Why We Read: To Change Our Minds

I’d read Pride and Prejudice twice before—once in high school and once in college. It’s a bit heretical to say this, but I disliked it both times. It offended my burgeoning sense of what it meant to be a woman. In my college class—I’m now appalled by my arrogance—I’d declared that the story was an insult. The main topics are marriage, money, and high society, which really are all sides of the same coin. “All these characters talk about is finding a husband! How is this relevant?”

There is some truth to this. Pride and Prejudice is indeed about finding a suitable husband to secure a good future, and woe be the woman who chooses wrongly. Jane Austen pulls no punches. In the famous first sentence, she tells you what her story is about. Me from the past (as John Green would say) cringes at this sentence.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

I’d harbored these resentments until last September at the Brooklyn Book Festival when I stumbled on the Jane Austen Society booth. If you want to see how passionate these people are about Austen’s novels, mention that you think her works are insulting to women. (Tip: Don’t do this.)

Those “Janeites” got to me. I began to soften. I received an annotated edition of Pride and Prejudice as a Christmas gift, and I devoured the 700 pages (including annotations) in days.

110824

The annotations certainly went a long way in shedding light on social customs and taboos of early-19th century England, things Austen’s contemporaries would have understood. The significance of various carriages, the nuances between addressing Miss Elizabeth Bennet and Miss Elizabeth, the fact that propriety dictated a man should not write to a single woman directly—all were made richer by reading this edition. The major plot point I’d thought unrealistic and manipulative—Elizabeth visiting Pemberley and “accidentally” running into Darcy—was commonplace. People often visited grand estates for tours, even when the owner was in residence.

With few exceptions, women in Austen’s day had little opportunity to improve their station in life. They couldn’t own property, couldn’t earn their own income, couldn’t change social class. They used the only agency they had available to them—saying yes or no to marriage. Austen makes sure we understand this by having Elizabeth refuse first Mr. Collins and then wealthy Mr. Darcy. This is her right. It makes her declaration all the more delicious: “I had not known you [Darcy] a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world I could be prevailed upon to marry.”

In Natalia Sylvester’s post about rereading Little Women, she writes, “Who we are inevitably changes how we read the books we love: suddenly I was catching bits of Louisa May Alcott’s feminism I hadn’t noticed as a young reader…”

In rereading Pride and Prejudice all these years later, I can see beyond my original indignation to a deeper understanding of the characters’ motivations. I am open to the idea that this novel is about much more than marriage and social class. Elizabeth Bennet is, in fact, enterprising. She is using the only means of influence available to her, and maybe in that sense she is a role model.

Do you reread stories? Have you ever had a change of heart? 

Other posts in the Why We Read series.

 

Advertisements

37 comments

      1. the funniest thing about Austen is that she had so little resources, she says the amount being some “ivory two inches wide” to spin such tales, which are a detailed record of life as it was then. Since you are on P&P might as well check out the movies? one is 6 hrs long, but pretty on point.
        Read Northanger Abbey or Mansfield Park for some scandals XD

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I think this was a great rereading and re-understanding of P&P. I didn’t like it the first time either. Then about ten years ago I saw it on stage at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, which somehow helped me get it more. There’s also a really good movie about Jane Austen (the one with Anne Hathaway as Jane) that shows how limited choices were for women, no matter how clever they were.

    Like

    1. As I reread this novel, I found myself becoming fascinated with Jane Austen’s life. The editor offered terrific insight into her personal letters and writing styles. I’ll have to check out that movie. Thanks for the tip!

      Like

  2. I loooove Pride and Prejudice and the Regency period in England is my favorite era. I was so jazzed to go to Bath, England a couple of years ago because that’s practically the Regency mother ship.

    The best thing about it, though, is how good a writer Jane Austen is. I find her characters delicious, especially Mr. Darcy, to whom no mere mortal man can ever measure up. And I admire Ms. Austen’s life and dedication to her craft – must have been very tough in those times.

    I so agree that books need to be reread at different times in our lives. Maybe I’m finally ready to like Hemingway – what do you think?.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. She is a terrific writer! I was so impressed with how Austen developed the characters — just wonderful! I’d like to read another Austen novel, but I’m not sure which one should be next.

      I’d be happy to recommend a Hemingway book for you, if you would recommend another Austen book for me! 🙂

      Like

    2. OMG! I was so excited to go to Bath too! Everything i knew about bath was through Austen’s words, and my mind was abuzz, much to the boredom of everyone who I literally dragged through one end of town to the other! i was in pure Austen heaven XD Regency England is so interesting! I thought no one could measure up to Mr. Darcy till i met Mr. Tilney. Now there’s a man who cud give Darcy a run for his money!
      Basically, you could read her novels a hundred times and still find something new to chuckle about.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Funny how we can read a book at one age, then reread it after life has taught us a thing or three, and then see it in a different light. I have always had a problem with Anna Karenina because the main characters frustrate and annoy me so much. But, in its historical context, maybe it makes more sense. Even Madame Bovary made me want to through it across the room as a twenty-something.
    Glad the Janeites got you in their clutches and turned you. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The annotations in this edition were wonderful! I’m so glad the Janeites recommended it. 🙂 The annotations really helped me understand the societal pressures and expectations of the time period. (Even the complicated details of property inheritance were finally clear.) With those insights, I could see how Elizabeth Bennet was somewhat defiant in standing her ground to marry a man with whom she had a real connection. I’m looking forward to reading more Austen!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I haven’t either. I think I’d have a much different take on it as an adult.
        was mentioning to Dana that I’m going to reread Catcher soon. That should be interesting! 🙂

        Like

  4. So fascinating! I remember feeling a little irked by all the marriage business in Jane Austen as well. I think I liked it more the more understood about the time period. This post makes me curious to reread the classics that I didn’t connect with as a college student because I imagine the experience would be different now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are some stories, I think would be better served for us to read as adults, once we have a little life experience. I had a very different relationship to The Great Gatsby reading it as an adult than when I read it in high school. I’m thinking about rereading Catcher in the Rye soon. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a great point, Judith. Having a little life under our belts really helps in understanding the complexity of many of these classic stories. It makes for a richer reading experience. i know that was true for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Jackie. Great topic! I have re-read several books that I love and fortunately I still love the books when I re-read them. Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, Ragtime…all improve as I age, revealing layers of nuance and meaning that I hadn’t realized before. But I haven’t yet tried to re-read a book that I didn’t like the first time. I guess that means I should give The Road another try???

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Catcher held up for me over time. Still a wonderful story. I think you’re right about The Road. It was just too dismal and had such a grim view of humanity that I couldn’t read more than a few pages–to be perfectly honest.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I had a hard time with The Road also. I was only able to finish by taking a writerly approach to it. I found it interesting that McCarthy never really shows us the big event. He only takes us through the aftermath.

        Like

  6. I’m not a reread but I’ve reread a few books. Mme Bovary for example. I hated it twice and loved it the third time – but only for craft reasons. I still really dislike the story. One couldn’t think of two heroines who are more different than Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Bovary.

    Like

    1. It has been a long time since I read Madame Bovary. College, maybe? I didn’t really connect with it back then. It might be time for a reread.
      It’s nice that you were able to find something to appreciate, even on technical merits. I remember that Flaubert did such good work in being able to generate interest even when nothing much is happening in the plot.

      Like

  7. Somehow I missed your last two posts.

    I love most of Austen’s novels. Oh, what women went through back then. I can’t imagine being so dependent on finding a suitable husband. Actually, I was shocked at how women were treated on Mad Men too. Not so long ago….

    Go see Blenheim–it’s amazing! I want to visit Castle Howard from “Brideshead Revisited” and of course, the estate from Downton Abbey. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

What's on your mind?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s