Friday, July 22, 2005

Marital Bliss

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, Read by Flo Gibson, Recorded Books, 1813/1980

What can you say of such a book? I had anticipated it being the kind of novel that didn’t translate to audio all that well as with many other older books with their lengthy paragraphs and long multi-clause sentence structure, but was pleased instead to find that not the case whatsoever. Austen writes so well, makes such a self-contained complete universe, and fills her conversations and incidences with such high absurdity and comic genius that in the midst of nearly each of her books I am convinced that this one in particular is my favorite. Pride and Prejudice sets the bar particularly high for comparative purposes, rivaled mostly by Sense and Sensibility as readers’ favorites.

Perhaps the biggest distraction in listening to the book, though, is how forcefully the BBC/A&E production’s casting and settings intrude themselves upon any further readings. After having seen that miniseries more than one time, it is impossible to see anyone as Mr. Darcy other than Colin Firth. The film is such a spot-on production, so well cast, adapted, and acted, that it resides permanently in the brain. While the mother may indeed be a bit odious, in the book she is nowhere near so flamboyantly as cinematicaly portrayed, not that I’d lose that actress’s portrait for anything, such a squirmingly, openly, hysterically social-climbing type.

Austen is at the top of her form in this book, effortlessly skewering simpering toadies, social manners, arrogance and pride, and self-delusions. If anyone can listen to this book (or read it) and not frequently be overcome with the urge to give younger daughter Lydia a series of slaps, then they have a heart of stone and no sense whatsoever. If you do not yourself feel revulsion for Miss Caroline Bingley and her vicious scheming, you are a brick. If George Wickham doesn’t charm and then repel, if Mr. Collins doesn’t amuse completely, if Mr. Bennet doesn’t gently tickle your fancy, then nothing on earth can touch you.

While some may disparage Austen either for her recent popularity or for being overly concerned with marrying off young ladies, in the first case her being a fashion and in the second a propagator of a fashionable trap, lurking underneath her seemingly light topics seethes a quick wit and rapier ability to draw a portrait then slice it to ribbons. Austen’s preoccupation with marriage mirrors society’s obsession with it in her time, and for women of that era a good marriage or bad cast its shadow into every aspect of your life and your family’s. Modern readers who take such recent concepts as no-fault divorces for granted underestimate the suffocation a bad match concretized.

Pride and Prejudice works its way to the conclusion with barely a wasted word or scene, everything tending toward a conclusion that seems the only possible outcome when viewed from hindsight. Yet throughout the book, disaster seems not only a very likely prospect but also the general direction life must go for those not favored with inherited wealth and ties. Austen’s overriding marital concerns are rife with and underlying economic unease.

Narrator Flo Gibson has a sort of old lady voice that at first grates, but then clearly demonstrates its aptness. She is especially good with the fusty characters like Mr. Collins and Lady de Bourgh. At the book’s beginning, I felt ever more certain how much I would not like this audiobook, with its style and with its performer, yet before disc one was even concluded, I was certain Recorded Books had made a perfect marriage.

No comments: