Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with the RHML Book Club

We read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice at the RHMLibrary Book Club, and try to discover what makes it so eternally appealing to new readers. Can you help us figure it out?

It’s one of the best loved books of all time.  It inspires new TV and big screen versions every few years.  It has been endlessly redone and spun and sequeled (warning: not a real word), from Bridget Jones’s Diary to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  Which led us to the prevailing question of the night: why?

The first touchstone is the global reading experience: Do you like this book?  Club members ranged in responses from an emphatic “yes” to a middling “mostly, I guess, but with reservations”.  This level of likability can certainly explain a book’s popularity for a while, or explain a very low but steady interest, but for a book with this reputation, simple enjoyability of the read does not seem to account for its evergreen popularity.

So, we delved into the book’s time and place.  It certainly gives a detailed look at the social mores and assumptions of its day.  We took our time with parsing differences between then and now for gender roles and marriage mores, exploring which themes could not be tackled now in the same way they were then, and talking more generally about class assumptions.  We noted the history of class in England, particularly relating this book to another recent book club read, Kazuo Ishiguro's extraordinary Remains of the Day, which is set, roughly, at the time that these class assumptions and privileges were unraveling.

We also looked at the book itself.  Judgments on the quality and consistency of the writing were, again, uneven.  I, for example, found the first third of the book to be middling, with dialogue that was completely unbelievable.  Characters were spouting sentences, supposedly extemporaneously, which were so complicated, sub-sub-claused, and full of switchbacks (“I cannot say that I am not undelighted”) it must have taken the author 20 minutes to construct each one.  But these mostly disappear for the second and final sections of the book, and at times I became swept up in the tension and potential of a given scene in a way that only happens with quality writing.  Looking at character development (Lord Darcy and Elizabeth are complex characters; the others…), plot construction, and simple believability rendered similar discussions, as if this were a book that blooms vibrantly when first observed, but wilts under examination.

One issue that I wrestled with, but others did not, was the author’s tone.  Others simply enjoyed the wry edge and humor.  I, meanwhile, struggled from page one to determine if the author’s out-of-dialogue observations about class and marriage were meant sincerely or wryly (as opposed to the obvious satire rendered through specific iconic characters, like the undeniably crass Mrs. Bennet).  The outlandish first line of the novel suggests a tongue-in-cheek reading, yet similar sentiments are presented as if sincerely true.  I was about a third of the way through the book before I finally settled on reading these narrator's observations as sharp social criticism – not because I was convinced that the author meant it as such, but rather because I knew I couldn’t enjoy the book as much if they were sincere.

We also talked about the book’s place in literature, the status it enjoys, as well as its role as a proto-romance novel (in the genre-term use of romance, not the definition Keats would have used).  It’s no surprise that Bridget Jones’s Diary is based on Pride and Prejudice, or that elements of P&P have become the mainstays of romantic comedies ever since.

But, above all, we did enjoy the book.  We found much to praise and to discuss, gemlike moments of wit, compelling turns of plot.  What we didn’t do, quite, was answer that driving question:  Why does this, unlike so many similar contemporary stories, stand the test of time?  Why does this particular book inspire so many costume dramas, get picked up by new readers, get reworked endlessly by new writers?  I am hoping you can tell me what I’ve missed – what makes the book special for you – in the comments below!

In the meantime, the RHML Book Club will stay with the Darcys at stately Pemberley Manor.  For November 8th, we are we reading P. D. James’ 2011 novel Death Comes to Pemberley, a murder mystery that plays directly off of Pride and Prejudice, set on the Darcy family estate.  Please join us – especially if you loved Austen’s classic, as I’m sure we’ll be revisiting it when we look at this latest sequel.

Then, on December 13th, just one day before the new film premiers, we’ll be discussing J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit!  We would love to be joined by any of you Tolkien fans and regular Fantasy readers, to help add context and depth.  This will be the club’s first fantasy book in recent memory (as well as our first children’s’ book), so we need your expertise!

See our website, rhml.lib.mo.us, for details and future book picks.  The Richmond Heights Memorial Library Book Club meets the second Thursday of each month, from 7 to 8 pm, at The Heights, 8001 Dale Ave.  Please join us!

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