Tomorrow is the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice being accepted for publication. I still love this book, despite the fact that I’ve assigned it to ninth graders in my class for going on ten years now.
I “use” the book to teach satire, and secondarily to give my kids practice in reading a difficult text. Each year, the text becomes more and more a challenge for my students. Austen’s sentences are quite long, her speech tags are sporadic, and of course there are those aforementioned two hundred years between then and now, and the way we speak has changed. A lot.
Today in class we are writing letters in the style of the period. These may, for some students, be their first experience penning an actual letter—not a note in a card for Grandma, but an actual letter. This should be interesting.
It’s not just the language that’s a stumbling block, though. Increasingly, the bad manners that Austen satirized seem not only trivial but incomprehensible. Mr. Collins introduces himself to Mr. Darcy. So what? Manners are essentially over. When they do pop up among the youth of America these days, it’s sort of a quaint surprise. I usually find myself thanking the young gentleman or lady for thanking me. At any rate, it is harder and harder to convince anyone that the younger Bennet girls are behaving badly. At no point in the story is either girl arrested, for one thing.
Mr. Collins still comes off a fool, thanks in no small part to the mincing, sweaty, spot-on portrayal by David Bamber in the BBC series. But his character seems less farcical than he did before. I think it’s because we don’t recognize farce in the same way. Because it’s been renamed. We call it reality now.
Tune in to almost any reality TV show. What will you see? Farce. If you don’t believe me, watch just one episode of The Soup (it will certainly save time). This past week, Joel McHale showed a clip from Dance Moms which featured some insane woman shouting at pre-teen dancers, giving them a full-on crazy back story for their lyrical dance that involved imagining bombs were dropping all around them. People pay to send their children to this lunatic, then a whole other set of people pay to make a “reality” show out of it, and then even more people pay for ad time…and it’s not in spite of the crazy—it’s because of it.
It’s no wonder many of my students are so flummoxed by the notion of a story which on some level at least is about the importance of showing good sense. But it’s also no wonder so many people are celebrating P&P this week. In a world in which farce is broadcast as reality, the story of the triumph of the sensible Lizzie Bennet, whose good judgment wins out in the end, is a comfort—and a really great escape. I’m not sad to have missed the days of entailments and dowries—and Charlotte being an old maid at twenty-seven (and then marrying Mr. Collins!) But I do enjoy visiting a time in which manners were never an afterthought and no one ever thought of broadcasting the lives of pawn brokers, dance teachers, or bachelors.