Next up on the essays shelf:
Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love, edited by Anne Fadiman
During Anne Fadiman’s reign as editor of The American Scholar (I had a subscription). During her reign, she instituted a regular feature called “Rereadings”, where she asked authors to go back and reread a book they loved when they were young and see how the experience had changed. What was the book to them originally and what was it to them now? This book is a collection of those essays.
One of the interesting elements that binds many of these essays together is that the people writing the essays are now professional writers. Many of them teach writing. Many of them have gone through MFA Writing programs. Such experiences change your perspective. You are no longer “just” a reader. You are also a critic, you have been trained to pick apart a text. And it’s hard to go back to being “just” an audience. This is true for most artistic fields. There are actors who have a hard time being audience members, not because they think they could do it better, but because it’s hard to just succumb to the magic in the way you might if you didn’t know about the mechanics of it. The same with film critics, for sure. (I often read some of them and think: “Have you ever enjoyed a movie? Ever?”) And so the mystique of the artform that got you started in the first place has been somewhat shattered.
Allegra Goodman’s essay about Pride and Prejudice is an exploration of that journey. She read Pride and Prejudice when she was nine. Much of it went over her head, but she found the whole thing captivating, entertaining, and funny. She loved it. She read it again in high school. And then again in college, when she was studying English. And suddenly, the bloom was off the rose. She fell in love with Henry James in college, his cynical brutal world of social politics, and found Jane Austen to be shallow in comparison. That’s a young woman’s attitude, but this is a personal essay, remember. It’s about her experience. The main problem for her in that particular reading was the character of Mr. Darcy. He didn’t seem dashing or charming or romantic, he seemed like he was not a fully drawn character. She found him to be just a “construct”. And at the end of the book, it is Elizabeth who tells him why he has come to love her. Austen does not give the monologue to Darcy, so he remains somewhat remote. Goodman, in her diligent college reading, found this unsatisfactory. Her critical eye had been opened. This happens to many of us in college. It can be a disheartening experience. And it was for her. What had happened to the book she loved as a child?
But then she read it again, years later, married, with kids, at a very dark time in her life. And another transformation occurred. That’s the excerpt I’ll share today. It’s beautiful. A testament to Jane Austen’s greatness, that her book is the type of book one has an ongoing relationship with, perhaps even an argument with … that it can take that kind of critical thinking, and then … emerge totally different once the perspective has changed.
Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love, edited by Anne Fadiman; “Pemberley Previsited, Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen”, by Allegra Goodman
I’d written books and more stories of my own, drafted my dissertation on Samuel Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare, married, had two children, and moved back to Cambridge by the time I picked up Pride and Prejudice again. I’d just come home from my mother’s funeral. I was twenty-nine and never felt so old. My mother had died of brain cancer soon after turning fifty-one.
It was October, raining hard, and I was alone in the house with our baby. My brother-in-law was getting married that weekend, but I’d found I couldn’t force myself to go to the wedding. My husband flew with our four-year-old to Philadelphia.
The rain poured down all the first night and kept coming the next day. It was too wet to take the baby out, so he played on the floor and I listened to the rain. It rattled on the skylight in the stairwell and thrummed the roof, and I began to reread Pride and Prejudice. I read the book slowly and uncritically, lying on our new blue sofa in our new sparsely furnished town house. I read it because my mother had loved Jane Austen and because rereading it for solace was something she might have done. I read it because my mother was like Jane Austen in her wit, her love of irony, and her concision. My mother was shrewd like Austen, and ingenious, she flourished in difficult professional situations. And like Austen, my mother had died young with her work unfinished.
It rained all day, and I kept reading steadily. I didn’t laugh, but I smiled at Mr. Bennet and Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Mr. Darcy didn’t bother me at all, but strode into the book, a dashing hero brooking no doubt or literary disappointment. Perhaps he was only a figure of romance, and perhaps Pemberley was just Austen’s castle in the air. The romance and the castle were no less powerful for their escapist construction. Indeed, what I found irresistible this time was the way Austen combines astute social satire with fairy tale. The combination did not seem awkward to me, but inspired. The satire is exquisite, while the fairy tale is viscerally satisfying. How delightful to watch Elizabeth rise like Cinderella above the impediments of her mother and her younger sisters! Her mother is not wicked, but she is thoughtless and vulgar. Her sisters, with the exception of Jane, are pedantic, insipid, and lusty, and, as such, throw as many obstacles in Elizabeth’s way as if sabotage had been their intent. And, of course, Mr. Bingley’s sisters supply their venom. Naturally, the obstacles make Elizabeth’s victory more delicious. Hers is the triumph of wit over vulgarity, self-respect over sycophancy. Until this reading, I had never appreciated Austen’s fairy-tale so well, but perhaps I had never needed it as much. No one dies in Pride and Prejudice – not even of embarrassment, as feckless Lydia and Wickham demonstrate. I no longer faulted the book for its cheerfulness or made invidious comparisons with Henry James. A dark imagination is, perhaps, more appealing before you know anything about darkness.