Monday is the 200th anniversary of the publication of one of the most loved books in the English language, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Festivals and exhibits across the English-speaking world will be celebrating, yet one could also say that the book had only to be published for the celebrations to begin. Though the work not famous during her lifetime, reviews were favourable, its first printing quickly sold out, and almost immediately it was translated in France. Now, so many novels, films and adaptations – including fanfiction, zombie parodies and erotic version – have been birthed from its head, it's impossible to count them.
It was Austen's second novel to appear in the world (following Sense and Sensibility), and was published anonymously, as her other books were. She was 37 when it appeared, but she had written it as a much younger woman – over 10 months, when she was only 21. (She continued to revise it over the years.)
I didn't know much of this till this week. I'd never read Austen. (What can I say? We all have gaps in our reading.) The Austen adaptations I've enjoyed (like Clueless, based on Emma) felt ordinary to me. And I quickly forgot their plots (as I do).
So, when the Globe's Books editor dared me to pick up Pride and Prejudice, it was entirely fresh. Mind you, I didn't want to do it, had a busy week ahead, rebelled and protested. But it somehow seemed like fate; me and the book married at just the right moment, like an Austen heroine joining at just the right moment, with just the right man.
The phone rang while I was starting Chapter Four: Elizabeth and Jane are discussing the new men in town, who suddenly appeared at the ball.
To back up (for readers like me, who have somehow managed to avoid Austen), the plot revolves around the efforts of the Bennets, a relatively well-off rural family, to marry off their five daughters, the only way then to secure their futures. By this time, we have a good idea of the characters of the Bennets and of their daughters, especially Elizabeth and Jane.
The Bennets admire their wealthy new neighbour, Mr. Bingley, and praise him for his attentions to Jane, but are sore over the aristocratic, snobbish treatment of their younger daughter, Elizabeth.
It was with reluctance that I put the book down to listen to my friend, who had just returned from a date with a man she met online.
She called him "nice" several times, then said, "I am sure he will make some unsophisticated woman very happy."
Our conversation felt like a weird extension of the book. What has changed these past 200 years? (Except that my friend is nearly 40, and the girls in the novel, 18.)
I had lunch with a young British writer who had moved to Toronto from London, which he complained was too distracting socially. How strange! Eligible, attractive bachelors from London coming to town – like a Darcy and a Bingley! Does this happen often? Or am I only seeing it thus because I'm reading the book?
Over lunch, my writer friend and I talked – not, alas, about single ladies or the social circuit – but about Jane Austen. He read her all through school and loved her. "How does she make her characters so recognizable?" I asked. "Is it because they're archetypes?" – Darcy, the lordly, standoffish gentleman, or Mrs. Bennet, the flighty, calculating mother hen, or daughter Lydia, the silly, naive flirt?
He thought it was because of her "intimate third person" voice – how she enters each character's mind. We feel we know the mind and heart of Elizabeth Bennet intimately.
Whatver the case, Austen was proving hard to shake.
That morning, my boyfriend reminded me of the patriarch Mr. Bennett, what with all his joking around. In the evening, he seemed exactly like an aristocratic Darcy.
The last time I remember feeling this way, it lasted only 10 minutes. I was coming out of a Matthew Barney retrospective, and the artist's grotesque handling of the human body made everyone on the street seem fleshy and strange.
I know from writing fiction that we don't see the world and record it; we invent a world from the one we inhabit – which has few innate characteristics of its own. But it was impossible to deny the patterns Jane Austen painted, everywhere I looked. Did she hold the master key to the truth?
Or perhaps this is the gift of the greatest artists: Their vision is so fascinating that when you're not in their book (or painting, or film) you still want to be there, so you look at everything through their eyes – the same way we look through the eyes of the person we most love.
Austen's vision is just so convincing that I may be encountering my world differently; am seeing it through her eyes.
I've been distressed recently about the morality of writing "characters." Is it right for us to flatten people into "characters" in our work? Doesn't it encourage us to treat each other like objects, as opposed to the more mutable beings we feel ourselves to be from the inside?
Yet so much of the conversation in Jane Austen's world is about what other people are like. It's not a novelistic invention: This is how we see each other – as characters – if not how we feel. And isn't a novelist fundamentally a human, looking at humans from the human point of view? I guess I've been searching for a more radical view: for instance, how might a human look to a molecule? But a novelist is not a molecule. She's a human, looking.
Next stop: Kingston
Train to Montreal. I read the book, eagerly, the whole time.
What would Jane Austen think of this too-psychological world, where we believe ourselves to be our personal histories, the grown accidents of messed-up childhoods? She knew that life is not about who we are alone, but who we are in relation to others.
Pride such as Mr. Darcy's can prevent us from truly seeing ourselves, but our judgments of others matters too (their fates depend on it). We also have to watch for prejudice in seeing others, which is nearly the clever, skeptical Elizabeth's undoing. But which is better? To be discerning, yet risk harshness, like Elizabeth, or "never see a fault in anybody," like the good-hearted Jane? I'm so curious to see which side Jane Austen will come down on.
Elizabeth is castigating herself for misjudging Darcy. In novels, characters only learn a lesson once, but in life, we never stop learning our lessons.
If Elizabeth were a real person, her humiliation with Darcy would be repeated with other men and other women – yearly, monthly, daily. Or it would be repeated with Darcy, over and over again. She might castigate herself, as she does in the book, but she would inevitably repeat her error. (Don't we always have the same fight with our spouse? But couples in books seldom do.)
To me, this is the biggest and best fantasy of this novel – not that lovers end up matched, but that a lesson can be learned.
The greatest novels make you want to be a better person, but they never quite provide the recipe; life is too complex. And in Pride and Prejudice, even the one who judged wrongly, Elizabeth, is rewarded with the love of the one she misread. Actually, there are four marriages: Everyone is rewarded with love, however silly or flawed they may be. That is a nice thing to feel, closing up this brilliant book: that even if our lessons are never fully learned, we can still be rewarded with love.