all of them have sat through the BBC adaptation). Glad that so far it's working (mostly) for you. It's one of my favorite books, language and all, and it's definitely my favorite Austen story, because it's so bloody short. If you think that the dialogue in this book can be confusing (in terms of who is speaking, when), whatever you do, don't read Emma. In addition to the story not quite holding up to snuff (in my opinion), and the novel being significantly longer than any of her other works, there are literally PAGES in which a particular character rambles on endlessly without a period in sight.

    No, seriously. It's torture.

    Also, isn't Mr. Collins just the most horrible little toad imaginable?

  2. At this point Mr. Collins isn't really anything more than an annoying gasbag but he shows great potential for getting worse. And I have a feeling, based on what he's said thus far, that Lady de Bourgh is going to be the evil queen of this particular fairy tale.


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