Goodreads: Average: 4.23. Mode: 5 stars (53%)
Amazon: Average: 4.5. Mode: 5 stars (74%)
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."
So begins Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen's witty comedy of manners--one of the most popular novels of all time--that features splendidly civilized sparring between the proud Mr. Darcy and the prejudiced Elizabeth Bennet as they play out their spirited courtship in a series of eighteenth-century drawing-room intrigues. Renowned literary critic and historian George Saintsbury in 1894 declared it the "most perfect, the most characteristic, the most eminently quintessential of its author's works," and Eudora Welty in the twentieth century described it as "irresistible and as nearly flawless as any fiction could be."
When I asked people to recommend me a classic, Pride and Prejudice was by far the most recommended choice. (By the way, I actually ended up downloading most of them.)
So I'm probably the last person in the world to read Pride and Prejudice, right? What am I going to say in a review that hasn't been said already a million times in the last two hundred years? How ever can I make a review of Pride and Prejudice remotely interesting or new?
Well, I probably can't, but I can sure write a lot when I'm enthusiastic. Below the cut, much text ensues.
So, rather to my surprise as someone who's never read Austen and hasn't ready any 19th century writers in quite a long time, I loved this book.
Austen's style is very... well, Austen. Did people actually talk like that back then? Even the educated upper class couldn't possibly have declaimed their feelings in such elegant, expressive, witty, yet excruciatingly mannerly terms. So there's a certain sense of "Come on, nobody talks like that" that permeated my reading of the book, and I kept wondering if Austen's contemporary readers thought the same thing. At the same time, it was clear that this was writing meant to entertain and delight, not convincingly portray real-life dialog.
Being not a little interested in writing myself, I noted all the things Austen does which are the very opposite of what is considered good contemporary style. She tells rather than shows. She uses third person omniscient (which is generally disfavored nowadays, though not universally) and sometimes even addresses the reader directly. She makes heavy use of dialog tags ("cried," "exclaimed," etc.) which was the style of the time.
This is all fascinating, because despite the fact that Austen is still enormously popular, I've seen people on some writing forums say "Austen, Dickens, Dostoevsky, etc., could never get published today."
They're utterly wrong, of course. No, Jane Austen wouldn't be published today writing in the style of Regency novels, but if Jane Austen were alive today, she'd be writing in contemporary style -- and it's not her style that makes Pride and Prejudice so brilliant. The style is something that makes it more enjoyable to modern readers as an artifact of its time, but look beneath the style and you will see that she has an elegant, perfectly-constructed story, tension rising and falling in just the right spots with a fine command over the sequential acts of the novel, and every relationship perfectly mapped out. Even the most minor characters are portrayed with just the right amount of detail and personality. These are writer's skills that are independent of time or genre; Austen had them mastered.
I don't care much for romances, but Austen was a genius. I'm now going to have to read more of her books just to study her.
Even without studying it as a literary masterpiece, though, Pride and Prejudice is just darn elegant and funny. For example:
My favorite scene
Mr. Collins's proposal to Elizabeth Bennet in Chapter 19 was the most beautiful piece of sardonic wit I've read in a long time. It's the same hyper-mannered dialog as the rest of the book, yet Austen brings out the knives, and I kept mentally supplying an Austen-to-contemporary-English translation:
"You are too hasty, sir," she cried. "You forget that I have made no answer. Let me do it without further loss of time. Accept my thanks for the compliment you are paying me. I am very sensible of the honour of your proposals, but it is impossible for me to do otherwise than to decline them."
OMG! "Um, that's really sweet, but no, thanks."
"I am not now to learn," replied Mr. Collins, with a formal wave of the hand, "that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second, or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long."
"Oh, I know you don't mean that. You totally want some of this."
"Upon my word, sir," cried Elizabeth, "your hope is a rather extraordinary one after my declaration.
I do assure you that I am not one of those young ladies (if such young ladies there are) who are so daring as to risk their happiness on the chance of being asked a second time. I am perfectly serious in my refusal. You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who could make you so.
"No, really, I'm not interested."
Nay, were your friend Lady Catherine to know me, I am persuaded she would find me in every respect ill qualified for the situation."
"Shouldn't you check back with your sugar mama, anyway?"
"Were it certain that Lady Catherine would think so," said Mr. Collins very gravely—"but I cannot imagine that her ladyship would at all disapprove of you. And you may be certain when I have the honour of seeing her again, I shall speak in the very highest terms of your modesty, economy, and other amiable qualification."
"Nah, it's cool, me and Lady Catherine are tight."
"Indeed, Mr. Collins, all praise of me will be unnecessary. You must give me leave to judge for myself, and pay me the compliment of believing what I say. I wish you very happy and very rich, and by refusing your hand, do all in my power to prevent your being otherwise. In making me the offer, you must have satisfied the delicacy of your feelings with regard to my family, and may take possession of Longbourn estate whenever it falls, without any self-reproach. This matter may be considered, therefore, as finally settled." And rising as she thus spoke, she would have quitted the room, had Mr. Collins not thus addressed her:
"Dude, you're pissing me off. Seriously, DO NOT WANT. Kthxbai!"
"When I do myself the honour of speaking to you next on the subject, I shall hope to receive a more favourable answer than you have now given me; though I am far from accusing you of cruelty at present, because I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on the first application, and perhaps you have even now said as much to encourage my suit as would be consistent with the true delicacy of the female character."
"You're funny. I know chicks always say no when they mean yes."
"Really, Mr. Collins," cried Elizabeth with some warmth, "you puzzle me exceedingly. If what I have hitherto said can appear to you in the form of encouragement, I know not how to express my refusal in such a way as to convince you of its being one."
"Read my lips, asshole: N-O NO!"
"You must give me leave to flatter myself, my dear cousin, that your refusal of my addresses is merely words of course. My reasons for believing it are briefly these: It does not appear to me that my hand is unworthy your acceptance, or that the establishment I can offer would be any other than highly desirable. My situation in life, my connections with the family of de Bourgh, and my relationship to your own, are circumstances highly in my favour; and you should take it into further consideration, that in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you. Your portion is unhappily so small that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications. As I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall choose to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females."
"Bitch, please, do you really think you can do better?"
"I do assure you, sir, that I have no pretensions whatever to that kind of elegance which consists in tormenting a respectable man. I would rather be paid the compliment of being believed sincere. I thank you again and again for the honour you have done me in your proposals, but to accept them is absolutely impossible. My feelings in every respect forbid it. Can I speak plainer? Do not consider me now as an elegant female, intending to plague you, but as a rational creature, speaking the truth from her heart."
"Oh FFS, how stupid are you? Get it through your thick head: it's not happening!"
"You are uniformly charming!" cried he, with an air of awkward gallantry; "and I am persuaded that when sanctioned by the express authority of both your excellent parents, my proposals will not fail of being acceptable."
"You're so cute when you play hard to get. I'm going to talk to your folks now."
To such perseverance in wilful self-deception Elizabeth would make no reply, and immediately and in silence withdrew; determined, if he persisted in considering her repeated refusals as flattering encouragement, to apply to her father, whose negative might be uttered in such a manner as to be decisive, and whose behavior at least could not be mistaken for the affectation and coquetry of an elegant female.
This kind of wry satire and piss-take of the times can be found throughout the novel. Jane Austen was very much a proto-feminist; her sympathy is uniformly with her female characters. Oh yes, she makes fun of silly, boy-crazy Lydia, crass and foolish Mrs. Bennet, passionless and pragmatic Charlotte Lucas, manipulative and scheming Caroline Bingley, and Elizabeth's various other foils, but she doesn't treat any of them with cruelty, and you can see how every one of these women, even the most privileged, is simply reacting to the contraints they live under. Pride and Prejudice is a perfectly proper romantic comedy with a happy ending, but there was an almost revolutionary message just beneath the surface: "Hey, it really sucks to be a woman in this society, especially if you're not particularly pretty or rich." Something that Jane Austen herself knew well.
What the Negative Reviewers Say
Negative reviews seem to come in three flavors:
1. "I had to read this in school and I HATED IT 'cause it's OOOOLD and there were no zombies!"
2. "I'm a guy and I HATED IT 'cause it was written by a GIIIIIRRRL and GIIIIIRRRLS like it!"
3. Bugfuck ignorant crazy:
This book is quite possibly the most insipid novel I have ever read in my life. I would rather read Twilight twelve more times than read this again. Why this book is so highly treasured by society is beyond me. It is 345 pages of nothing. The characters are like wispy shadows of something that could be interesting, the language that could be beautiful ends up becoming difficult to decipher and lead me more than once to skip over entire paragraphs because I became tired of having to stumble through them only to emerge unsatisfied, and the plot is non-existent, as though Austen one day decided she wanted to write a novel and began without having any idea what would happen except that there would be a boy and a girl who seemingly didn’t like each other but in the end got married. The story really probably could have been told in about 8 pages, but Austen makes us slog through 345 pages of mind-numbing balls and dinner-parties. I don’t care what anyone says, this is not great literature. This is a snore
Verdict: Okay, I can understand why Austen's hyper-elegant romcom about 19th century English gentry might put off those who aren't fans of the genre. But once I got used to the style, I loved Austen's finely-crafted prose. It's a work of genius: even if the story is not your cup of tea, you should appreciate how perfectly the plot is constructed and the nuances of characterization.
Austen on Netflix Bonus Feature
So, after reading (listening to, actually) the book, I decided to go back and watch the film version again. Oh, wait -- which one? There are four versions available on Netflix. (Not counting the Bollywood version, the Mormon version, and the AU fanfic version.)
So, I watched all of them. In a row.
Yes, I know this is bookish, so skip the cut if you don't want a comparative review of 65 years of Pride and Prejudice on film.
Each version gave a unique flavor to Austen's novel, while all being more or less faithful to it. None of them made major changes in the plot; it was the spin the actors gave the characters that made the difference more than any minor scene variations. From Edna May Oliver's snooty but kindly deep down Lady Catherine de Bourgh in 1940 to Judi Dench's scary death goddess in 2005, every character was recognizably Austen's, and yet none of them were exactly hers. It's quite an experience to watch the same story four times in a row played by an entirely different cast filmed in an entirely different era.
Mr. Darcy's primary facial expression: I'm so hot.
Elizabeth Bennet's primary facial expression: LOL!
This black and white version starred Laurence Olivier as Mr. Darcy and Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet and won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction. It's quite enjoyable, though the sofa-upholstery dresses and the bonnets that eclipse the sun came from a slightly later time period than the book, because Hollywood in the 40s loved them some costumes.
Of all four films, this was the "adaptation" that made the most changes. It follows the book fairly closely, but there was a lot of embellishment and rewriting of the characters' lines (and some significant altering of Lady Catherine's motives). Being that the movie is under two hours, there's a lot of condensing and, I think, watering down of Austen's wit and style, though the screenplay was still entertaining in its own fun way. There's some really hammy acting, as the actors have to telegraph with one facial expression all the subtle interplay that's detailed in several paragraphs of Austen's prose. (And also because that's how acting was done back then, just like the constant whiny violin soundtrack.)
Melville Cooper as Mr. Collins literally sticks his nose in the air and talks like he has nasal congestion. I liked Garson as Miss Bennet a lot; she had marvelous facial expressions, her voice was perfect, and her tongue was constantly in her cheek. I can't say I was terribly impressed by Olivier's Captain-of-the-Football-Team mugging.
Jane came off as a bit of a dimwit, rather than just sweet and naive, and Miss Bingley is ten times bitchier than in the book. The film accelerates the romance between Elizabeth and Darcy and makes it more of a bumpy romcom than a comedy of manners.
Don't miss the bonus features on the DVD. Besides the 1940 recruitment film for the Naval Air Service (remember, this was just before the start of WWII -- or rather, just before the U.S. entered WWII -- so there's a lot of talk about how great training is and you get to play polo on the weekends, not so much about getting shot out of the sky over the Pacific), there's the original theatrical trailer for the film: "Five Love-Hungry Sisters and How They Got Their Husbands!" Great stuff.
Mr. Darcy's primary facial expression: I cannot dislodge this stick from my arse.
Elizabeth Bennet's primary facial expression: OMG!
This was a five-episode miniseries starring Elizabeth Garvie as Elizabeth Bennet and David Rintoul as Mr. Darcy. It's a relatively low-budget production, but it's the truest to the novel. It preserves most of the original scenes, and most of the dialog comes straight from Austen.
The lines, however, were quite stilted. Everyone acted like they were on stage rather than on film. Garvie's wide-eyed expressions of shock, dismay, and exasperation gave Lizzy some character, but Rintoul sucked -- the scene where he proclaims his love for Elizabeth, he sounds like he's reciting a weather forecast.
The actresses playing the Bennet sisters gave them more a bit more personality than in the other versions. This version had the nerdiest Mary. (And her singing! Each version has that same painful singing scene, but this Mary sang the most painful one of all.) Lydia was perfectly airheaded. Kitty actually had a discernible personality, albeit it consisted mostly of bursting into tears and courting an eating disorder.
With five hours to tell the story, the serial includes a lot of exposition that covers the character and plot details from the book that are often abridged in the other versions, so this version is best for someone who wants to know the entire storyline of the book without actually reading it.
Mr. Darcy's primary facial expression: What is this bullshit?
Elizabeth Bennet's primary facial expression: *snerk*
This six-episode serial is probably the best known and most popular adaptation, going by the number of Lizzy icons from this version that proliferate on LJ. It was lavish and nearly as faithful to the original as the 1980 serial, while having vastly superior cinematography and acting.
Most of the alterations in scenes and dialog in this version seemed to be aimed at making the situations and conversations more "natural" -- that is, the characters talked like real people, as opposed to talking like Jane Austen characters. The dialog was still period, and most of the lines were paraphrased from the book, but the actors were allowed to convey a lot more with gestures and facial expressions, as well as added snippets of dialog.
Of all four versions, this one had my favorite Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, both as individuals and as a couple. I never quite believed the romance in any of the other three, but Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth actually had chemistry.
This is probably the one I'd recommend the most highly of all four versions; the 1980 serial is a little bit closer to a perfect adaptation, but its superior accuracy doesn't make up for the 1995 version's superior production values while still being true to Austen's novel.
Mr. Darcy's primary facial expression: I hate you all.
Elizabeth Bennet's primary facial expression: FML.
Like the 1940 film, the modern adaptation starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet and Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy crammed the plot into two hours. It felt even more compressed than the black and white classic. Comparing the two is certainly an interesting study in how movie-making has changed in 65 years. 1940s films were more willing to linger over one scene and keep the camera pointed at one character for a while. By comparison, the 2005 version seems to flicker from scene to scene, never letting anyone occupy the screen for more than a few seconds at a time.
It did have the most age-appropriate casting (though of course they cast all the Bennet girls as hotties -- at least Mary finally got to ditch her glasses). Donald Sutherland was an awfully smirky Mr. Bennet, and the Bennet sisters mostly squeal and giggle their way through every scene. Macfadyen is certainly the most dickish Mr. Darcy. Kelly Reilly's Caroline Bingley looked like she should be ruling Narnia under a spell of eternal winter. Simon Woods made an odd Mr. Bingley, but if BBC does a Harry Potter series they should totally tap him for the role of Ron Weasley. Tom Hollander was utterly humorless -- it's like they didn't even realize that Mr. Collins is supposed to be ridiculous, not sinister.
This was a much more cinematic version that took all the gentleness, humor, and wit out of Austen's novel. Instead, it looked like one of those ominous, brooding period pieces where you just know there's going to be a hanging or a flogging at some point. I kept expecting the dancing scenes to be interrupted by the Kurgan crashing through the door. Stripped of most context and character development, I think this version would be harder to make sense of if you didn't already know the story.
And thus ends probably the longest combined literary and cinematic review I've ever written... until I get around to tackling Jane Eyre.