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Pride & Prejudice, Volume I, chapter 1

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

And so we begin. A few bits of housekeeping. Firstly, I will refer to the book by Volume and chapter number, but once we hit the second Volume (from the original three-volume novel - if you are interested and don't already know it, you can read all about three-volume novels in this post I put up for Sense & Sensibility.) Secondly, I am not going to assume you've all read the book or seen some movie version of it - more on those in a later post, by the by - and I will not deliberate post spoilers, but I do want to talk about Austen's craft a bit as we go along, which means that I may reference matters from other parts of the novel, including some that we have not yet read. Savvy?

For example, I want to look at those first two sentences again, in order to look at what Austen manages to do here. I feel a list coming on.

1. Austen immediately sets an ironic tone. She has invoked a reference to a quote from Dr. Samuel Johnson, whose works were well-known and widely read in her day. (Austen once referred to him as "my dear Dr. Johnson" in a letter to her sister.) This sort of sly humor will continue throughout the novel, sometimes spilling over into something more rambunctious.

2. While Austen is pointing fun at the social-climbing mamas and daughters of the world, there is a kernel of truth at the core of the statement. (As is the case with the best sorts of humor.)

3. Although Austen invites the reader to laugh along with her here, she has just told you what is going to happen in the novel. It's the entire plot of the book, in one short, pity, ironically funny sentence.

In fact, two single men of good fortune are going to turn up at the same time - the amiable Mr. Bingley (with 5,000 pounds per year to his name) and the rather proud Mr. Darcy (with 10,000 pounds per annum and a large estate in Derbyshire). And Mrs. Bennet is immediately going to determine that Mr. Bingley (the one who has leased Netherfield Park) must marry Jane. And so he shall, although not without loads of other things happening in the interim to prevent such a thing from happening, just as Mr. Darcy will marry Elizabeth Bennet. (Seriously, if this is news to you, I can only surmise that you have been living under a rock since pretty much everyone in the wide world knows that Darcy and Elizabeth are a couple, even if they haven't read the book or seen a movie.)

4. The first line may be ironic, but it's also true - both of the well-to-do men we meet at the start are actually in need of a wife. (The phrase "in want of" means that they need a wife and are lacking one.) Turns out they both actually want a wife, and that not only society but they themselves believe that they actually need a wife.

Presenting Mr and Mrs Bennet

The couple that puts the fun in dysfunctional.

Eventually, we will learn why Mr Bennet married Mrs Bennet in the first place, but for now, it's hard to fathom. She's a frivolous,over-the-top, hypochondriacal drama queen who isn't all that smart, so why any sensible man (meaning one with intelligence and good sense, not one governed by his feelings, for those of you who were along for the Sense & Sensibility ride) would pick her is beyond me. Thus far what we know about Mr Bennet is that he delights in thwarting his wife's wishes. Or, as Austen's narrator sums up for us:

Mr Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

You can see some of how this scene was adapted for the BBC production - moving the Bennets out of their sitting room and into the open air, with their children in tow, and finding a way to work at least part of the opening line of the book into dialogue:

Tomorrow: Chapter 2

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( 31 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 1st, 2011 09:34 pm (UTC)
When I first read P&P almost all of Austen's wit went straight over my head. I wasn't in the right frame of mind to read it, and I don't think I had the "tools" to understand what it was Austen was actually saying. It took me a few more years, some more exposure to her work & how others viewed it, to begin to understand her sarcasm. I'm glad I gave the book another try--it's one of my favorites. And the first few lines are fantastic!

Jan. 1st, 2011 10:51 pm (UTC)
Hmm. A good deal of it went over my head when I was 12 (first time I read it), but when I got to the part with Mr. Collins, I got the humor. I've found it a wonderful book to re-read regularly through the years.
(no subject) - kellyrfineman - Jan. 2nd, 2011 01:56 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kellyrfineman - Jan. 2nd, 2011 01:55 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - heatherbird - Jan. 2nd, 2011 03:35 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kellyrfineman - Jan. 2nd, 2011 07:06 am (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 1st, 2011 09:44 pm (UTC)
Love to hear your thoughts and I LOVE P&P. Austen's wit is one of my favorite things about her writing :)
Jan. 2nd, 2011 01:58 am (UTC)
I have got to get my hands on a copy of your book!

Austen's wit is not always benign, but it is always funny. Have you read her letters? Holy cow, talk about cutting wit!
Jan. 1st, 2011 10:33 pm (UTC)
this is a terrific beginning here, kelly.
do you feel it helps or hinders the story when tv productions add more dialogue or move dialogue around or have different characters claim the dialogue... is that a stupid question? are austen's words not enough? does her story need more exposition for the watcher instead of the reader?
Jan. 1st, 2011 10:53 pm (UTC)
For me, I think what the TV shows do is simply provide more motion for the dialogue. Thinking back, the novel is much more about life indoors than anything else, and I find the walks to church, etc., refreshing, almost literally so.
(no subject) - kellyrfineman - Jan. 2nd, 2011 02:08 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kellyrfineman - Jan. 2nd, 2011 02:03 am (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 1st, 2011 10:50 pm (UTC)
Talk about one-sentence hooks! Jane Austen nailed it before it was obligatory.

As for the Bennet's marriage, it never struck me as odd, because one set of grandparents' was rather similar, which is to say that that particular grandmother was not particularly bright, loved to shop without having a lot of money (a farmer's wife in the Depression didn't), loved to gossip and basically was only interested in getting four of her five daughters married off. My mother was supposed to be the daughter who stayed home and took care of her aging parents....
Jan. 2nd, 2011 01:55 am (UTC)
Kathy, I agree! I never wondered about the whys of the Bennet's marriage. My grandparents were constant "bickerers", so completely different from one another. When I read the scenes with the Bennet's back and forth, it's very familiar!
(no subject) - kellyrfineman - Jan. 2nd, 2011 02:11 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kellyrfineman - Jan. 2nd, 2011 02:09 am (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 1st, 2011 10:59 pm (UTC)
This first chapter now always reminds me of what Alison Steadman said about being cast as Mrs.Bennet - she said reading the book and finding out about mrs.bennet was like opening a box of chocolates : )
I kind of like how they do this conversation in the bbc version, along with a few shots and words giving us a taste of the character of each Bennet daughter. 'What a joke if he were to choose me!'

And also I'd forgotten just how short the chapters are!
Jan. 2nd, 2011 02:18 am (UTC)
They aren't all this short, of course, but still . . . it's not War and Peace. (Hmmm . . . I've never read Tolstoy, so perhaps his chapters are short and I don't know it. In my mind, however, they are looooong.)

Mrs Bennet would be such a fun character to play. She can be far more complex than Austen gave her credit for, if all the scholars who've written about the characters are to be believed (wherein her hypochondria and nervous complaints are a way of seizing power back from the dominant male, etc.) I suspect that if Austen thought there was another level to Mrs Bennet, it was as an example of what can go wrong - she's not a gentleman's daughter and she's not particularly bright, so she is completely out of her league in society after marrying Mr Bennet, who leaves her to shift as she can. The Gardiners, on the other hand, are sensible people and have adjusted themselves much better to dealing with the upper classes.
(no subject) - rachelswardrobe - Jan. 2nd, 2011 11:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kellyrfineman - Jan. 3rd, 2011 01:34 am (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 2nd, 2011 02:20 am (UTC)
You're very right about not really needing that paragraph. Although I think she wanted to be certain that folks understood that they were not actually teasing one another in a playful manner here (which is what Joe Wright went with as an interpretation in the 2005 movie, which depicts a loving and kind-hearted relationship between the elder Bennets, which is completely unsupported by the text).
Jan. 2nd, 2011 03:34 am (UTC)
I've already learned several new things from you! First, the Samuel Johnson reference- UVa class of '07 English majors all have a fondness for Dr. Johnson because our Dean based his speech at our graduation ceremony on his Dictionary, and it totally went over the heads of all of our guests, and all of us were dying laughing at how witty our Dean was being ;)

And don't young ladies still fight to claim the "new guy in town" or school? I know in my small town, whenever a new family moves in, the people who seem most interested are teenage girls. "Do they have a son? Is he cute?" because they are just so over the same old guys.

What would be today's equivalent of 5,000 pounds?

And I ♥ Mr. Bennet.
Jan. 2nd, 2011 07:10 am (UTC)
Austen LOVED Johnson and his works. She referenced his dictionary, albeit somewhat indirectly, in Northanger Abbey, when Henry Tilney teases Catherine for using the word "nice" in the sense that we use it now. He wanted it to keep its Johnsonian sense, which is along the lines of "particular" or "neat" (someone who was nice about their manners or clothing was taking pains to be tidy or proper, for instance).

I've heard that today's equivalent of 5,000 pounds would be about 100 times that - or half a million pounds. And yes, double it for Mr. Darcy's annual income.

And while I mostly love Mr Bennet, I have some issues with him. He does not do the right thing by his wife and daughters all the time, and it is a problem.
Jan. 2nd, 2011 03:56 am (UTC)
I mean, really. She could have just stopped right there, she summed up her story so tidily. Except for the fact that the rest of the book was too good not to write.
Jan. 2nd, 2011 07:11 am (UTC)
Wouldn't you just kill to be able to sum up the entire plot and theme of your book in the opening sentence like that?
(no subject) - liz_scanlon - Jan. 2nd, 2011 01:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 2nd, 2011 05:42 pm (UTC)
I just got this as ebook on my new iPod. Am going to enjoy following along this way and learning on several levels. This is my first novel done this way. Fun to sit in mcD's play place & chat about S&S!
Jan. 2nd, 2011 08:48 pm (UTC)
I hope you're enjoying your new iPod, Andi! And I'm glad you can join us!
Jan. 2nd, 2011 09:33 pm (UTC)
Well...I guess I should really keep a closer watch on my livejournal. =) Thanks to Sarah Lewis Holmes for directing me here. I just read my first Jane Austen book, finished it last night. Pride and Prejudice had me laughing out loud.

I look forward to following this discussion!
Jan. 3rd, 2011 02:09 am (UTC)
Pride and Prejudice is really clever. Such a gorgeous piece of writing.
Jan. 4th, 2011 06:12 am (UTC)
As bad a Dad as he is I love Mr. Bennet, favorite quotes left out of the BBC version, in reply to Mrs. Bennet "you have no compassion for my nerves". "You mistake me my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least."

Now I'm vexed with my BBC P&P disks that keep getting stuck, right on Mr. Collins' entrance.
( 31 comments — Leave a comment )

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