On Reading Pride and Prejudice for the First Time

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.

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March 2010: Books Read

1. Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain. I’m a big fan of Mark Twain. As a fan of Twain’s, I have already read his most well-known works, like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I have also read Roughing It, Life on the MIssissippi and an awful lot of his essays. It was about time, then, that I got around to reading Puddn’head Wilson.

It was not bad, but clearly there is a reason why this is not among his most-read stuff. It is about two children who were switched as infants, with one being raised as the scion of a wealthy family and the other being raised as a slave. The plot was interesting enough, but for a “mystery,” the ending was not at all surprising. The characters were not as compelling as in some of his better work. And this book was written in the 1890s, when Twain was becoming more and more of a cynic – as can easily be seen in the epigraphs at the beginning of every chapter. Though he was still talented, his later work is, with some exceptions, just not as entertaining to read.

2. Jane Austen (Christian Encounters Series) by Peter Leithart. Reviewed earlier here.

3. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William T. Cavanaugh. This is an excellent, short work on the interaction between Christianity and economics. It is made up of four essays, and is only 103 pages long. Cavanaugh is Catholic, and draws mainly on Catholic theologians, but his theology is not so distinctly Catholic that other Christians can’t benefit from his insights.

Cavanaugh critiques the definition of economic freedom as only “freedom from” and proposes instead that economic freedom ought to be “freedom for” participation in community and realizing our humanity more fully. He also critiques consumerism, globalization and the economics of scarcity. It is simultaneously a quick read and a dense read, and unfortunately I read it over a month ago and can’t describe its arguments with the nuance they deserve. It is a book well worth picking up, though.

4. The Glory of Preaching: Participating in God’s Transformation of the World by Darrell W. Johnson. I studied preaching under Johnson at Regent College, so it was no surprise that I found much to agree with in this book. He honed the material for this book in his preaching classes, so a lot of it was not new.

What is unusual about this book, as over against most other books about preaching, is Johnson’s confidence in the biblical text. That is not to say that other books on preaching are not confident in the Bible to change people’s lives. It is unusual, though, for a writer to say, as Johnson does, that when the living God speaks, something ALWAYS happens. Another unique thing about this book is that Johnson thinks preachers are not responsible for applying the text to people’s lives. I remember, when I was in preaching class, that some students pushed back on this. Johnson was adamant, though. Preachers can imply what the text means – they can state the truth that the text leads us to. But applying – that is, telling people what particular things they ought to do – is the job of the Holy Spirit.

This is a wonderful book, and one that I will return to over the years.

5. The Cross of Christ by John R. W. Stott. I decided that during Lent this year, in addition to fasting from something, I would read something that led me to focus on Jesus. I’ve had this book on my shelf since my time at Regent, and it is as good a book as any to accomplish that goal.

There isn’t a lot that I could say about this book, aside from saying that it is a classic work on what Jesus’ death meant and means. If you are interested in learning more about what Jesus’ death accomplished, this is the first place to turn.

Book Review: Jane Austen by Peter Leithart

I have never read a Jane Austen book. I love to read, and I’m sure I would enjoy her novels, but I have just never gotten around to it – though she is one of my wife’s favorite authors.

So when I had the chance to read a short biography of her, I jumped at the chance. I saw it as a way to “prime the pump,” as it were. This book by Peter Leithart, in the Christian Encounters series from Thomas Nelson, did not disappoint. Though Austen did not live an outwardly eventful life, Leithart does a good job of mining her correspondence and the reminiscences of friends and family members to paint a picture of a woman who had a gift for observation and storytelling, a strong sense of humor with a satirical bent, and a sincere (though reserved) Anglican faith. I especially appreciated Leithart’s pointing out that Austen intended for her works to be instructive without being overtly moralistic. Throughout the book, and especially in the first chapter, the reader can get bogged down trying to keep straight the names of many of Austen’s relations and friends. However, the publisher has taken pity on the hapless reader by including an appendix of names in the back.

In all, this book made me more interested in reading Austen, so that I can more fully understand the fascination that she has exerted over readers for two centuries.

(Thanks to Thomas Nelson for a review copy.)