Off the Shelf: Jane Austen’s ‘Pride & Prejudice’ Turns 200

I confess: I had never read Jane Austen. I suppose I was uninterested in what were perceived simply as romance novels, inspiration for an entire modern industry of “Regencies.”

But several years ago in a conversation with Wendell Berry, most likely about books he might recommend, Jane Austen came up. I owned to never having read her. He replied that he envied me my first reading. So I knew that I needed to read Austen, but still I never quite got to doing it.

This month I finally read her most famous book, Pride & Prejudice. As I finished it, I discovered that this month–today, in fact–is the 200th anniversary of its publication. My own bookshelf yields two copies of the classic, a pocket size Oxford and an Everyman’s Library edition. (Penguin has a nice retrospective today of their own P&P covers that’s worth a look.)

Austen is often abandoned to the fairer sex. But we males do Austen, and ourselves, a disservice by neglecting her penetrating insight into human nature.

As a father of girls I found myself identifying not with Darcy, but rather Mr. Bennet. Mr. Bennet’s sardonic wit in the face of a sea of estrogen (and his frequent desire to retreat to the isolation of his library) makes him one of my favorite characters in literature. But Austen also teaches that his detachment was taken too far, and Mr. Bennet recognizes his own blame for Lydia’s elopement.

If you’re a man and have not read Pride & Prejudice, do yourself a favor and do so. Don’t be like the ridiculous Mr. Collins and refuse to read novels. It is in great fiction rather than non-fiction that we learn the most about the human condition.

I envy you the first reading.

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