There is nothing so off-putting as being made to read a book because of the weight of history and social significance placed upon it. At least, that was the case to many of my teenage peers and Jane Austen‘s Pride and Prejudice. We were busy trying to rebel against all polite and well-spoken. Too late for punk, to early for rave, what we had was Pop and New Romantics and, Duran Duran and Madonna were far more appealing than the alleged wit of a book about middle-class women participating in the mortgaging of their future to men they barely knew. A less witty and flowery mortgaging was purported to be in my future too and I could think of nothing worse than engaging with this book about an activity I was conniving to escape.
It takes nimble-mined effort to avoid entering social chat about books with women in England (and Europe and America as I discovered later) because the conversation inevitably turns to the cooing chorus that opens female conversations about Pride and Prejudice. I became the Muhammed Ali of literary conversation, ducking and diving my way to Grahame Greene, Gore Vidal (the comedic years) and Hanif Kureishi. I loved saying that these were the authors I read. Not only did I really love them, but there was certain cache about a young woman tossing these names around. The Eighties were strange.
As the very wise Carmela Soprano once opined, I don’t care for Renee Zellweger movies but the sheer joy on her face against Colin Firth‘s permanent foot-in-mouthiness, and Hugh Grant‘s unashamed lothario in the trailer for Bridget Jones’ Diary won me over. Attending the cinema with a bunch of female friends was quite extraordinary. I arrived to find two bottles of wine half-empty in the cinema bar, laughing, dancing and much chatter. These broads had already decided that they loved this film before the first frame had flickered. Still, today, I admire their loyalty. Would that every film had that kind of loyal following. I also envied their camaraderie a little. They had all bonded over the Bridget Jones novel which I had not read. I had purposely avoided reading it as it swept across the country seducing every woman I knew. I felt a bit of a heel, and a bit pretentious in my posturing when faced with fun bunch of women in front of me. I joined in but I had no idea about anything in the novel until the film was over.
There followed much drunken conversations about Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones’ Diary. For weeks and weeks after, sobre appraisals of both novels arose. I became intrigued as to how a working class girl who put herself through university to become a tech professional, a stay-at-home mother who only went into the City workforce in her forties, a middle-class polite lady and a pop tart had all come to love both Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones Diary. It was interesting to hear them all plead their own version of the case. I admit it changed my mind about Jane Austen’s classic but not enough for me to read it. I understood Bridget Jones’ to be a reworking of the novel and since I had enjoyed it my preferred cultural medium, film, I decided that I had in effect understood the book through another medium and that satisfied me.
It was not until last year when the nagging feeling that what had kept me from reading this book was silly and tedious, that I decided to finally read it.
I didn’t like everything about it but it was a lively, witty look at love and life for middle-class women in that period. It wasn’t the self-interested white-washing of one’s own class that I had thought Ms. Austen had engaged in. Nor was she of the flowery summer-read prose which, I had imagined, that Austen had shepherded into existence. She was of smooth and wicked prose that pricked at society and family, love and marriage.
I wondered why I had never picked up this book before.
I will leave it to the Cultural/Media/Literary Studies students to draw parallels between my own pride and prejudice and the novel, and the film. I have quite lost the knack for it.