Saturday, March 2, 2013

Two Hundred Years of "Pride and Prejudice"

 Milan Kundera tells us that each great work of art and literature has its own inner voice and that its creator creates work while listening to the inner voice of his work.   It is this inner voice, the sum total of all the wisdom that human race possesses collectively, that drives and shapes   great works of art and literature.  Such works, therefore, hold a continuous  dialogue with successive generations of readers.  We call such works   "Classics".

Jane Austen's novel, "Pride and Prejudice", first published two hundred years ago in January 1813, is such a great classic.   Today, even after two hundred years of its publication, the novel entertains and speaks to the old and the young alike in the same measure as it did perhaps a hundred years ago.  Why has the novel   not   finished telling what it started telling two hundred years ago?

"Pride and Prejudice" is a story of   three or four marriages. There is nothing great about this; we have had better novels giving more insights into marriages since Jane Austen wrote this novel.  Moreover, there were women writers, some preceding her and others her contemporaries, who wrote on women's issues more eloquently and more competently. And many critics argue that George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte are better women writers, both in terms of style and literary merit, than Jane Austen.

And yet "Pride and Prejudice" is unique in its universal popularity, with more than a million copies being sold every year. A likely reason is that it was almost for the first time that a story of a woman was told by a woman with her own voice, with her inner womanly insight and in a style that could come only to a woman. The eighteenth and nineteenth century English prose had lofty, brilliant and literary style, the style that was fashioned by Gibbon and Dr. Johnson. And even women writers of that period could not escape being influenced by this style. Jane Austen may not have been a great writer of her times.   But she   developed a unique style of her own.  Austen’s unique style evolved as she tried writing   with insights and instincts of a woman.   And Jane Austen was creating a character that was trying to make a room of her own in a society that was so dominated by men. It took out the best in Jane Austen --satire, wit, humor and brilliance—as she portrayed a funny society in which her protagonist was trying to survive with dignity. That her prose scintillates with intelligent conversation at the dining table and in the drawing room may be another reason why she became so interesting and so readable. It is this brilliance that makes "Pride and Prejudice" greatly readable today. And it also makes this novel   a darling of the world of the movies and the TV.  During the last seventy years since the beginning of the movie and the TV, on an average one TV show or a movie on this novel was created every ten years or so. The BBC TV serial that was made in 2005 took the media by storm, and it generated great curiosity in the minds of the viewers about the nineteenth century English literature.

  And what does "Pride and Prejudice" describe? It portrays young women   in search of husbands. You also meet mothers and aunts in search of husbands for    their daughters and nieces.   Mrs. Benet, the worried mother of five daughters, is rightly obsessed with the project of marrying her five daughters in good families. And the young ladies, who want to get married, preferably with gentlemen with higher income, expect different things from marriage. The elder daughter, Jane Benet wants a simple marriage that would enhance her economic security and social status through marriage. Her friend Charlotte compromises and marries Mr. Collins, the clergyman, whom Elizabeth Benet had found quite detestable. And Elizabeth Benet, who secretly loves Darcy actually refuses to marry him once she believes, somewhat erroneously though, that he is too proud and that he had worked to break Jane's marriage with Mr. Bingley.   There are surely more and predictable complications in this comedy of marriages, with the pride and the prejudice ultimately making way for marriage.  Elizabeth Benet, Jane Austin’s heroin and protagonist, is conscious of her being a woman and wants security and status through marriage; but she also wants dignity and a space of her own in this world that is dominated by men. The novel is exploration of Elizabeth Benet’s search for security, dignity and a degree of freedom.  Elizabeth Benet, and her coming to terms with a world dominated by men, is appropriately sustained by her brilliant and scintillating dialogues and drawing table conversations. Jane Austin is at her best when Elizabeth Benet speaks and moves and thinks.

In 1929, Virginia Woolf wrote a beautiful essay “A Room of One’s Own”, in which she argued that women writers need to have economic freedom and a space and a room of their own. Without these, she argues, a woman cannot bring out her soul from within and pour it in her writing.  In this essay she reverts to a number of women writers with their stories. She keeps on coming to Jane Austen.   

Although Jane Austen was luckier than her other colleague women writers in that she received some encouragement from other members of her family, she still suffered from many disabilities as a woman writer. She had no room, no space of her own; she could use the study and the library only when men folk in her house did not use them.  She was often required to hide her manuscript from other members of her family because ordinarily women were not expected to write. Writing was a luxury that was allowed her and perhaps she was required to often acknowledge her “luxury” by hiding manuscripts.   She never married.  Whether in her father’s house as a young lady or as an established writer later when she stayed with her brother, Jane Austen did not have a room (a physical separate room) of her own. She wrote often in a passage in her house and perhaps did not complain much.

While we celebrate two hundred years of the publication of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, we should not allow ourselves to lose sight of the disabilities that restrained her creativity.  It is ordinarily believed that her literary oeuvre remained slight, with a tally of about six novels only, mainly due to the Anderson’s disease that claimed her life at a young age of forty two. But I believe it was mainly the pride and the prejudice of the society she lived in that largely kept her away from producing more literary works.

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