Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Book Review: Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Elizabeth Bennet.
Yes, it's taken me this long to get around to reading Austen. I tried once or twice many, many years ago, and I'm pretty sure I bailed on those attempts on the basis that nothing great or interesting could be written about a group of women obsessed with finding husbands. I don't think I've made such a rash literary misjudgment in my life. I'm not going to launch into a full-blown synopsis and analysis of Pride and Prejudice, because God knows there's more than enough of those to go around, but I will throw in my two cents worth on what struck me most forcefully about the novel.

First off, I don't think I've ever read a novel that manages to be equally superb in terms of  plotting, prose and characterization. Pride and Prejudice has many moving parts, changes of direction, and plots and counter-plots. Purely on the basis of storytelling this is an amazing achievement, but to then add in so many beautifully realized, iconic characters described in witty, playful prose is nothing short of miraculous. I can think of a variety of novelists who've mastered two out of three of these qualities, but all three? It's a very short list.

The other thing that struck me was that Pride and Prejudice has some of the characteristics of espionage fiction. Let me explain. A great deal of the story revolves around what could be called intelligence work or spycraft. Elizabeth Bennet is constantly trying to ascertain the motives, actions and goals of, well, just about everyone, including people in her own family. And to accomplish this she debriefs and interrogates people, analyzes intelligence reports (letters), tries to see through disinformation campaigns, and works to uncover double agents like Caroline Bingley. Elizabeth's role as a Regency Geroge Smiley gives the novel the same narrative drive as a spy thriller. It's as though Darcy is a Great Power and a variety of individuals are working feverishly to make him an ally or turn him into an enemy of another individual. Here's a couple of passages that give a taste of Elizabeth's role as a spymaster:

"After wandering along the lane for two hours, giving way to every variety of thought; re-considering events, determining probabilities..."

"...and my dear aunt, if you do not tell me in an honourable manner, I shall certainly be reduced to tricks and strategems to find out."

And indeed she does strategize and determine probabilities, so much so at times that part of the pleasure of the novel is watching, as it were, the wheels turning in Elizabeth's head as she plans her next move or tries the to see through the "fog of war" and gauge what the opposition is up to. Now if only the novel had ended with this postscript: Elizabeth Bennet Will Return In...


Peter Rozovsky said...

I just think its opening scene is one of the funnest and most penetrating ever set down on paper.

Cary Watson said...

Agreed, and Austen manages to maintain that level of excellence all the way through. I particularly liked the way she handles Lydia; society judges her harshly, but it's clear Austen does not.