True confessions of a Janeite (aka I LOVE Pride and Prejudice)
At dinner out with girlfriends a few nights ago I was shocked. A wonderful woman and one whom I love dearly, told me she hadn't read Pride and Prejudice.
Not only that, she had started it And Given Up.
I looked at her, amazed. "For real?" I said. I turned to the woman across the table, also a good friend and a clever, wise person. "You've read it, surely?" I asked. She's a great reader and I drool when I see her bookshelves. (Oh for two months on my own in her house...)
"I've only read it in the last five years," she confessed. This would be a reasonable excuse if she were only twenty years old. But she is not. She is forty. Forty, I tell you.
My relationship with Elizabeth Bennett goes back. Way back. Back to when I was 12 and was given (thank you, thank you, thank you unknown benefactor, whoever you were) an abridged version of Pride and Prejudice. I gobbled it up. It became my favourite book and I read it constantly for months. I even took it on holidays with us, which just proves it's status as top book in my life at the time because when our family of five went on holidays in our tiny Suzuki jeep which did not have even enough room for three bottoms on the very tiny back bench seat, my dad gave us about six square inches of luggage space each.
"This much and no more," he decreed. "If it doesn't fit in that shoebox, it doesn't get in the car."
Literally. I'm not kidding. We had a shoebox each for 'extras'. (Actually, another whole blog post should be devoted to my father's impeccable packing habits. You would be entertained. We kids were not, of course. At the time we saw his wondrous efficiency as painful and hobbling to our creativity. 'Why is it so necessary to put the cereal bowls back in exactly the same place in the food trunk every time?' I wondered with the self-centredness of a teenager who has only just discovered the world of Meryton and officers and balls at Netherfield.)
ANYWAY, tragically (and I'm serious - I cried rivers of tears) my shoebox was stolen right out of our jeep in some wild mountain village in the middle of the Swat Valley, most famous these days as the home of Malala and the place where she was shot. Yes, it was wild. But now there was no more Elizabeth Bennett. No more Mr Darcy. No Pemberley dreams for the whole of the rest of the holiday.
But it was a blessing in disguise. "Why don't you read the original version?" my mum suggested. She found a copy somewhere in the high mountain town of Murree in the Pakistani Himalayan mountains where we were staying at the time and let me just say this: It. Changed. Everything. My love affair with Jane, the Jane, the only Jane, began that very day.
After Pride and Prej (my abbreviation of choice), I went straight back to the often thumbed-through copy of Sense and Sensibility I'd eyed off as a child, on my parents bookshelf. (I can't see why they kept it - neither of them are Austenites - but I was thankful anyway.) Then I found Mansfield Park, then Persuasion, the inimitable Emma, and then, happily, Northanger Abbey.
"But I've only read six," I said to a family friend when I was 15. "What else did she write?"
"She's dead," said our friend. "She died, like, two centuries ago. That was all she wrote."
"You're kidding me!" I was devastated. "What am I going to read now? This is terrible."
I really felt upset. How could Jane have died with only six finished pieces of perfection under her belt? How could she have been so careless? When I heard that there were some unfinished works I sought them out. Sanditon promised so much! And the Watsons could have been incredible. I was very, very sad.
So when I heard my friends tell me that they did not love Jane, I felt bereft. Mortified. And then completely and totally concerned for their well-being. Surely I could fix it for them? Make them see the light. Get them to appreciate the wit and irony and perfect characterization and impeccable plot points and laugh-out-loudability that is an Austen novel.
"Maybe if you just watch the movie," I said to the friend who had given up on it. "You might see it for all its glory and wondrousness if you do."
She looked doubtful. "Okay, maybe."
"But not the stupid Keira Knightley version one," I hastened to add. "It has to be the proper one. The BBC version. Colin Firth."
"Okay." My friend looked at me like yeaaahhh, suuuure. But I had to say it. It's important. The BBC version is the very closest to the book of any of them and I'll put up with the extra riding horses scenes and the diving into the water scene (Oh! Colin!) simply because the crucial words are said, although perhaps not by the right character, that, 'every young man in possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife.' (Thank you, Beeb. You have contributed to the good of the world. Perhaps if you stopped with the Dr Who rubbish, you might contribute more.)
So yes, I love Austen. I have all her books. I revere her as the greatest writer I've read. Whenever anyone asks me which person I'd have at my ultimate dinner party (which, incidentally, I would not be cooking for) I pick Jane. But it's with some trepidation. Would she just laugh at me? Would I end up being the ridiculous, or worse, self-important character in her next novel?
Would she like me? Because I like her, a whole, whole lot.