Monday, January 28, 2013

You've Come a Long Way, Baby: Happy 200th Birthday, Pride and Prejudice!

My gosh, it's been a while, hasn't it? I won't make any apologies and will instead offer my standard explanation: college can kick a girl's ass. It kicked mine last semester, and will continue to kick it this semester (I've got exactly one left, in progress right now, before I become a real grownup!), and while I do want to make this blog a priority again, it might not always be that easy.

As it is, I have too huge a backlog to even think of catching up on the reviews I missed last year, and thus I've made the sad executive decision to not review them. I will, however, do my best to start afresh this year and hope to begin updating again by the end of this week. To get a headstart, I decided I'd do a celebratory blog post for the 200th birthday of one of my very favorite books, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.


Earlier this summer, I took a small trip with my parents out of state, and as ever, I brought a book, the Lydia Davis translation of Flaubert's Madame Bovary. It was funny, my stepdad remarked, as we got onto the elevator, that classic literature makes up such a large part of what I read now, when getting me to read the classics in the first place was like pulling teeth. My mother will attest to that; she was the one pushing. Though she well understood my love of fantasy and scifi, having gone through that herself, she wanted to broaden my horizons. She recommended; I resisted. I hadn't even read the children's classics, like The Secret Garden or Little Women, because they'd never appealed to me.

The looming specter of the AP English Literature exam in my junior year changed my mind. It was recommended that students begin preparing several classics in the months before the exam, learning their ins and outs in order to effectively write about them on the exam. In the second term of my sophomore year, I decided to get a head start, and a friend of mine mentioned reading Pride and Prejudice after seeing the Joe Wright adaptation on TV. The next time I was in a Borders (alas!), I bought myself a copy, the Bantam edition pictured above. I was sixteen years old, it was my first true classic, and it was one of the books that truly changed my life.

I fell in love with Austen. Pride and Prejudice made me seek out the rest of her books. I read Persuasion on the treadmill during gym class; Mansfield Park as I sat waiting to take the SATs; Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey and Emma during car trips. I became a Janeite. I joined the Republic of Pemberley. I watched the films. I begged my parents to take me into New York City to see The Jane Austen Book Club (and succeeded!). I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies just after it came out and was the one to explain to an incredulous male classmate that yes, it was a thing that existed (said classmate read it and came up to me following that summer, exclaiming, "Thank you! My mom and I have something to talk about now!").

Jane was a constant my last two and a half years of high school, and remains one even into my senior year of high school. I get varied responses when people learn I'm a Janeite; some are surprised at how young I am, while others wish they'd read her at my age. I had to reread Pride and Prejudice for English Literature II last year and found that I enjoyed studying the books at an academic level just as much, and that discovery has shaped my senior year--after writing two papers that explored evolutionary mating theories as applied to Austen's works, I'm now writing my senior thesis on Northanger Abbey and a subset of that field. I have confidence in myself as a woman and as a writer because of the teachings of Jane and her heroines. And I wouldn't have any bit of this if I hadn't marched into Borders that day and bought that $5 copy of Pride and Prejudice.

P&P's not my favorite Austen (that honor belongs to Sense and Sensibility!), but its spell still hasn't faded, for me. I reread it last year for that class and found myself laughing at all the parts I normally do, internally screaming in frustration and wishing Lizzy and Darcy would just talk about their feelings like I normally do, cringing at Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine, rooting for Lizzy to stand up to their snobbishness, but also to learn about herself, to overcome her willful blindness and finally unite with Darcy. The original text still enchants me, and ever since I ran out of Austen novels to read, I've turned to the sequels and variations when I need a fix, and those enchant me just the same. What one thing has the author changed that turned everything upside down? Lizzy and Darcy will surely get together, but what about Bingley and Jane, and what of poor, misguided Lydia? Will Mary and Kitty get their days in the sun? Will Georgiana grow into her own person? I love seeing the different ways different authors have answered this question, and even if I'll never be brave enough to answer them myself, I know that Pride and Prejudice will never lose its power of inspiring readers to ask those same questions in the first place.

This past year, I've seen even more people come to Pride and Prejudice as a result of the wonderful webseries The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which was lovingly forced on me by my best friend Steph after being recommended by several others. I celebrated the anniversary today by staying in bed and watching more of those, and it delights me to see the comments on the videos from people who are following the story for the first time, taking that journey with Lizzy and Darcy and emerging the better for it. I hope someday to introduce my own children to Austen, to inspire in others the love of Jane that Pride and Prejudice inspired in me, and I've taken the time today to feel grateful for letting that book into my life, because I wouldn't be who I am today without it.

Thank you, Jane; I owe you.