Books that have been important to me #1 Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

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.

Join the discussion 23 Comments

  • spangled drongo says:

    As a hard working farm kid I read my mother’s P&P and could not believe how refined a life people could live when removed from daily drudgery.

    While our upbringing, manners, morality and education were to a degree similar, our workload was completely different.

    I didn’t learn from it, however, and foolishly continued to involve myself in the activities that produced such a lifestyle without indulging in it myself.

    My older brother was much more influenced after reading it and developed a “landed gentry” attitude immediately. Then rapidly removed himself from most of those production activities.

    I found it a fascinating book and have reread it and also enjoyed watching the BBC production.

  • Alan Gould says:

    I agree with you on Jennifer Ehle; she manages an Elizabeth who is both kittenish and superbly watchful (and watchable). P&P was the first Austen I read, though Emma was on the Matric list by 1966. You will have seen the Olivier/de Havilland 1930’s film. Did you know that Huxley wrote the screenplay – and very fine it is too, rising above that perky/jerky English that characterised films of the time.
    My edition is a smart Folio set, I’ve never read Sense &Sensibility though watched the film a coupla times. I think it was Mansfield Park that most intrigued me. But you are right, Janey was the great artist of a novel’s fabric, its pace, its poise, its vibrancy, its justice.

  • Alan Gould says:

    I forgot to say above that I have heard a proposition the exact opposite of the one you cite for Bailey, namely that “To read a book for a second time is to read it for the first time.” I find this a shrewd assertion in how it examines what is going on in the reading activity. Indeed I have recently tested it, rereading Conrad’s ‘Nigger Of the Narcissus’ and his ‘Youth’, and coming away, not so much with a different reading as a reading that had reconfigured the previous.

    • Don Aitkin says:


      I think the point that Bayley was making is a different one, and the example I offered explains why.Once you know what the climax or denouement is, you can’t reach that moment on the novel again de novo.

      In a later essay in this set I’ll talk about re-reading books some years later, and there I would agree with you.

  • Mike Burke says:

    Thanks for that, Don. As an auld phart of a similar age, I often meet amazement from the younger generations when I express my admiration for Jane Austen and her work, and complete astonishment when I say that I have reread her books many times since high school in the 1950s, and continue to do so. I agree about Jennifer Ehle, and that was a brilliant production.

  • PeterE says:

    Thanks. More please, although I myself have never fully engaged with Jane Austen. Of English novelists Hardy and Lawrence reign supreme for me and the Father, Son and Holy Ghost of modern writers would have to be filled by Papa, Scott and the Early Joyce (not necessarily in that order). In modern times I find myself drawn to ‘faction’ in the style of Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ and factual books with novel-like structures such as ‘We were Soldiers Once and Young’ by Joe Galloway.
    But – I stray from the topic, which I enjoyed reading.

  • margaret says:

    Whilst I read P&P and other Jane Austen novels years ago it surprises me that there are so many re-readings multiple times of any one book. I have so many ‘yet to be reads’.
    I liked Jennifer Ehle’s Jane Bennett. She was a standout.
    I have every sympathy for Mrs Bennett, despite her unsympathetically drawn character. I may have to re-read P&P to see if she is really that awful or just an example of a woman of her era who had come to her marriage with a good dowry that Mr Bennett was not able to match and in the production of five daughters became seized by anxiety for their futures, while Mr Bennett sat in his armchair with pipe and slippers remembering when his wife was as lovely as any of his daughters and being completely ineffectual.

    I prefer Middlemarch.

  • Neville says:

    I must admit I hadn’t read any Jane Austen novels until about 20 years ago when I was encouraged by my sister and niece to watch the BBC’s P&P. I just loved it and thought Jennifer Ehle was wonderful as Elizabeth Bennet.
    The way she teased poor Darcy with humour later in the story was preceded by the proposal scene where she castigated him ( among other things) for his treatment of poor Mr Wickham. Of course she later found out that he was the real villain and Darcy had used his money to save her silly younger sister from certain disgrace. Darcy’s much younger 15 year old sister was earlier seduced by Wickham as well so I think he showed incredible restraint. I would have happily punched his head in if it had been my sister.
    I’ve since become a sort of addict of period dramas and have watched a number of them on Youtube and bought a number of DVDs of Austen’s stories adapted for the screen.

    • Alan Gould says:

      “15 yr old sister seduced by Wickham…”
      This is her genius, is it not, and her stature. She brings into fiction behaviour that is corrupt in the first magnitude, and which blazons our news reports today (sexual interference of minors) at the same time she preserves that fabric of English provincial courtesies with which we cover the moral enormities. The sharpest moral probity matched with the acutest eye for the usual.
      Margaret, I reckon the point is this. When we are talking about the art of the novel at this level, we do not need to ‘prefer’ at all. The excellence of Middlemarch is entirely self-possessed in the thing it does with English fiction, as P&P is in its own slightly earlier enterprise. Both novels shape us as to how our direct provenance shaped themselves. Our good fortune is to have both as our resource.

      • Don Aitkin says:

        I don’t think Georgina Darcy was seduced, though plainly it came close. Lydia Bennet certainly was — or, at least, it passes belief that sex did not take place between her and Wickham. Almost certainly, Lydia thought this was the prelude to marriage, and almost certainly, Wickham led her to believe it. I think Alan’s point is well made.

        I don’t have the novel with me, but I think both girls were 15 at the time.

      • Bryan Roberts says:

        I think you have to take the relative status of the two girls into account. Georgina was a conservatively raised, wealthy heiress, whose ‘misbehavoiur’ might well have been inappropriate in polite society, whereas Lydia was uncontrolled, and known to flirt openly with the officers. Also, Georgina was ‘extremely shy’ so I doubt that her sins ever got beyond teenage handholding. Lydia was portrayed as a different proposition altogether.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    Darcy’s sister was Georgiana, not Georgina.

  • Anne Carter says:

    The brilliance of Jane Austen is that she allows her characters to develop through their conversations. And so we are drawn into their world without the heavy hand of the author describing what she wants us to see.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Yes indeed. In my next novel, Moving On, which will come out in October, the author hardly appears, and the story unfolds through the conversations and interior monologues of the four principal characters. My model was Pride and Prejudice. Of course, thousands of other authors have done the same…

  • beththeserf says:

    How many times I return to Jane Austin. And who couldn’t be charmed by Elizabeth Bennet!
    Robert Louis Stevenson wanted to fall on his knees every time she spoke, and why not?
    Comments like this self mockery., ‘I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified

    Jane Austin herself thought Elizabeth Bennet was as delightful a character as ever
    appeared in print. Me too, but i do love ‘Persuasion, ‘ such intensity conveyed, that letter! )

  • beththeserf says:

    Oops, sorry about the lines!

  • margaret says:

    “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”.
    I think it’s possible that you are projecting your own experiences on this novel and that one can continually project romanticism time and time again when there are so many film and television interpretations of a novel such as the phenomenon of Pride and Prejudice.
    It is a narrow world – a world where women must have market value, beauty – and where men have the upper hand.
    It’s a world of social conventions and scandal if they are flouted and, what the hell do they do all day? Any honest work in the fields going on? Or just choosing which gown to wear to the ball?

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