We received the following missive from Gentle Reader Natalie, who gave us permission to post it for a Monday morning treat.
If you want to isolate the true wit and irony at the heart of Austen’s writing – the essence of why so many of us read her – give a copy of Pride and Prejudice to a seven-year-old, as I did with my daughter this summer. Always trying to set crazy goals for our lovely and talented, but oh-so-laid-back child, my husband and I reminded her that Emma Thompson was said to have read Jane Austen at age seven, so why shouldn’t she?
The following is what made my daughter laugh out loud and beseech me to listen to her read certain parts of the book: any scene with Mrs. Bennet; any scene with Mr. Collins (particularly the proposal scene with Elizabeth, which my kid found so embarrassing and humiliating that she could barely look at the words on the page without squinting one eye, as if trying to avoid a right hook to the face!); anything uttered by Lydia in self-promotion or competition with her elder sisters; the way Mr. Bennet constantly tries to avoid his own family; any scene with Lady Catherine de Bourgh (but particularly the final scene with Elizabeth, the quintessential volley match of words, with the heroine the indisputable winner after every serve!), and the way Kitty at the end of the book can’t even complete her walk into town with the newly-engaged couples, so terrified is she of Mr. Darcy. I realized that so much of what my daughter found funny captured the heart of family life for a knowing child on the cusp of really growing up: sibling rivalry, disillusioned and crabby married couples, the unfair comments of parents in attempts to discipline or mold their young, the despair we all feel for what will happen to those we love – and the attraction and fear of strangers to our lives, and its toll on the competing desires to self-protect or trust!
The actual final proposal scene between Elizabeth and Darcy skipped my kid right by, leading her to ask me when it was going to happen! I had to explain that the phrases “You are too kind to trifle with me…[sic]” and the responding “her sentiments had undergone such a transformation…[sic]” actually were tantamount to another declaration. This made her giggle – and me too, as so many people would currently try and have us understand that scenes like this are the only engine to these books, and therefore can be air-lifted and dropped into countless bodice-rippers and chick-lit parodies, with valuable enough results.
Through my seven-year-old, I rediscovered and confirmed for myself that my love for Jane Austen’s writing comes from a place inside my brain that values people who say it like it is (the very thing about Darcy from which Kitty runs in fear). I have always loved this about her voice, and I remember first reading these books as a teenager and wanting to grab Jane Austen in the corner of a school-dance and whisper about all the goings-on about me. Henry James never made me feel like that.