I’ve been reading Austen since childhood, and I am only half joking when I say that if you put me under light hypnosis, I could probably recite Pride and Prejudice word for word in its entirety. Between what the novels have taught me about writing and about life – and especially about the profound, delicate and sometimes painful interdependencies of family life – writing Reading Jane Austen felt a little like downloading a significant chunk of my mind and personality onto the page.
I first read Pride and Prejudice when I was eight or nine, and I still believe that I understood most of it very well then, with two major exceptions.
One was the novel’s dismissive treatment of Mary Bennet and her pretentions to intellectual distinction. As a bookish child, I did not see why the novel should be so critical of Mary’s pronouncements and preferences, and it took reading other novels of the period in my twenties – I am thinking especially of books like Elizabeth Hamilton’s Memoirs of Modern Philosophers and Amelia Opie’s Adeline Mowbray, both of which more centrally examine women with intellectual aspirations who neglect the real virtues and ethical obligations of daughterhood or motherhood for quixotic programs of inappropriate reading – for me to understand that this character represents Austen’s relatively late take on a well-worn critique of some of the more common distortions of female learning.
The other thing I didn’t fully understand, something that more profoundly limited my full comprehension of the book, was the harshness of the novel’s ultimate verdict on Mr. Bennet. Mr. Bennet is a likeable figure, for the most part; Elizabeth loves him dearly and wants to protect him against the judgment of others. But especially as we get to the end of the novel, the narrator shows us more clearly what the costs to his family have been, even beyond the failure to save money and protect his daughters’ futures, of his laziness and negligence. “Had Elizabeth’s opinions been all drawn from her own family, she could not have formed a very pleasing picture of conjugal felicity or domestic discomfort,” the chapter begins (PP II.19, 262). Mr. Bennet has reconciled himself to the consequence of his ill choice of a wife:
Elizabeth, however, had never been blind to the impropriety of her father’s behaviour as a husband. She had always seen it with pain; but respecting his abilities, and grateful for his affectionate treatment of herself, she endeavoured to forget what she could not overlook, and to banish from her thoughts that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible. (PP II.19, 262–63)
It is a strong judgment: a salutary reminder, too, that Pride and Prejudice develops its picture of what a marriage between Elizabeth and Darcy might be by way of an unrelenting sequence of bad marriages. As a writer, Austen is perhaps even more sensitive to the pains than the pleasures of close family relationships, and part of my goal in Reading Jane Austen was to highlight the sharp insights her novels offer into the nature of our most intimate bonds.