Reading notes: Pour one out for Jane Austen

I re-read Pride and Prejudice(Note: Or, to be exact, I listened to an excellent audio edition read by Kate Beckinsale, and also reread my favorite bits in my print copy.)last week. I find myself drawn back to that story every few years, and every time my experience is a little different.

It’s become one of my favorite books. The story seems deliberately ‘small’ — tightly focused and deceptively simple — which is one of the things I love about it. It struck me, on this last read-through, that the story takes place almost entirely inside Elizabeth Bennet’s head. It’s written in a close third-person perspective, so that we see everything from her point of view. And so much of Elizabeth’s journey, I realized, is invisible to everyone around her.

There’s a couple chapters in the middle of the book that floor me, every time. In Chapters 12 and 13, she reads a letter. As she reads (and rereads), Elizabeth changes her mind. She experiences a series of epiphanies that transform her in the space of a dozen or so paragraphs. It's such an amazing piece of writing.

The letter is from a guy named Darcy. Darcy is a complete ass and Elizabeth despises him. In the previous chapter, he had the nerve to propose marriage to her, delivering a super condescending, insulting speech about how he can’t help but fall for her despite her low status, poor social connections, and lack of wealth. Inside Darcy’s head, it probably sounds poetic and honest, and he’s confident she’ll say yes because he's really, really rich.

In Elizabeth’s ears, however, his ‘confession’ sounds like just another one of his endless dick moves. ‘He spoke of apprehension and anxiety, but his countenance expressed real security,’ she observes. She loses her temper. She burns down his entitled fantasy and spells out all the reasons why ‘You could not have made me the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it.’

Darcy slinks away but returns a little later. He hands her a letter that, he hopes, will explain his side of the story. Elizabeth opens it, reads it, and then rereads it, by my count, 4 or 5 times. She's pacing up and down a path in the woods, getting more and more agitated. With each new pass she makes on the letter, she reflects on a memory — a previous scene — and realizes she’s misunderstood some important aspect of it. It's entirely an internal monologue, but it reads a little like the concluding scene of a mystery novel, where Holmes or Poirot or Jessica Fletcher might assemble a complete narrative from all the evidence and testimony they’ve gathered.

By the time she's finished reading his letter, I think Elizabeth has a more complete understanding of what’s been happening than Darcy himself does. Elizabeth is a confidant of both Jane and Mr. Wickham, and she is now the only character who has heard first-hand accounts from each of their three points of view. With Darcy’s 'testimony', Elizabeth finally has the last piece she needs to complete the puzzle. It's a picture that only she can see.(Note: In that way, the last half of the book has an awful lot of dramatic irony going on. We see all the other characters, oblivious of what she knows, through her eyes. I think this helps drive home the disillusionment Elizabeth is going through.)

Although it’s a critical turning point in the plot, nothing happens, exactly. A woman reads a letter and walks. All the ‘action’ is in Elizabeth’s mind.(Note: It’s interesting to me that the film and TV adaptations usually don’t dwell on this scene in the same way the book does. I guess that makes sense: there's nothing to ‘see’, so they tend to move Elizabeth’s emotional tipping point to, say, the scene where she visits Darcy’s home. This is, I think, a lovely thing about books: they’re the only medium where you can go inside someone else’s head.)We watch as her point of view and understanding completely change — she sees her family, her friends, her neighbors, and Darcy himself differently.

In this way Pride and Prejudice feels like a bildungsroman — a coming-of-age story — stripped back to its most minimal form. There is no epic adventure or battle against an evil adversary. But by the end of the book, Elizabeth has become a more complex and mature character than the one we met on the first page. She has the same sense of humor, sharp wit, and love of rambling walks, but she now also has regrets; maybe a tinge of sadness; and she’s learned to trust her eyes less. She’s learned to search for complexity and layers of meaning.

When Elizabeth realizes that she’s misunderstood Darcy, she doesn’t go chase him down at an airport and proclaim her undying love, as she might have in the legions of rom-com stories this one inspired. Instead, she and Darcy go about their lives, watching one another from a careful distance for another hundred pages or so. Both reflect on their mistakes. Elizabeth begins to see the world around her in a new dimension; her regret seems to sharpen her awareness, as though she can see a new color. It’s an experience she can’t articulate, not even to her sister. She feels alone.

Darcy, meanwhile, is spurred to action by Elizabeth’s words; he looks for ways to make things right. No longer looking down his nose at her, he's striving to become someone she might admire. What’s that saying? The only person who deserves you is someone who thinks they don’t? By the last page, they each seem to have arrived at a place of gratitude and humility.

Pride and Prejudice is a deeply hopeful book, but it’s taught me a lot about how regret and joy go hand-in-hand. It’s a book filled with talking — people milling in crowds and groups of friends at dinner parties and balls and so on — but I think it has a lot to say about loneliness.

Maybe that’s what moves me so much every time I read it: it’s so hard for us to really see one another, but when we finally manage to, we can see ourselves better as well.