It had been a while since I’d digressed from my usual reading tastes. I did read, in my youth, a lot of modern American fiction but only occasionally in recent decades. As the writing of history and biography improved and that of fiction declined my reading interests went along with that change. It was the phrase a “novel of manners” that recently caught my eye. Of course, as a child, my mother had often reminded me to “mind my manners” perhaps that was a clue?
I had seen the phrase in reference to the writing of the famous early nineteen century novelist Jane Austin. I also knew that her work had undergone a great swell of interest in recent years with several popular movies and television shows. Perhaps now was the time to become acquainted. I checked my Nook and sure enough there was a free download of Austin’s novel Pride and Prejudice. I took the plunge and downloaded it……
The book was filled with fascinating dialogue to my contemporary American eye. The language of the English gentry was stultifying, and and cloyinly so, excessively, convolutedly polite. At first I found it quite off putting. Do I really want to read this? I plunged ahead. I did a little guilty laughing before it dawned on me that I was reading some seriously funny . Perhaps satire?. My wife the English teacher seemed a little put out at my laughing at what was a classic of English literature. Fortunately I kept quiet on that point That encouraged me to go on. Actually I was learning about class consciousness in a time and place far beyond my own experience. The only thing I could compare it too was my enjoyment in reading Mark Twins A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court.
From that point on I was enjoying my read more and more. Would the headstrong independent middle class minister’s daughter Lizzy find true love between the rich upper class snob, but truly good man she hated and the glib goldigging loser she was attracted to? All this was in the face of family and friends who were mostly no help at all. This was in all compounded by a culture which strongly frowned on marriage between the low and the high born.
This novel is considered one of the greats of English literature. Published in 1813, it's more than just about marriage and manners, it also raises the problem all great novels consider, the search for self. That search, we learn, can take place in the most confined of settings.
Austin forte surely must be exquisite characterization. The novel was full of them. There was too much pride and prejudice but I found it all most entertaining. Even more remarkable was the fact that Austin accomplished this entertainment in a story without heroes or villains. They were just interesting people with the usual blemishes of the human race. The plot was somewhat mundane but had more attention grabbing power than n your usual daytime soap opera. There was no big surprise at the end. Still, good job, Jane. Your “novel of manners” was indeed a classic and I liked it. My mom who always stressed minding those manners would be pleased ……
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