Today is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride & Prejudice but until quite recently I had never read any Jane Austen. I’m not sure I’d even seen any of the many adaptations. There, I’ve said it. I’m glad I’ve got that off my chest but I feel like I’ve confessed to some awful literary crime! What could possibly account for this gaping hole in my reading education? Snobbery, I think. I suffered from some of the flaws Austen’s characters themselves are burdened with! I just had this feeling she wasn’t for me – I was too busy reading what I thought were slightly cooler, non-mainstream books. I thought she was twee and god-forbid a bit too girly. Just thinking about this now makes me embarrassed. I should have listened to the advice I offer my children at tea time; “how do you know you don’t like it when you’ve not tried it?”
So what changed? A bookclub discussion happened, that’s what. It was just over two years ago if I remember correctly and I think we’d just read a totally awful book called The Jane Austen Book Club (really, it’s not even worth looking up), and we talked about the fact that in our long existence we’d not read any Austen ourselves as a group, although other members raved about her. I kept my Austen-esque thoughts to myself, vowing to rebel against any attempt to get her on our reading list. I don’t know what made me change my mind, but on new year’s day two years ago I picked up a battered copy of Pride & Prejudice I’d found on our bookshelf, but weirdly I don’t know where it came from – spooky. I know people say this sort of thing and you never quite believe them, but believe me when I say I was immediately hooked. When Mr FH found me glued to the sofa and asked what I was reading, I did that whole guilty look thing like a teenager caught in the act of reading Jilly Cooper and mumbled something about seeing what all the fuss was about. I read it late into the night for two nights running, before turning straight back to the start and beginning again.
Why did I have such an emotional response after having been so against the whole idea of reading Austen? I’m not sure really, several things could have contributed. I had such low expectations to start with, so was completely blown away by the precision of her writing. I hadn’t seen any of the adaptations to spoil the story for me, so had several heart-in-mouth moments waiting to see what may take place. It has a perfect story arc, characters change and develop through the chapters and despite only being a “poor female” Elizabeth Bennett is bright and quick-witted, if a bit infuriating. The supporting characters come alive on the page and remind you of kind, loyal, silly or annoying characters in your own life. And despite my own pride, at the end of the day it is the most romantic and timeless love story, I mean, who wouldn’t be won over by that?
Now I’ve read the book I’ve also caught up with the two more recent adaptations. You can’t really avoid the 2005 version with Keira Knightly and Matthew Macfadyen. It seems to be regularly on the TV, but after reading this great compare and contrast of the 1995 BBC series and 2005 film by BundleofBooks, I was persuaded to borrow the 1995 version from my library. Both are good in their own way, but the 1995 version steals it due to its more authentic take on the story. I hoped the BBC would repeat it for the anniversary, but it seems not.
In honour of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride & Prejudice Professor John Mullan filmed a short piece about our love of this book for The Culture Show last week which you can see here: Our love affair with Pride and Prejudice. If you are interested in a thorough and beautifully written 3-part review of Austen’s most famous work, then please head over here to Booksnob, who wrote an amazing post about it earlier last year. Another great source on everything Austen is Austenonly – full of fabulous information about the writer and her works.
I’ve re-read Pride & Prejudice at least twice since then and listened to the audiobook several times as an antidote to painting and decorating I had to get on with last year. I’ve also read all the other completed Austen books and now have a favourite and least preferred. Pride & Prejudice holds a special place in my heart as my first Austen, but I have to admit to Persuasion being my outright favourite but only by the slimmest of margins and after eight years of an Austen-free zone at bookclub we have chosen to read it later this spring.