So I’ll admit it: It took me until I was 24 and a half to read any Jane Austen novel, let alone the most famous of her works (though I’m reliably informed that Persuasion is actually better). In my defence, I’m a boy, so during my adolescence, I didn’t have inclination to read old books about relationships, nor did I feel the need to jump on any book in the so-called Western Canon that was written by a woman? I’d read Jane Eyre, surely that would be enough? Yes, I know, I was an idiot.
Now that I’ve read it, what did I think? Surprisingly, I liked it. I mean, you’d expect a book still being read 200 years (and almost exactly five months at the time of reading) after its publication wouldn’t be appalling, but I’d always assumed that it couldn’t be as enjoyable as it eventually turned out to be. Much of this rests on the shoulders of the protagonist. I went in expecting Elizabeth to be something of a wet rag in the same vein as Cathy Earnshaw, and so to find a witty, sarcastic and even independent girl was a pleasant surprise.
I must admit however, that these surprises were in fact still, surprises, even though I knew the plot very well already. How? Well those of you that follow me on Twitter will have seen, I recently (right before reading the book) discovered the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice in Vlog form. There are a few changes beyond the superficial ones such as relocating it to California and halving the number of Lizzie’s sisters), mostly relating to the more the minor character Charlotte becoming having a much greater role and Lydia Bennet’s eventual fate. These are were enough to keep me guessing when it came I was reading the original text, as I still kept expecting Lydia to come to her sense. The biggest surprise was finding that 18th century Lizzie is actually very similar to 21st Century Lizzie personality wise. Even if you’ve no particular interest in Pride and Prejudice, I’d still recommend watching the Lizzie Bennet Diaries (starting here!), as it is a very good example of how to adapt old stories for today. For one thing, it’s not just transposed to a high school setting, which is always a good thing, but more importantly they manage to get the balance between what to change and what keep pretty much spot on.
The one thing I did come away from Pride and Prejudice thinking, was whether or not the responses that I had to the characters and situations are the ones that Austen wanted her readers to have. Would 18th century readers have felt that Mrs Bennet was absolutely crazy, or that Mr Collins is a complete buffoon? I expect they would, but would it be for the same reasons? Maybe not. However, they definitely wouldn’t have been confused about the scandal around Lydia though, which I was (spoiler: it’s basically because she slept with a boy!), but in my defence, this is only implied in the text.
It does get a little rough going at times, and while I did like it, I definitely didn’t love it. Possibly this can be attributed to the way the Lizzie Bennet Diaries presented the story, but more likely it’s because two centuries removed from it’s publication, it’s become at once dated and universalised. Still, you shouldn’t write it off, if only because of its importance to the development of English literature.