Before this month, I had never read anything by Jane Austen. There was no reason for that, other than I had never been required to in school. Sometimes the contrarian in me takes a perverse pleasure in having not read a book or seen a movie that is very popular (for example, I have never seen The Lion King, and probably couldn’t be convinced to at this point), but when it came to Pride and Prejudice, my inner contrarian was strangely silent.
I finished it last week, and I liked it. I can definitely see why so many Jane Austen fans are female: even though there is no first-person narrator, the story is definitely told from a woman’s perspective. In case you have been hiding under a rock, I will tell you that the plot centers on the Bennet family, which consists of a silly mother, a sensible (and quietly hilarious, I thought) father, and five daughters. The father’s modest estate is entailed, which means that none of his daughters may inherit it. This in turn means that they need to marry well if they want to ensure their future financial well-being (as a side note: entails sure do have dramatic possibilities, as the popularity of Downton Abbey can attest). The “pride” and “prejudice” of the title come mostly from the attitudes that Elizabeth Bennet, the second-oldest daughter, and Mr. Darcy, a very wealthy young man who comes into the Bennets’ circle of acquaintance early in the book, have toward one another.
I enjoyed this book a great deal. It has what all great novels have: a ring of truth. Even though the characters and events are fictional, the characters’ thoughts, emotions and actions are what real people would think, feel, and do in the same circumstances. That recipe for a great novel sounds simple, but anyone who has ever tried to write fiction knows how hard it can be. To be a good novelist, you have to know people extremely well. This trait isn’t all that common. But one way to fine-tune this trait is by reading great novels. Theologian Victor Shepherd says (in a lecture to a class full of seminary students):
The instrument that the best social scientist wields is a very blunt instrument compared to the instrument that a good novelist wields. A good novelist is a far finer diagnostician of the human situation than the best sociologist or psychologist. Therefore never, ever, ever neglect the reading of fiction.
Jane Austen was indeed a fine diagnostician of the human situation, which is I suppose why her novels have such enduring popularity. The cultures of early 19th-century England and the early 21st-century United States are very different, but the human situation doesn’t change. Even two centuries and an ocean apart, I can read Austen’s fiction and it feels familiar.