When you climb Mt. St. Helens’ south side, the rocks and small boulders over which you’ve traversed give way to volcanic ash.
Attempting to progress in the ash is difficult. You place your feet ahead of you, only to have gravity and ash collude in pulling you back near where you previously stood. Every step you take seems futile, as if it’s one step forward, two steps back.
But with perseverance and ingenuity, you find a way to advance amongst the ash. And you ascend the mountain’s final 1,000 feet.
The persistence required to overcome Mt. St. Helen’s ash field is similar to reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time. This is especially true if you’re not accustomed to reading Jane Austen or other early 19th century English books.
The language in Pride and Prejudice is verbose. Reading the book can require pausing and reading again, to ensure you understand what’s being communicated. It can be one sentence forward, two sentences back.
But you adapt. You get used to Austen’s writing. The previously difficult-to-read text becomes easier. And that’s when Pride and Prejudice sings to you.
Seeing pride and prejudice’s prose
The subject of Pride and Prejudice’s story, of a houseful of sisters clamoring to marry well, may not be something to which you’re naturally drawn.
You are rewarded, however, for setting aside contemporary values and endeavoring through the book’s lengthy prose. For Pride and Prejudice provides a superb review of human relationships.
Particularly through the thoughts and actions of the lead character, Elizabeth Bennett, you see reflected in written form what you often encounter in the reality of interpersonal interaction.
An example: “How earnestly did she then wish that her former opinions had been more reasonable, her expressions more moderate! It would have spared her from explanations and professions which it was exceedingly awkward to give.”
How often do we state an opinion to others and later wish we hadn’t expressed said opinion. We refer to this today as “walking something back,” an idiom often used in reference to politicians’ public statements.
Sure, the effort of saying “walking something back” is minimal. Yet it’s not a phrase which actually communicates, or it at least does not accurately communicate what’s intended.
First off, you’re not actually walking anything. Secondly, those unfamiliar with the phrase’s meaning could easily be confused. Not so with Austen’s writing above.
It’s clear and elegantly expressed how Elizabeth Bennet is feeling. You not only understand what Bennett is feeling, you know how she’s feeling. You’ve been there before. You can empathize with her.
But do you feel similar empathy when you read a public figure is “walking something back?”
How Jane Austen uses words to illustrate the actions, thoughts, and emotions of characters in Pride and Prejudice must be a large reason for the book’s continued popularity. After all, read through a modern lens the story is at its core nothing more than a teenage romance novel.
Pride and Prejudice, though, is masterful writing reflecting for us the role misconceptions, interactions, falsehoods, and truthfulness can have in how we engage with one another. Austen shows us how primitive our relationships with each other can still be, despite how far we’ve come as a species.
The major marvel of reading Pride and Prejudice today isn’t that there once was a society in which a women’s worth is determined by whom she married. It’s the similarities between how we today and the characters in Austen’s novel engage with each other.
In the end, it’s clear that no matter how much has changed since Pride and Prejudice first published in 1813, we humans are still the same. More or less.