I’m starting a new series of essays on books that have been important to me, those to which I return for another read, which is probably the test of an important book. I was a voracious reader from an early age, and would read anything at hand, including encyclopaedias. I studied English at the honours level at high school, and then spent three years studying English literature as an undergraduate, which put me off reading books for pleasure for a decade. Well, not quite. I turned to science fiction, and read widely in that genre, and went into detective stories too.
In 1964 I was in Oxford, and my college mentor, David Butler, introduced to me to his wife, Marilyn, who was my age and a fellow in English literature at another college. Her doctoral thesis had been on Jane Austen, and I knew of Pride and Prejudice because I had studied the novel for the Leaving Certificate examination and again in first year at university. I hadn’t thought much of it at either time, but read it anew so that I could talk to Marilyn about her work. Where had I been, all those years ago? The novel was funny, beautifully written and emotionally rewarding. I was now a young married man, so the novel resonated with me much more than had been the case when I was 17 or 18.
In the half century and more that has passed since, I have read the novel a dozen or more times, and have my own Chapman edition of the complete Austen set, bought by the original owner in 1937, the year of my birth. Marilyn went on to be the Regius Professor of English at Cambridge, a Fellow of the British Academy and then the Rector of Exeter College in Oxford, the first woman to be head of a college with male students. Alas, the creeping menace of dementia overtook her after retirement, and she died two years ago. She was great friend and a most astute and subtle analyst of literature. I learned a lot from her and her writing.
Pride and Prejudice is not, in my opinion, the best of Jane Austen’s novels, even though it is by far the best known. Emma is the best (Jane thought so too), with a denouement that is astonishingly well done. I was so cross when I encountered that moment, on the first reading, that I went back to see if all the clues were there in the earlier part of the book. They were, and beautifully ambiguous, too. I could never capture that shock again. Marilyn once took me to a talk by John Bayley, later the Warton Professor of English and the husband of Iris Murdoch, during which he said that one could never read a book again for the first time. Yes, it is a truism, but to me it was a real insight about reading, and the art of the novelist.
P&P has grabbed me mostly because of the heroine. Elizabeth Bennet is such an attractive young woman. How I would like to have met her! She is agreed to be good-looking, though not at the level of her placid and forgiving sister, Jane. But she has spirit and temper, she is fun, she has some insight into herself, and is generous, intelligent and caring. Who would not want such a woman for his partner? Of all the versions played on film and DVD the Elizabeth who comes closest for me is Jennifer Ehle, who is sexy as well. While I enjoy the cinematic versions I prefer my own imagination, which works well for me when I am reading any novel. Elizabeth comes to life through her conversation and interior monologues. It doesn’t really matter what she looks like; you know she is attractive, and that you would like her. The worry is that she might peer past your outer defences and see the ordinary bloke beneath, grin, raise an eyebrow and pass you by.
Pride and Prejudice was a model for me in three ways, first as a comedy of manners. I like comedies much more than tragedies, and P&P is a splendid example. The author creates a world in which the heroine is real, but many of the other characters are a little exaggerated. That makes the comedy possible. Mr Bennet has some wonderful lines, but from time to time you wonder whether or not such an intelligent and well-read man would not see the problems emerging with his wild younger daughters. And he is nasty to his wife, who is so awful that you despair. One of my grand-daughters, ill for the day, was given a version of P&P to watch, and rang up her mother at work: ‘Mummy, Mrs Bennet is just horrible!’ Darcy is so haughty that you wonder how Bingley could put up with him. But these are afterthoughts. When you’re reading you just lap the story up. When you’re reading for the tenth time you wait for your favourite bits.
The second lesson was was about how to write a novel. All her novels have beginnings, middles and ends. They start with an arresting thought or quick sketch that gets you in right away. Once you’re in, you keep reading. Things happen at the right pace, and happen in the right order. I like that structure. Professor Chapman has produced a chronology of the action in Pride and Prejudice that is accurate for a particular year, the one he argues Jane Austen had in mind when she wrote it. I learned from her about pace, and about getting the chronology right.
The third lesson is about love, erotic love, which I think is perhaps the most important element in the lives of most human beings, more important, in a fundamental way, than work, or money, if only because it is so powerful and (when it comes to us) can be so unexpected. Jane Austen, so far as we know, did not experience that emotion herself, but she certainly wrote about it well. The declaration meeting between Darcy and Elizabeth at the Rosings parsonage is full of sexual tension that erupts in anger on both sides, then subsides into wonder and reflection on Elizabeth’s side. It is the same for Darcy, but we learn about that only in little pieces, and mostly by inference. It is a brilliant scene.
On re-reading this essay, I feel I should say a quick word about the five novels that are her real contribution to English literature,all of which I have read many times. For me Persuasion is the most beautiful story in the set, and Emma the best novel. Sense and Sensibility is a great yarn, Mansfield Park is an uncharacteristically grim tale of parental neglect and heavy-handed retribution, while Pride and Prejudice is the funniest. I love them all. For me they are intellectual comfort food.
Marilyn gave me a copy of her Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, and inscribed it to ‘Don — who has a touch of Tilney and a touch of Wentworth but happily not a trace of Edmund Bertram’. I treasure it, and regret her passing in so many ways.
Endnote: I didn’t mention Northanger Abbey, because I thought it slight and in a different class to the others. But of course there are Northanger Abbey lovers, and I have been set upon by one or two. OK: it’s a ripping yarn, but Catherine Morland, Henry Tilney and the others are pasteboard characters compared to most of the other principals.