True confession. My wife introduced us. I’d been married several decades when she introduced us the first time, through a movie called “Bride and Prejudice.” Jane’s intelligence, insight, and delicate manipulation of both character and plot shone through this Bollywood / Hollywood mashup. It didn’t hurt that it also had the most beautiful woman in the world as the lead actor.
I was hooked. I needed to know Jane better. Jane Austen, that is. She’s been dead a while, so my wife doesn’t feel too threatened. And in all fairness, I only know Jane through one of her works, Pride and Prejudice (P&P) and some of their variants.
If you don’t know P&P, I’m not going to reveal too much except to say you’ll enjoy it. It’s one of those pieces of Great Literature that is actually so great that you don’t have to care that it’s great because it’s simply good. It’s fun. It’s so much fun at so many levels that each time I read it I figure something else out.
One of the wonderful aspects of the book is that it’s a window into the society of England during the early 1800s. She writes of many tiny details of etiquette and protocol that we no longer follow. Teasing them out and trying to understand them in the context of society then, and now, is one of the fun things a student of behavior enjoys.
One of my mysteries in the book has always been a reference that Darcy makes roughly midway, when he says that even Mr. Bennet acted foolishly during a ball. Now, I happen to really like Mr. Bennet. He is extremely sarcastic, spends a lot of his time in his library, and can’t brook fools. Maybe I identify with him too much! Anyway, I always thought all of Mr. Bennet’s utterances were fairly intelligent.
Oh, not so! He, much like myself, starts taking his own sarcasm as being natural. During the all-important ball at Netherfield in Chapter 18, he tells his anxious-to-perform daughter Mary that she should “… let the other young ladies have time to exhibit.”
Elizabeth, the main character, is aghast. And later, so is Darcy. But what the hey? He was calling it truthfully – they all wanted a chance to show off! And it finally dawned on me that his indiscretion was simply calling attention to that fact! Back then you didn’t allude to such obvious and mundane motives. You were upper class! Your shit didn’t even stink! (It probably did, but they NEVER talked about it.)
Poor Mr. Bennet. I really can’t blame him. I’m sure he was deadly tired from being at a ball in the first place. He had to listen to his wife prattling on in ways that not only embarrassed her daughters, her husband, and everyone around her in the book, but the first time I read it – it was embarrassing me as well! It’s that well written.
Finally, one of the most flattering statements we can make about an actor is to comment about their character as if it were a real person. And the best Mrs. Bennet I’ve seen (1980 version of P&P) had me pretty much despising the character all the way through the show! It wasn’t until the second (or third?) time I watched it that I could remind myself that this was an actor doing a fantastic job.
So, there it is. Jane. She’s in my heart and head. I don’t think any production has yet done her single greatest work justice. Lucky for us, we still have her words.