Rereading a favourite classic at different stages of your life gives you different insights with each reading. Is there one classic you’ve read several times that also tells a story about you? (Classics Club: September Meme)
I beg your pardon, but I must go back to Austen. I MUST!
Pride and Prejudice is the Austen novel I have read the most. It was my first major unabridged novel. I devoured it when I was twelve, and it immediately became my go-to book everytime I wanted something to relax with. I cannot tell you how many times I've read it piece-meal. I must have read it from cover to cover about seven or eight times throughout the last eighteen years.
For most of those times I loved Elizabeth and Darcy. I loved that they got together in the end. (Who doesn't?!) Darcy was the epitome of what I thought a hero ought to be – tall, dark, handsome, slightly haughty, but with a kind heart just waiting to revealed when the right heroine came along. Darcy, in other words, fulfilled my girlish dreams and fantasies about what I thought the perfect man was. As for Elizabeth, I thought she was lovely. She was the kind of person I would have loved to have as a friend – so bright and witty and gay (in the conventional sense of the word).
For years I was content in the knowledge that Elizabeth and Darcy were two among my most favourite literary characters.
And then…I re-read it yet again sometime last year. I was re-reading it then after some three years, I think, and hot on the heels of my first reading of Sense and Sensibility. I found, for the first time, how much disenchanted I was with the two of them. It was a rather sad and depressing discovery, to be honest. But try as I could I simply wasn't able to re-capture the old pull I had towards these two well-known characters. I found myself being picky about Elizabeth. I found, in place of all her wit and charm, a young woman with a caustic, gossipy tongue, and too many unfounded opinions that she had no qualms about sharing with anybody. I found her extremely judgemental (and not only of Darcy) – much like Marianne of Sense and Sensibility.
As for Darcy, while I did not hold his character is aversion as I did Elizabeth's, I found I couldn't really care at all about his romance with the second Bennet sister. On this reading, the story of this young couple simply didn't matter to me.
Since I got married five years ago my opinion of my perfect man has changed. Who wants a dark, handsome, aloof man with too much pride to look further than his nose at anybody and anything? I like goofy and humourous, gentle and kind, a man who isn't afraid to cry, to acknowledge his faults, to treat everyone with care and compassion; who loves to laugh and not act all macho all the time. And so, I found myself liking Bingley tremendously. I found it in myself to appreciate the gentle man that he is. I no longer found him insipid. Just a young man who saw the good in everybody (much like his Jane), and so easily trusted his more worldly wise friend and his sisters. I am very sure that he and Jane must have been so comfortable with each other, and incredibly happy.
But most of all, Jane Bennet became the focus of my attention in the novel. I began to admire her so much. She was a version of Elinor from Sense and Sensibility – kind, gentle, attentive to other people's feelings and moods, practical, down-to-earth, a quiet sufferer, emotionally strong and sound. I was amazed at how much I had missed of Jane during all those previous reads. Until my last re-read, I had thought her a rather boring character, especially when set beside her more lively sister. But now I can truly agree with Mrs Bennet when she says that Jane is the loveliest of her daughters, because she really is.
I strongly suspect had I re-read this book before I ever read Sense and Sensibility for the first time, that I might have missed much of the above. But, because I was fresh from reading the former, and my opinion was so fixed about the Dashwood sisters that the personalitties of the two older Bennet sisters stood out a great deal more. I felt I was really looking at the two of them for the very first time!
Perhaps this has also to do with the fact that my ideas of romance have changed over the past few years? Does the fact that I find it hard to read mere romances any more reflect that the standard hero and heroine have no place in my imagination any more? I am not entirely sure, but this is the drastic change I have experienced when re-reading Pride and Prejudice as an all-out adult.