The Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge – to Longbourn and beyond!

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I always spend the winter holidays visiting the Bennets.  There is just something about Christmas, from the colder weather to the favorite foods to the visits from family, that just puts me in the mood for lively conversations, diverting observations, and of course, single men in possession of good fortunes wanting for wives.

When I read about the Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge, a call-to-arms of reading, watching, reviewing, and absorbing all things P&P, I immediately knew I had found a theme for 2013.  Various levels of participation are available but I readily chose the ‘Aficionada’ level and committed to consume 9-12 selections over this year.  The challenge for me may be to space all twelve out over the year!

I first met Jane in my sophomore year of high school in sunny Vista, California.  I had always enjoyed reading but it was a means to an end: I read whatever was assigned so as to secure my ‘A’ grade.  Pride and Prejudice literally changed my way of reading.  Suddenly I met characters that held some familiarity to me (who doesn’t have an embarrassing mother story, that creepy cousin that makes you hide, or that authority figure that both intimidates yet infuriates?).  For the first time I met an enigmatic hero with an intriguing combination of brooding intelligence, haughty reserve, and dashing good looks.  His ten thousand a year was certainly appealing, too.  The heroine turned out not to be the prettiest, nor the oldest, nor the loosest of the females: she was the cleverest.

Pride and Prejudice opened a literary window for me where I could peek in and see the words come to life in my mind’s eye.  So I happily embark on a year-long journey with Jane’s 200-year-old characters in all their varied manifestations, but I think it only fitting to start where it all began, with the original.

1 – January
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged that this story is one of the greatest results ever from an author putting quill to paper.  There is such a rich variety of characters and witty dialogue that the reader feels like a participating guest at each event in the novel.  I could picture Lizzy’s hem six inches deep in mud.  I physically moved to step on Caroline Bingley’s train when she took a turn about the room with Elizabeth at Netherfield.  I cringed when Mr. Collins improperly introduced himself to Mr. Darcy.  I rolled my eyes at Lady Catherine’s condescension.  I wanted to shake Mrs. Bennet by the shoulders (more times than I could count) when she alternately fretted and fawned over Wickham and Lydia.  The writing is just that good.

I especially like how Jane Austen painted her hero and heroine with good and bad attributes, just as three-dimensional people have both positive and negative aspects.  Elizabeth was witty and clever but she was also quick-tempered.  Mr. Darcy was reserved and proud but he was fiercely loyal and devoted.  I also think the good and bad sides to society were illuminated in the novel, with subtle castigations of entailment and class divisions weaving in and out of the story.

There is no ambiguity in the character of the “bad guys” in Pride and Prejudice, however.  I could not find even the tiniest redeeming quality in the two I identify as bad.  Mr. Collins was insipid and ridiculous in each appearance, even after the presumably steadying influence of his marriage to Charlotte.  George Wickham was the card-carrying definition of scoundrel and bounder, and seemed to worsen and sink to further illicit activities to achieve his goals as the story progressed.  I would also place Mrs. Bennet firmly in the “bad” category in that she embarrassed herself and her family, hindered the prospects of her daughters, and contributed nothing worthwhile to anything she attended.  She was necessary to the story and understanding of other characters, but I think her inanity and frivolity could be negatively classified.

I do not place Lady Catherine de Bourgh in the “villain” category; she simply is what she is.  Each character handled or suffered her in their own way, but no one fell victim to her and she perpetrated no schemes.  Her actions and words we mostly endured then ignored.  She’s that imperious aunt that tells you your hemline is too short and your makeup is too heavy that you grimace and nod at then summarily forget she spoke to you until next you see her.

I also do not label Caroline Bingley a “bad” character.  She is a sad little bully.  She tries to intimidate with passive aggressive statements that sound complimentary but are really derogatory and only end up revealing her own character as petty and peevish.  She talks over her brother in a domineering fashion that is a red flag to all males of that time period to stay away unless they want a shrew for a wife.  She is singularly self-centered to the point that she rationalizes her poor behavior and shortcomings rather than be ashamed of her actions.  Just like Lady Catherine I do not consider her villainous, just annoying.  I wanted to swat them both.

Overall I love the misunderstandings and misapprehensions that define the interactions of Elizabeth and Darcy throughout the story.  I love that Darcy’s quiet reserve leads Elizabeth to puzzle over his character several times, having decried once, “I hear such different accounts of you as puzzle me exceedingly.”  I love the verbal sparring they engage in, even when it leads to hurt and regret such as was felt by Darcy after his first proposal.  Pride and Prejudice is a ring-side seat to life: family, growing up, love, and heartbreak.  It’s a story I never tire of revisiting.

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