I first read Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” in graduate school. I had taken a course on romantic love in English literature at Kent State University with Dr. William Hildebrand. Crazy now to think I stayed in the dark about her genius for all that time.
If she were alive today, I would have told Austen how I first bought her book to give as a gift to a high school friend based on the construction of her title. I bought Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment at Barnes & Noble, so it just made sense to pair that with Pride and Prejudice. I’d read the first, but not the latter. If you’ve read them, then you know the two novels couldn’t be more different.
To this day, I remember my distaste for Mr. Bennet’s teasing ways. When I first started reading, I couldn’t wrap my head around a father who would say such hurtful things to his delicate, anxious wife. His words just came across with a bite to them – well, to me anyway. Even if he meant them playfully, he no doubt spoke the truth about how he felt about her. I remembered the saying from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, “a man may seye full sooth in game and pley,” or “Many a truth is said in jest.”
I’ll show you some dialogue to explain my thought process. Mrs. Bennet has heard about a gentleman of fortune coming to let a grand home called Netherfield. She has high hopes that one of her girls will marry him. The sister who does marry him will bring all her siblings up into prosperous marriages in the future. But Mr. Bennet needs to call on the gentleman, and at the moment he acted like he didn’t understand her.
Mrs. B: “Mr. Bennet, how can you abuse your own children in such a way? You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion for my poor nerves.”
Mr. B: “You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these last twenty years.”
I bravely shared my negative first impressions in class. The professor, Dr. William Hildebrand laughed a bit and showed me I had cast a shadow over those words meant as humor. I’m sure he explained the novel as romantic comedy not Shakespearean tragedy. I’m thinking I had a steady diet of dark, brooding, gothic Victorian novels prior to reading her novel. I blame the Brontë sisters.
Even if my professor hadn’t explained that her novel was meant more like a rom-com, Austen herself explained her characters soon after:
Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.
Austen had captured the Bennet family dynamics. The way members related to one another were just as they might behave today. I knew I had to read Austen’s other novels after P&P. Like so many other readers before and after me, I wished for one more undiscovered novel, if not hundreds more.
In her novel, “Jane Austen Ruined My Life,” Beth Pattillo explored what it would be like to find letters written by Jane Austen that were said to no longer exist. Research has shown the author probably wrote close to 3000 letters in her short life, but only 160 remain. Jane’s sister Cassandra burned her letters or redacted portions of them presumably to protect her sister’s privacy. Imagine receiving a letter from a woman who claimed to have evidence of more letters from Austen? What if you learned she was one of a few selected to keep the secret of these letters for more than 200 years? Read my review here for more information.