I signed up for a talk at my library on falling in love with classics and had to reacquaint myself with this book which I did for my O’levels literature when I was 16. I was curious too – how would reading this book as a middle-aged woman be like as compared to when I was a teenager? Would I identify more with Mrs Bennet than with Eliza? (Horrors!) I confess despite having this as an examination textbook, I didn’t read the original text but the abridged version which was used by my other classmates as non-examination text. (I was the privileged few in a Chinese school studying English as a second language to be given the opportunity to try taking English Literature in O levels. To Kill a Mocking Bird and Julius Caesar were the other two texts.)
As a 16-year-old fed on Mills and Boons romance, the English used by Jane Austen was indigestible. Writing in a detached manner in an omniscient POV also made me alienate to Elizabeth Bennet, the protagonist. I can’t help but remember what I learned as a writer to always show not tell, and how much this book was telling instead of showing. I finally understood the frustration when Darcy professed his love to Eliza again near the end of the book, not knowing she has a change of heart, ‘My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever.’ Here, I eagerly awaited her reply and his reactions, and wondered if they’d hug or kiss, but alas we were told, …that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present assurances. The happiness which this reply produced, was such as he had probably never felt before; and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do. It’s no wonder when Dr Gwee Li Siu, the speaker who was giving the talk, asked the audience who preferred the movie (with Kiera Knightly), my hand went up.
But I did enjoy the book and thanks to Dr Gwee, had a better understanding of the context and historical background and the characters. One particular lesson is how a sensible man such as Mr Bennet ended up marrying a silly woman such as Mrs Bennet and we are told that he was captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour, which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind, had very early in the marriage put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence, had vanished for ever; and all his view of domestic happiness were overthrown. So if a man wants a happy marriage, don’t be fooled by youth and beauty. But I couldn’t fathom how the same set of parents could bring up five daughters which such different values – two who are sensible and smart, and two others who are vain and silly.
The most enjoyable part of the book is at the last chapter when Elizabeth wanted Darcy to account for his having ever fallen in love with her and ‘interrogated’ him on why he hadn’t acted sooner. And here we find Darcy charmingly honest and unromantic in the exchange which I wished there were more of. Perhaps I would find it more to my liking reading Mr Darcy’s Dairy.
At the end of this edition of the book, there is a postlude written by a J.B. Priestley which I felt was a tad defensive on a book which some might criticise when compared to Tolstoy or Dickens. Priestley clearly admires Jane Austen as a superb artist in fiction. I can’t say I agree but thanks to Dr Gwee, at least I finally get to enjoy reading one classic.