I can’t recall a time in my life when I didn’t know about Pride and Prejudice. This was entirely thanks to my Mom, an Austen junkie if ever there was one, who was hopelessly addicted to the immortal 1995 BBC adaptation and made it a feature of every holiday and long weekend without fail. I consequently knew the entire thing by heart from a very young age, even though I (naturally) didn’t understand three quarters of the words. But I knew who everyone was, and could point them out and discuss them as if they were my neighbours: there was Lizzy, the girl with the muddy petticoat and the fine eyes; there was Mr Darcy, the sad, tall man; Mrs Bennett, the lady with the nerves who could never stop shouting; Mr Collins, the man who could never stop talking; Lady Catherine, the rude, scary one with the big carriage and Mr Bennett, the one who reminded me of my Dad.
When I was ten, I tried to read the book for the first time, and that was the moment I realised that I was dealing with an entirely different animal from what I had grown accustomed to watching during the holidays. My eyes kept skipping back through sentences, trying to work out where they had begun in the first place, and my young brain simply couldn’t keep up with the tidal wave of new words that I didn’t understand. There didn’t seem to be anything for me in it. I couldn’t see the scenery, or the houses, or the beautiful dances as easily. I gave it up.
I had better luck when I was fourteen. By then, I had grown up sufficiently for there to be plenty ‘in it’ for me. I was old enough to see, to sense, to interpret, and above all, to recognise my world in it. Lizzy became a role model: a fiercely intelligent, educated young woman determined that she’ll never marry for anything but love, if (and this is a big, remarkable if) she even marries at all. She lives in a world of silly, meaningless convention dominated by the class system and by a society that subscribes to it, and she fights that with her polite, but seething wit. Mr Darcy suddenly became attractive and profoundly sympathetic; an intelligent person turned bitter from spending too much time among fools; not transformed by love, but reminded by it of the person he really is. There were many other things too. Lizzy’s silly mother, younger sisters and the eminently punchable Mr Collins served as a morbid reminder that you can’t choose your family, and Caroline Bingley’s fondness for snide remarks was a testament to how catty some women can be when they feel threatened. In Mr Bennett’s darkly Romantic self-loathing after Lydia’s elopement, I understood how sarcastic and unaffected some men can appear when they truly want to break down, and in Mr Bingley’s dropping everything and moving to London instead of proposing to Jane, I perceived the tragic confirmation of how completely some people control other people, even without their knowledge. And in Lizzy and Mr Darcy’s sometimes-playful, more often volcanic duels of wits, I began to appreciate how much a fleeting glance can mean, and how an angry word can often express the exact opposite. For adolescent me, Pride and Prejudice was synonymous with what is possibly the most important thing to a teenager – rebellion against society – and what should be the most important thing to a teenager – the realisation that we live in a world of appearances, levels and dimensions. People’s motives are so complex. Human relationships are such fluctuating, intricate things. Who can ever truly define what a connection between two people may be, or how that connection may drive them to act in a certain way? If we may follow Lizzy’s example, the best way to survive all this complexity is to observe intently, to use your common sense, and most importantly, to laugh.
Naturally when you get into your mid-twenties, laughing becomes even more important, because as a young woman in the 21st century you find yourself confronted with the same issues facing Lizzy and her sisters, even though you make your own money and ideally get to choose your own profession. There are good, intelligent men who go to waste marrying beautiful, silly women. There are the great aunts and the drunk old ladies who come hobbling (or alternatively, stumbling) over to you at parties to demand why you’re not married; thanks to the recession, you find yourself obsessively counting coppers like poor Mr Bennett; the workplace abounds with unintelligent Mr Collinses paying obsequious respects to discourteous Lady Catherines, and your social life always features at least one crying Lizzy being passed tissues by a kind but terrified Mr Darcy who really wants to kiss her. Our relationships are no less complex that in Austen’s day and her rules apply more than ever. Observe intently. Use your common sense. And laugh. Because Austen is life – an ever fresh and ever changing reading of the same great book.
Each time you read Pride and Prejudice, you find new things. Every little episode you’ve lived through in your own life since the last time you read it has an effect on how you read it now. Austen’s exquisite extended sentences act like millions of tiny delicate gates all over the narrative that gradually open up and lead you to the great scenes that you know are there, but whose origins in every seemingly immaterial thing the characters say and do will seem different whenever you open the book. Each time you read Pride and Prejudice, you read it for the first time.
Happy birthday, Pride and Prejudice. Thank you for everything.