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The Joy of Reading Jane Austen 9 February 2006

Posted by ABD in ABD, Arts, Relationships, Reviews.

by ABD

Jane Austen is one of my favorite authors, and Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite books. There, I’ve said it. I’m hardly alone, but I recognize that I have more sisters than brothers standing with me on this one.

Janissaries like me are so drawn to this woman because she opens a window into another, richer world. The drama of Pride and Prejudice depends on the insights and perceptions of its characters, and on the delicacy with which they make or lose their point. Here is a textured vocabulary with which to communicate without being too direct, rude or crude in matters that require sensitivity. Take for example the grace with which Eliza Bennet’s refuses Mr. Collins’ suit, or the wit with which she nettles Mr. Darcy without shaming him.

It’s almost a guilty pleasure. To be fair, there is something very artificial about this comedy of manners. We are invited into the drawing rooms of an idle class of tea-drinkers and piano-players who can afford to learn fourteen different ways to flirt with someone without being crude. The greatest distance that an Austen novel runs is from ettiquette to courtship and back. To drive this point home, we can invoke as great a literary authority as Mark Twain (my brother is certainly more than willing to):

Everytime I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.

From his own criticism, however, it would seem that even Mr. Twain has read Pride and Prejudice several times (Janissaries who have worn their copies into vintage editions can take solace here).

Muslim readers in particular can be gratified that a world of rules does not take fun out of the game. Modesty is celebrated rather than ridiculed in Pride and Prejudice. Lydia (the younger sister who runs off with bad boy Wickham) would be a wonderfully three-dimensional figure in a contemporary novel, but Austen has no sympathy for her. Moreover, we (re)learn that elders can be a moderating influence on young women and men. Note how gently Eliza’s aunt speaks to her about the impropriety of an otherwise desirable relationship. Even the failure of the Bennets to be good parents points to the need for more, not less, chaperoning. Strict guidelines on what is or isn’t appropriate can set up obstacles, but they also protect us–from each other and from our own selves. As we know from our Prophet (saw):

Every deen has an innate character. The character of Islam is modesty. (narrated by Zayd ibn Talha, transmitted by Malik)

In the Austen game, the smartest and most sensible girl wins. Jane is prettier, Catherine Bingley is richer and Lydia is looser, but it is Eliza that walks away with the biggest prize.

To repeat, we shouldn’t be fooled by Austen–this is a romanticized view of a world that no longer exists. We are at least twice removed from it–by fiction and by time. But literature can teaches as much by absence as it does by presence. If things turn out wonderfully for Eliza by the end of the novel, only the most careless reader forgets how easily they might not have. (Lest we forget, Jane Austen never married.)

Or take the more difficult question of “Where’s Darcy?”. Darcy is harder to find than Waldo, but somehow men are less disturbed by this than women are. Sure, the average guy has less invested in being the ideal man than the average girl is in finding him. But there may be something more fundamental at work here. As Robert Bly writes in Iron John: A Book About Men:

The European novel, a lovely phenomenon of the last two centuries, has taught more than one contemporary woman what a rich reservoir of impulses and longings she has in her soul that can be satisfied or remain unsatisfied. Few women say now, “The boundaries of my life are my husbands.” or even think it. A twentieth-century woman feels complicated sensibilities in herself that no ordinary or mortal man meet.”

Beer nuts can’t compete with complicated sensibilities. I realize that even as I am defending the male character, I feel obliged to caricature it. But that will have to wait for a later discussion. Suffice it to say that while men have something to learn from Darcy, women can also learn something from the gap between him and most men–even the good ones.

Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was the first book read by the Iqra Book Club this semester.



1. The Turk - 9 February 2006

Mark Twain was a smart man.

“Everytime I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

I love this quote. Mark Twain was a character.

While, I agree with a world with rules and modesty etc. would be nice.

However, you forget the double standard. All these man had their clubs and women of lower standards. Modesty and virginity was only enforced for these so called high class women.

Men had mistress and brothels etc. So its not true to the times it tries to represent.

2. Baraka - 9 February 2006

The novels of Jane Austen & Edith Wharton always intrigued me because they represent social mores that are still at large in Pakistan. The obsession with class, wealth, & marriage thrives, but unfortunately a pretty woman will probably win out over a sensible one these days.

3. ABD - 10 February 2006

baraka: a pretty woman is easier to spot than a sensible one. austen is very aware of this: eliza is attractive as well as intelligent, mature and all those good things. to darcy, however, eliza’s mind is the decisive consideration. i wonder how a pakistani darcy (dawood?) would be able to identify the same in a pakistani eliza (aleena?). aunties aren’t as reliable in this department…

4. skarim - 11 February 2006

assalam alaykum –

i’m not sure i agree that this world doesn’t exist anymore. i find that in muslim circles there is an unnamed social construct that comes into being (or already exists?), with its own set of rules, when it comes to relationships between males and females: reminiscent of what austen portrays in her books, perhaps stemming from the huge role modesty plays in our faith. this is especially true when people enter into a relationship – they often find themselves working within a whole new system of “rules” that may not have been part of their upbringing or culture, but now is imposed upon them by family, friends or the general muslim community around them – and sometimes even by oneself.

i feel this is a reflection of a larger cultural phenomenon where muslims are constantly debating over what is appropriate and what is not appropriate within this set of islamic/muslim cultural “rules”. one doesn’t have to look any further than a typical MSA-setting to see it in action, where confusion abounds as to what different gestures and signals mean – be it in the segragated circles or the not-so-segregated ones.

further, i agree with baraka that the phenomenon as sketched by jane austen is still quite prevalent in some muslim countries. stories from friends in pakistan sketch pictures that often remind me of austen’s society: there still exists the idle-class of chai drinking single women for whom the ultimate highlight of the week is the trip to the local shopping mall, and ultimate highlight of the year are the summer and winter wedding seasons, for which they spent months prior designing their outfits (even if not for their own wedding).

in short: i disagree. :)


5. VARANGALI - 12 February 2006

Assalam Alikum,

I do not believe that the world of Pride and Prejudice exists today, just as it did not exist in 1811, when the novel is set. It cannot exist where human beings are involved.

Abd captures the one-dimensional nature of Austen’s characters well: “Jane is prettier, Catherine Bingley is richer and Lydia is looser…” This description captures both the primary characteristic of each and their reason d’etre in the novel.

Like in a Medieval morality play, each non-essential character is but a symbol that defines the main character. Eliza is not as pretty as Jane, not as rich and snotty as Catherine Bingley, and not as imprudent and immodest as Lydia. Throw in a bit of wit, and we now know Eliza.

Wickham and Catherine Bingley may as well be accompanied by spooky music whenever they come into the scene; characterization in this novel is that close to a Bollywood flick. There are good people (Darcy, Eliza, etc) and there are bad people (Wickham, Catherine Bingley, etc), and this novel is a comedy (in the Greek sense) because the good people win, and the bad ones lose.

Jane Austen does her readers a disservice by keeping her characters one-dimensional. She does break tradition, however, when she provides her two main characters with facetious flaws: Darcy has pride, and Eliza prejudice. But just in case the novel just got too complex, Austen alerts the reader by titling the novel Pride and Prejudice.

What makes Anna Karenina so compelling is that good people make the wrong decisions for justifiable reasons, and the complexity of human relationships necessitates conflict that is both wrenching and thought-provoking. The key insight in Pride and Prejudice is not in the novel, but in the reader: what is it in us that searches for a world of black and white, where the gray of real life is banished and forgotten?

6. Maryam - 18 February 2006

d’you know what its looking like to me Abd?

I’m quoting you here:

“i wonder how a pakistani darcy (dawood?) would be able to identify the same in a pakistani eliza (aleena?). aunties aren’t as reliable in this department…”

Its looking to me like you’re trying to ascertain the same thing… If so, here’s a simple suggestion. Talk to her. :)

7. ABD - 20 February 2006

(smiling) this is an academic discussion. but thanks for the advice, mrs. gardiner.

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