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Pride, prejudice, and youth

1 February 2012

Pride and PrejudicePride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My wife Val got Death comes to Pemberley by P.D. James as a Christmas present, and passed it on to me to read once she had finished it. It claims so be a sequel to Pride and prejudice, so I thought I’d better re-read the latter, since I had last read it about 50 years ago, before reading the new one.

Some books are disappointing when one re-reads them after a long time; they never seem to be as good as one remembered. But Pride and prejudice was far better than I had remembered it, and I found I had to add a couple of stars to its rating. Yesterday I had a number of things I needed to do, and I found that I never got them done, I had to go back to reading this book until I had finished it. It was a page-turner, as they like to say in the blurbs.

It’s been around a long time, so I won’t say much about the characters and the plot, assuming that most people have read it, and if you haven’t, well, it’s still selling 200 years after it was first published, so you shouldn’t find it too hard to get a copy.

One of the things that did strike me the second time round was the characters. The main characters are extraordinarily well-drawn. I can’t really remember what I thought the first time, but this is what struck me the second time.

So if I don’t write about the plot and characters, what can I say about what I think of the book?

I can perhaps try to work out why I liked it so much more the second time than the first time.

And I think the reason is, well, pride and prejudice.

Pride and prejudice on my part, that is.

At the beginning of 1963 I went to study at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg (UNP), and one of the compulsory courses was English I. I had previously attended the University of the Witwatersrand and had already taken English I, twice. So I was a bit resentful about having to take it a third time. Couldn’t they just give me a credit for it and let me study something more interesting? It was pride, you see.

The prejudice was a bit more complex.

At school I had read Brave new world by Aldous Huxley, and had been very impressed with it. When I got to Wits University, I didn’t mind reading it again. It was, I thought, a Good Book. Another, which I had first encountered at the university was William Golding‘s Lord of the flies. It also struck me as being a very good book. Both had (then) been published within the last 25-30 years.

When I got to the Uuniversity of Natal, the books they gave us to read for English I were all so old. Joseph Conrad was relatively recent, but the others were by Jane Austen and people like that. In one tutorial I ventured to ask about it, and the lecturer, Christina van Heyningen told me that Jane Austen’s books were timeless classics, and that people would still be reading them in 100 or 200 years time, long after Huxley and Golding had been forgotten. I was not inclined to believe her. My pride would not let me.

I also soon discovered that the English Department at UNP were, on the whole, great fans of F.R. Leavis, the Cambridge University critic, who narrowed down English literature, or at least novels, to authors like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad and D.H. Lawrence, dismissing the rest as inferior. One English Honours student once asked the professor whether he should read Ulysses and was advised not to, as it would “blunt your critical faculties”.

Some of us studetns tended to rebel against this, and republished in a student magazine, the Anglican Witness a satire of their attitude, with a Leavis-style review of Winnie the Pooh, with the title “Another book to cross off your list”, saying that now he had got down to D.H. Lawrence alone, not even Austen, Dickens and Conrad were worth reading. So we saw the English Department as prejudiced, and so I became prejudiced against any books they recommended.

The values of the characters in Jane Austen’s novels also seemed screwed up to me. The characters, heroes and villains alike, all seemed to put a money value on everything, including love and marriage, and to assume that that was right and natural. Falling in love seemed to be very much governed by the fortune possessed by, or at least due to, the potential beloved. And everything else seemed to be governed by their artificial rules of politeness. It was an utterly alien culture, and difficult to enter into.

So there was pride, and prejudice, and youth. The first time I read it, I was the same age as the protagonists in the story. I despised them for their narrow sheltered English country gentry lives. What could they know about human relationships when they moved in such a stiflingly narrow social circle, and were so obsessed by social climbing?

On rereading it, I am fifty years older, and not a callow youth any more. I can see things in Jane Austen’s writing I was blind to before. Her characters do indeed move within a narrow social circle, but for Jane Austen that makes it possible to pay less attention to the setting, and rather more to the relationships of people within it. The gentle satire that whooshed over my head the first time struck me forcibly this time. And the characters seemed sensitive to nuances of human behaviour that completely passed me by the first time.

Fifty years later I have had much more experience of different cultures, and learnt, to some extent, to adapt to different cultural worlds. and that perhaps makes it easier to adapt to the cultural world that Jane Austen’s characters inhabit.

But I return to my first prejudice.

Can any English I student appreciate Jane Austen? Are they not too young, and too inexperienced to appreaciate her books? Is it not better to read works like Brave new world and Lord of the flies, and save Jane Austen for those who are old enough to appreciate her? Isn’t youth wasted on the young?

And when I reread Brave new world after 40 years or so, I was disappointed. It wasn’t nearly as good as I had found it at 16. Christina van Heyningen was right. Austen improved with the passing of time; the other books palled.

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