Musings of a Reader: The Enduring Appeal of Pride and Prejudice

I owe Pride and Prejudice a lot. It was the book that introduced me to Literature, the kind with a capital L. I was thirteen and until then had mostly subsisted on children’s fiction – Roald Dahl and the Sweet Valley series, The Babysitter’s Club series and everything by Enid Blyton. These endless series of stories about children and their varying adventures were peppered with abridged versions of the classics too, so I had had my introduction to Shakespeare and Dickens and Mark Twain with the kind of little books that strip these great works to the bare skeletons of plot. But I hadn’t ever read an actual piece of Literature. Then I saw the film Pride and Prejudice that had just been released (the 2005 one) and I promptly fell in love.

Hoping to recapture the magic of the film, I decided to read the book – the unabridged, original by Jane Austen. The language was something I wasn’t used to, but the warmth and wit of Elizabeth and the quiet, hidden goodness of Darcy made me turn page after page. Breathless with awe at this new world of literature I had almost accidentally stumbled upon, I tore through the rest of Austen’s work (Persuasion quickly became my second favourite Austen work). Soon enough, all her novels had been read but my thirst for the worlds she created had not nearly been quenched. This led me to branch out to other authors. I read Thomas Hardy, Charlotte Bronte and the lesser known Bronte sister, Anne, George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell. Although these authors had their own merits – some of which went straight over my thirteen-year-old head at the time – the closest I came to Austen was Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (the love story is very similar to that of Pride and Prejudice, although the setting isn’t). So I owe Pride and Prejudice for introducing me to all these other great writers, but more so for making me fall in love with itself.

It isn’t just me that has been in love with Pride and Prejudice. In the 200-odd years since it was published, it has become the most popular of Austen’s work, comfortably straddling the line between great work of literature and popular culture icon. It has spawned a plethora of sequels, prequels and adaptations, the most recent of them being a popular YouTube series (The Lizzie Bennet Diaries). There are films about a modern, 21st century woman finding herself in Austen’s world (Austenland, Lost in Austen), a book in which Elizabeth and Darcy solve murders (Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James) and even a Pride and Prejudice version with zombies (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith). Not to mention the dozens of chick-lit books that are modern-day retellings of the Lizzie-Darcy romance (the most notable being the Bridget Jones’s Diary series by Helen Fielding).

Of course, along with the hordes of Pride and Prejudice fans are a significant number of outspoken Austen naysayers, who dismiss her works as frivolous and unimportant. Among them was Mark Twain, who famously said “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shinbone.” Austen herself knew that her work wouldn’t appeal to everyone. “I do not write for such dull Elves, as have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves,” she said of Pride and Prejudice (clearly she lent Elizabeth her own brand of wit). But the people who really got her, loved her completely and devotedly. Rudyard Kipling was one of them. He even wrote a short story celebrating being a Janeite – a short story called The Janeites in which Austen worship is found in, of all places, the trenches of World War I.

So what is it that makes Pride and Prejudice such an iconic and beloved piece of literature? It would be entirely dismissive to suggest that the only reason why people love it so much is because of the incredible specimen of human that is Mr. Darcy (although that is an important reason, let’s face it). But the well-drawn characters are what I love most about the novel. Elizabeth Bennet is one of the greatest fictional characters ever created. She’s smart and witty, full of laughter and warmth. She is snarky but protects those she loves fiercely. And I love that Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship is one based on mutual respect, and that they both help each other become better versions of themselves.

Pride and Prejudice is so much more than just the “novel of manners” it has been described to be. Yes, this novel details the lifestyles of the well-to-do in pre-Victorian England, but it is also much more than that. It is an incisive commentary on the sociopolitical situation of the time, particularly for women. It touches upon class, social mobility and how women are forced to strategically use the resources they have been given to make their way through life – the main resource being marriage. It may not be as revolutionary as, say, Jane Eyre, but it also makes claims that were pretty radical at the time – that character and virtue, wisdom and wit are the things which give true privilege to somebody, not class, status or money. When Lady Catherine tries to use her aristocratic position to make Elizabeth bend to her will, Elizabeth stands her ground. When Elizabeth is given the choice to marry Mr. Collins and thus save herself and her family from destitution in one fell swoop, she refuses, knowing that a marriage solely for financial security will not make for a good marriage. Elizabeth and Darcy’s union is conventional in some ways – Elizabeth marries above her, which guarantees upward social mobility for herself and her family. But their union is quite different from what was the norm at the time. It is a dynamic relationship, in which both Elizabeth and Darcy grow and improve and become better people because of each other.

Pride and Prejudice resonates so much with readers even today because it addresses struggles we all can understand. It explains that it is more important to value good character than liveliness and likeability (Darcy and Wickham representing both, respectively). It shows that making mistakes is inevitable, but learning from your mistakes is much harder – Elizabeth realizing that the quality she most admired about herself (her ability to perceptively judge a character) is what led her most astray, is the novel’s ‘moment of recognition,’ shakes her to her core (“Till this moment I never knew myself.”) but she learns from her mistakes and grows as a character.

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

Each adaptation of Pride and Prejudice brings its own unique take on the novel. The 1995 BBC miniseries is well known for sticking religiously to the source material and then casually adding a dripping wet Mr. Darcy emerging from of a lake (an addition that has, understandably, bothered not a single fan, and is now almost part of the Pride and Prejudice canon). I prefer the 2005 film over the miniseries, for both sentimental reasons (like I said, it’s the film that started it all for me) and for aesthetical ones. The movie is beautifully shot and the casting is spot on, and I love the way it uses small moments and silent shots to convey so much. I will forever have a special place in my heart for when Mr. Darcy flexes his fingers after handing Elizabeth into the carriage – the electricity between them is so strong that he has to literally flex his fingers to get rid of it, you guys.

But what I want to talk about here is the latest adaptation, the YouTube series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, consisting of 100 episodes, with each episode being six to ten minutes long. It has been produced by Hank Green (brother of popular YA author John Green) and Bernie Su. It recasts Elizabeth as a mass communications graduate school, saddled with student loans and living at home. With her are her sisters Jane, an underpaid fashion assistant, and Lydia, a college student and full-time party girl. The show is Lizzie’s vlog (video blog, for the uninitiated), which she begins producing with the help of her best friend, Charlotte Lu, as part of her Master’s thesis – just as a certain rich, handsome med student named Bing Lee moves in next door along with hipster snob Darcy. All episodes consist of Lizzie and the people around her talking into the camera, talking about what’s happening in her life. To narrate off-camera events, role-playing reenactments are carried out. It is, in a word, brilliant.

The narrative device of the series captures the crux of Lizzie’s character cleverly – she tends to have strong opinions and sees things from her own, subjective, point of view. Her reenactments of Darcy, Bing and Caroline are exaggerated and caricatured, contrasting with the actual characters who also appear on the show. This serves to show how flawed Lizzie’s way of judging people can be. Another interesting thing that the show does, that hasn’t been done in other film adaptations, is to truly reflect how Austen treats Darcy’s character. According to literature professor Susan Celia Greenfield, “Austen’s novel is about Elizabeth far more than it is about Mr. Darcy, and to the extent that it is about Darcy, the emphasis is on how Elizabeth thinks about him,” and this is reflected in the show – Darcy doesn’t appear in the show until the 60th episode, and for a total of 11 episodes. Says Greenfield, “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries has remained true to Austen’s insight about the solitude of love. What Austen captures is the paradoxical extent to which falling in love does not, as one might expect, necessarily involve a relationship between two people.  Rather, it often involves a single person and her ideas about an absent body.”

I also love how the series fleshes out the character of Lydia and turns her from the entertaining but unredeemable character she is in the novel to a well-rounded, sympathetic character with an arc of her own. Sure, she’s boy-crazy and prone to partying irresponsibly. But the series also showcases her vulnerability and her fierce love for her family. The scandal she’s involved in is updated for the modern era (a compromising video is leaked on the Internet by Wickham) but the aftermath of it is more about how the Bennet sisters’ bond is solidified. Similarly, but to a lesser extent, is the character of Charlotte made more fleshed out. Instead of a marriage proposal, Charlotte accepts pretentious Mr. Colins’ boring job offer, but then uses it to do great things for her career, all the while maintaining her friendship with Lizzie.

This smart, modern take on Pride and Prejudice shows just how versatile and dynamic the novel really is. The fact that we continue returning to it, even after more than 200 years, surely speaks to its greatness and is just one of the many reasons why I love this novel.

Published in two parts in the 9th and 10th issues Zau magazine in 2014.

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