Tuesday, 14 July 2009

A is for Jane Austen

Reading Jane Austen is like watching The Wire. Bear with me, I have evidence to back this up.

Both The Wire and Jane Austen inhabit a completely different world to myself and the average watcher/reader. From location to dress to language to the complex social hierarchy, it’s a bewildering place to be. Stick with both, though, and you’ll find that in no time at all (four our five episodes and approximately a hundred pages in ) you find that not only do you understand what’s going on, you want to find out what’d going to happen next.

Both are ultimately rewarding, and for first time watchers/readers there will no doubt be a period where you recommend either/both to everyone you meet.

“Pride & Prejudice” is one of those books. You know, those ones, the ones that everyone has read at some point so there are lots of pieces of mis or half remembered plot all over the place. Personally, I read this at uni but reading it again, I fear I may have skipped over some parts as, quelle surprise, I hadn’t started my reading early enough.

I’ve seen the movie(s), caught some of the spin offs and read both Bridget Jones’ diaries, which owe a very large debt to Miss Austen. I’ve even seen Becoming Jane, with Anne Hathaway. Before last week, however, I don’t remember ever sitting down and reading an Austen from cover to cover for entertainment.

It was worth it. Pride & Prejudice is tense, exciting, emotionally involving and, above all, funny. I would like to have met Jane Austen, she sounds like one cool girl to go out with.

A quick plot rundown: Elizabeth Bennet is the second eldest of five sisters, daughter to mother and father at the bottom of the rung in society. Daughters are bad news as the estate gets left to the nearest living male relative, as girls don’t count. Their mother spends most of her time trying to marry off all of her daughters to the highest bidder, ruining an already precarious reputation. Their father keeps himself to himself most of the time, trying to avoid the tantrums of his nervy wife and younger daughters.

From oldest to youngest: Jane is the good, kind one, Elizabeth is the heroine – feisty, independent and generous, Mary is the dull middle one who only likes reading books, Kitty follows whatever Lydia says and Lydia is flighty and foolish.

Elizabeth would like to marry, but for love and not money, although money would be nice. Jane would like to marry for love, and nothing else. As the eldest, these are the girls who have more page time.

Like The Wire, there is a cast of thousands and everyone’s called ten or fifteen different names. Confusingly, Jane is also always called Miss Bennet even though there are four other Miss Bennets. Whenever someone marries they are referred to as their married name without transition, so if you’re not paying attention you need to go back and re-read. That’s another thing in common with The Wire – there can be no skimping on attention, as you won’t have a clue what’s going on if you do.

I was afraid that the love between Darcy and Elizabeth would turn out to be like the ‘love’ story in Wuthering Heights – two people who tortured each other to death ain’t a love story to me – but it wasn’t like that. There were beautiful explanations for everything, from Darcy’s aloof manner to Bingley’s sudden withdrawal from Netherfield. If you’ve read it, that’ll make sense. If not, it probably won’t but I don’t want to explain the whole plot – go and read it for yourself!

It took me a long time to read three hundred pages, a lot longer than it would have normally. Normally I can read about a hundred pages in an hour, depending on interruptions and subject matter. Instead it took me the best part of a week, including all of Sunday, a little bit of the following Monday and Tuesday morning. I think this was because the language was so different to what I was used to, and the type was tiny. It’s also quite dense – the paragraphs are quite long. As I’ve said already, though, about a hundred pages in you settle in and realise that you’re going to have to read everything, and maybe aloud, to understand what’s going on.

What Austen should I read next? I feel like it should be Persuasion, but I’m open. It might not be for a while but I’ll try to fit it in around the challenge!

Next week I’m reading “The Uncommon Reader” by Alan Bennett. We’re also off to Latitude so it’s lucky it’s a short book…

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