‘Pride and Prejudice’ and the perils of (mis)reading

We love Elizabeth and Darcy because they’re not open books.

With the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice this week, serious scholars and fangirls alike have been explaining why this book endures, why culture is compelled to revisit it almost ad nauseam. There are all the movie and TV versions and adaptations faithful and fanciful. The Bollywood one. The Mormon one. There are the approximately fifty-zillion erotic sequels that feature Mr. Darcy giving Lizzy Bennet a taste of his ungentlemanlike manner. There are scholarly books, pop-scholarly books, and children’s pop-up books. Why all the fuss?

It’s the quintessential romantic comedy, some will note—boy meets girl, misunderstandings ensue, then get patched up. Others will mention the smoldering looks of various Darcy screen incarnations (I’ve made my preference for Colin Firth a matter of record). Sophisticated types will note Austen’s symmetrical plot construction (two proposals! six couples!), her pioneering use of prose techniques like free indirect speech.

All true. But what gets me most riled up about Pride and Prejudice is contained in the experience I once had getting to know the snobby-seeming Darcy along with Lizzy—and realizing how wrong I was along with her. From its very first pages, this novel engages not merely with love, sex, family and money, but with the notion of reading—how we read each other, how we read art, and how pathetically encumbered by our own egos we are in both endeavors.

Have you ever looked differently at a job prospect or an acquaintance after you found out how they felt about you, knowledge that swung your own feelings violently one way or the other? If so, you’re probably human, and Jane Austen knew you well.

Austen’s popularity can partly be explained by this: readers have a sense that her characters are “real.” As E.M. Forster would tell us, that means they can surprise us. We argue with each other about whether Emma would appreciate OKCupid and whether Lizzy would Occupy Wall Street.

Case in point: no consensus has ever really arisen as to whether Lizzy is being ironic, flippant or serious (or all three) when she declares she fell in love with Darcy upon seeing his property at Pemberley. And even if we acknowledge that she is a little in earnest, what does she mean? Is it the economic comfort, or Darcy’s aesthetic taste,or his kindness to his servants, or realizingjust what he was willing to offer her with his marriage proposal (“To be mistress of Pemberley might be something”)?

In my younger days, once I became converted to the cult of “Lizzy + Darcy = True Love” I was convinced Lizzy was being facetious. Now, with rent due each month, I’m less sure. Austen’s lack of psychological oversharing, the restraint which allowed her hint at female desire, beckons us into the text. Our own biases lead us to declare that Lizzy Bennet does not give a whit about money, or that in fact, she’s finally learned to appreciate its value.

Of course, human interaction itself is groping in the dark, unraveling other people’s behavioral clues with the sole tools we have: our own experience. Austen mimics this quite brilliantly (let’s face it, she does everything brilliantly). The mystery at the center of Lizzy’s mindset is the same mystery we find when we encounter our friends, partners, parents and colleagues—whose thoughts remain mostly shut off from us unless we’re their extremely talented therapists. That’s why Austen’s characters seem real: she gives us just enough to think we get them, but not enough to see all the workings of their hearts and minds.

Perhaps this sense of mystery also explains the ten zillion sequels that try to fill in Austen’s blanks.

Lizzy herself struggles to read others without projecting her own emotions into the gaps she finds. She can’t understand her best friend Charlotte’s attitude towards marriage, for instance, because it’s different from hers—even though Charlotte has been explicit about her own pragmatic approach. Lizzy claims to be a “studier of character” (in Mr. Bingley’s words) and when dancing with Mr. Darcy she demands information to help her with “the illustration of his character.” He begs her not to, but she presses on, primed to hate him. After all, what was her very first impression of him? His oft-quoted diss: she is “tolerable, I suppose.” Lizzy would have had to try mightily to be objective in her study.

After Lizzy turns the tables and rebuffs Darcy’s first marriage proposal and he writes her a letter defending himself, she begins to un-read, or re-read, Mr. Darcy. Her second “first impression” is that he wants to elevate her: mistress of Pemberley. Her pride compels her to view him in a friendlier light.

At Pemberley, Lizzy spends a prolonged period gazing at Darcy’s portrait, just feeling all the things. This is a sexually charged scene, but it also offers a meta-commentary (Yes, Austen was meta!) on the “portraits” the author herself draws of her characters. Paintings and words alike are flat and artificial things as the postmodernists—and apparently Austen, too—would remind us. But they’re lent animation by the reader, the life and experience we bring to the page.

Basically, Jane Austen knew we were going to tote our own pride and our prejudices right along with us during our encounters with her characters. This includes the satire-worthy readers who think that they are nothing like Austen’s objects of satire, the lovelorn readers who think that every man who sneers at them secretly wants to marry them, those dudes who are embarrassed to read one of the greatest novels of all time because…corsets. All this would have been anticipated by Austen because to her, achieving happiness meant a journey towards becoming better readers, and reading well means understanding ourselves. And well, we all stink at that.

So we will stumble and make mistakes and horribly misread each other, and that’s the stuff that compelled Austen as a writer. Because how diverting it is! As Lizzy herself says, “intricate characters are the most amusing.”

New Yorkers: come chat about this novel—and screen the 2005 adaptation—tonight at the 92Y Tribeca.