Meg Rosoff was born in Boston and educated at Harvard and St Martin's College of Art. She worked in New York City for 10 years before moving to London in 1989, and then worked in publishing, politics, PR and advertising until 2004, when she wrote her first novel, How I Live Now. This won the Guardian children's fiction prize, has been translated into 28 languages and is being made into a film. Meg's second novel, Just In Case, won the Carnegie Medal and earned her the title of 'Queen of Weird' from the LA Times. Her most recent novel, What I Was, has been shortlisted for three major literary prizes. She lives in North London, with her artist husband, daughter and two lurchers. Meg writes, below, about Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.
Meg Rosoff on Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Is it possible that in nearly three years of normblog book choices, no one has chosen Pride and Prejudice?
In school, Jane Austen was used to teach the principles of romantic comic structure - in the Northrop Frye rather than the Hollywood sense. The happy family's descent into chaos, their striving to regain order, the sylvan setting, the festival/wedding as formal declaration of happiness. To keep this discourse from becoming too literary: a Radio 4 programme celebrating the 50th anniversary of Mills & Boon recently described the perfect M&B formula thus: beautiful woman, alpha male, a first meeting at which his arrogance repels her, 150 pages of conflict and disorder followed by reconciliation in love, marriage, and happily ever after. In other words, Pride and Prejudice.
It also has one of the finest first lines in all of English-speaking literature.
Above and beyond the love story - people who would never consider reading the book have swooned over various film and TV versions - Pride and Prejudice is actually a book about class, about fortunes on the way up and down, inherited wealth versus new wealth, good marriages and bad, gentlemen and bounders, and the emerging English middle class at the end of the 18th century.
From the very beginning, we are told that Bingley's fortune comes from trade. He takes Netherfield as a rental with a view to purchase - his father has left him £100,000 to be spent on an estate, in order to consolidate the family's position among the landed gentry. There are other hints that gently deride his new wealth. Bingley admits to owning a scant few books, compared to Darcy's 'delightful library', which 'has been the work of many generations'. Bingley's pliable nature, while admirable, has little of the gravitas one would expect from a true aristocrat - who would, after all, be responsible for a great number of lives (servants and tenants) other than his own. Caroline Bingley's supercilious behaviour is little more than we could expect from the daughter of a merchant, and contrasts with Elizabeth and Jane Bennet's natural good manners, presumably inherited from their gentleman father.
Mr Bennet has the library, the love of reading, the gentlemanly restraint that define his class. But he is crippled by his own ironic distance from the world; his inability to engage when the future of his family hangs in the balance. For reasons that are never made entirely clear, Mr Bennet himself has made a poor marriage, to an indiscreet, shrill woman of uncertain provenance. We might be more sympathetic had he married for money, but Mrs Bennet lacks fortune and favour. So why did he marry her? She may once have been pretty. But more to the point, the fact that Mr Bennet is a gentleman cannot compensate for his relative poverty. He, himself, would not have been considered much of a match.
Through the union of these seriously flawed characters, we have one success at least: Elizabeth Bennet, who inherits intelligence, restraint and 'class' from her father, beauty, spirit and ambition from her mother. When Jane asks, much later in the story, when it was that Lizzy first fell in love with Darcy, Elizabeth dates it from 'my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley'. No matter how you spin that line (and Jane does admonish her to be serious), it spins right back at you. Lizzy is not sentimental about love to the point of being indifferent to Fitzwilliam Darcy's fortune, nor should she be.
In contrast, Lydia inherits the worst of both parents - sex-mad and unworldly, she seems unaware of her precarious social position and has no scruples about living in sin with a cad. She is as feckless as her father and as flighty as her mother, and despite Darcy paying off her husband's massive debts, she is doomed - for no happy-ever-after is possible with Wickham's proven talents for drinking, gambling, and lying. His low birth will out, despite his gentleman's upbringing. In imagining a happy future for Elizabeth and Darcy, the shadow of that miserable match must be taken into account.
I could go on.
My one complaint in relation to the book is that it does not belong on secondary school reading lists. It is a book that should be read in middle age for maximum pleasure, when the importance of a good marriage and an interest in money and class have had time to stew. In the meantime, it can always be read for the love story.