Saturday, January 01, 2011

Pride & Prejudice, Volume I, chapter 1

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

And so we begin. A few bits of housekeeping. Firstly, I will refer to the book by Volume and chapter number, but once we hit the second Volume (from the original three-volume novel - if you are interested and don't already know it, you can read all about three-volume novels in this post I put up for Sense & Sensibility.) Secondly, I am not going to assume you've all read the book or seen some movie version of it - more on those in a later post, by the by - and I will not deliberate post spoilers, but I do want to talk about Austen's craft a bit as we go along, which means that I may reference matters from other parts of the novel, including some that we have not yet read. Savvy?

For example, I want to look at those first two sentences again, in order to look at what Austen manages to do here. I feel a list coming on.

1. Austen immediately sets an ironic tone. She has invoked a reference to a quote from Dr. Samuel Johnson, whose works were well-known and widely read in her day. (Austen once referred to him as "my dear Dr. Johnson" in a letter to her sister.) This sort of sly humor will continue throughout the novel, sometimes spilling over into something more rambunctious.

2. While Austen is pointing fun at the social-climbing mamas and daughters of the world, there is a kernel of truth at the core of the statement. (As is the case with the best sorts of humor.)

3. Although Austen invites the reader to laugh along with her here, she has just told you what is going to happen in the novel. It's the entire plot of the book, in one short, pity, ironically funny sentence.

In fact, two single men of good fortune are going to turn up at the same time - the amiable Mr. Bingley (with 5,000 pounds per year to his name) and the rather proud Mr. Darcy (with 10,000 pounds per annum and a large estate in Derbyshire). And Mrs. Bennet is immediately going to determine that Mr. Bingley (the one who has leased Netherfield Park) must marry Jane. And so he shall, although not without loads of other things happening in the interim to prevent such a thing from happening, just as Mr. Darcy will marry Elizabeth Bennet. (Seriously, if this is news to you, I can only surmise that you have been living under a rock since pretty much everyone in the wide world knows that Darcy and Elizabeth are a couple, even if they haven't read the book or seen a movie.)

4. The first line may be ironic, but it's also true - both of the well-to-do men we meet at the start are actually in need of a wife. (The phrase "in want of" means that they need a wife and are lacking one.) Turns out they both actually want a wife, and that not only society but they themselves believe that they actually need a wife.

Presenting Mr and Mrs Bennet

The couple that puts the fun in dysfunctional.

Eventually, we will learn why Mr Bennet married Mrs Bennet in the first place, but for now, it's hard to fathom. She's a frivolous,over-the-top, hypochondriacal drama queen who isn't all that smart, so why any sensible man (meaning one with intelligence and good sense, not one governed by his feelings, for those of you who were along for the Sense & Sensibility ride) would pick her is beyond me. Thus far what we know about Mr Bennet is that he delights in thwarting his wife's wishes. Or, as Austen's narrator sums up for us:

Mr Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.
You can see some of how this scene was adapted for the BBC production - moving the Bennets out of their sitting room and into the open air, with their children in tow, and finding a way to work at least part of the opening line of the book into dialogue:

Tomorrow: Chapter 2

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