I was rereading Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice the other day. It was strange to re-read because I can still remember the last time I read it so clearly. I was fourteen and living in Durban on the Berea. I was sleeping in my sister's room because we had a guest staying with us, which always meant I had to move out of mine. Sarah and I would argue quite a lot: mainly about mess, always mine. I stayed up until 2am to finish it, and was really tired at Sunday School the next day but I felt really proud that I had stayed up so late to finish something I considered to be high literature.I had already read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and I considered Pride and Prejudice to be my next foray into the world of really adult literature.
That was the first year I'd had boy friends since I was nine years old. Going to an all girls' school and it only being my sister and I at home meant I never spoke to boys, never mind made friends with them. It was also around this time that our parents would take us to see the strange, wizard-like house next to the ocean on the South Coast and everything would change when we moved there. And then everything would change again when I left small-town South Coast for the smaller Grahamstown and Rhodes, and then again for Pretoria and finally when I landed in Johannesburg for Wits. Starting over again in a new place again four times over will change things, never mind the change in years and situations.
Yet some things don't change that should have. I had a strange sense of travelling back in time reading this book. I have found, over and over again that though I considered myself to be pretty advanced when I read classics at relatively young ages, I understood very little more than what I had garnered from their movie versions. While I have watched the BBC Pride and Prejudice many times, for the excellent Jennifer Ehle as Lizzie as much for the sublime Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy (did anyone else notice they were both in The King's Speech as well?), this is the first time I have re-read the book since my raw fourteen year old self finished it in the wee hours of the morning.
I still appreciated the charming romances and brilliantly drawn characters. The jealous Caroline Bingley is a treat, as is Mr. Bennet who is far shrewder and funnier on the page. The relationship between Jane and Lizzie is also an inspiration to me. I love my sister dearly, and can appreciate the celebration of sisterly support.
What really intrigued me about the book was its unexpected wisdom. Jane Austen is very astute about human nature and, as I discovered re-reading this book, human failings. I don't mean the kind of human failings that mean you lose your sports match, are missed for promotion or fail to make it into the course you want to do. I mean moral human failings. I found her exploration of the "pride" and "prejudice" of the title nuanced and engrossing, and her portrait of the effect of a selfish, indolent mother and self-involved father and their unhappy marriage on the family was, as always, quite astounding. What really moved me, however, was Lizzie's own regret at her gossiping about Mr. Darcy.
The one thing that has not changed about me since I was a self-important fourteen year old is my penchant for a gossip, and for simultaneously holding grudges. I have often deeply regretted what I have said (always after the event) when both friend and foe alike have been at the mercy of my occasionally vicious tongue, and could not understand why I enjoyed indulging in either more often than I want to. When I read Lizzie's own reason for gossiping about Mr. Darcy, I realised why:
"And yet I meant to be uncommonly clever in taking so decided a dislike to him, without any reason. It is a spur to one's genius, such an opening for wit, to have dislike of that kind. One may be continually abusive without saying anything just; but one cannot always be laughing at a man without now and then stumbling on something witty"
I have always treasured my intelligence (perhaps too much) and holding a grudge and gossiping about someone is an easy way to show it off.
So from now on: an undertaking to be humble about what intelligence I have, and so avoid other dangerous pastimes.
And to read more Jane Austen instead.