Month: April 2012

Pride and Prejudice: On Foolishness

In my final look at Pride and Prejudice, I’m going to focus on foolishness. Much of the novel’s considerable humour is found in the behaviour of foolish characters, whose actions and dialogue not only provide comic relief, but also an interesting commentary on class snobbery and the consequences of poor parental guidance. I think one of the most enduringly appealing aspects of Austen’s writing is that she is so good at capturing people who are blind to their own faults. Let’s take Mrs Bennett, to start off with. Poor Mrs Bennett has become the epitome of the ‘embarrassing mother’ – she is totally socially unaware, and sees no shame in talking indiscreetly about her daughter’s marriage prospects, or lack of them, in the most inappropriate of company. She is easily flattered and likes a bit of fun as much as her wayward younger daughters, thoroughly enjoying the attentions of the soldiers without realising how vulgar she is being. She refuses to hear criticism, always thinks she is right, and is shallow to almost painful proportions; as soon as Lydia’s marriage is confirmed, Mrs Bennett starts ordering clothes and talking about how wonderful it will be to have a married daughter to brag about. The shame of the circumstances and the blight this will bring on the prospects of her other daughters doesn’t even seem to occur to her. Mrs Bennett only sees and understands what she wants to, and she is quickly brought around in her dislikes of others when her personal gain is involved.

Mrs Bennett is comic relief because she is undeniably hilarious; her melodramatic, gossipy nature is is brought to life wonderfully in Austen’s portrayal of her speech and actions, and we can’t help but laugh at her. However, Mrs Bennett isn’t totally lacking in wits. Her desperation to see her daughters married isn’t because she’s stupid or shallow, but because she knows they will have practically nothing to live on when their father dies, and she wants them to be financially secure. Her artful wiles, such as getting Jane to go over to Netherfield on horseback in the rain so that she will catch cold, are silly, but they work. Even so, this isn’t to say that Mrs Bennett goes about things in the right way. Austen gives her the credit of having motivations, but her poor intelligence and childlike desire to get her own way have serious consequences. It is thanks to her poor parenting and poor governance of her own tongue that Mr Darcy removes Mr Bingley from Netherfield and poor Jane and Elizabeth nearly have their hearts broken, not to mention Lydia running off with Mr Wickham and causing not only much shame, anxiety and embarrassment, but a lifetime’s worth of an unhappy and unfulfilling marriage. Mrs Bennett is funny, yes, but Austen never lets us lose sight that her foolishness is dangerous, and causes far more harm than good.

Up next is Mr Collins. Oh, Mr Collins! Austen is a genius at portraying the deluded, and Mr Collins is on a par with Mr Elton when it comes to total lack of self awareness and genuine belief in his own fabulousness. What I especially love about Mr Collins is this self belief; where he has got it from, I don’t know, but his confidence in himself and his own abilities is truly astounding. He comes to stay at the Bennetts with the express purpose of leaving with a wife; the thought that he might get turned down never seems to enter his head. When Elizabeth refuses him, he thinks that she is playing a game as ladies are wont to, and proceeds to inform her that really he’s the best offer she’s ever likely to get, and she’d be mad to refuse him. Part of Mr Collins’ belief in his own immense value – not just to the opposite sex but to mankind in general – is his relationship with the De Bourgh family, to whom he grovels with an intensity one might liken to a pet dog. Mr Collins is a huge snob, and will do anything to be noticed by someone with a title. He thrives on Lady Catherine’s condescension and it is the highlight of his sad little life to think up appropriate compliments that he may drop oh-so-casually into later conversation to please Lady Catherine and her sickly daughter.

However, like Mrs Bennett, Mr Collins is not completely stupid; he may be totally insufferable with a hugely overinflated ego, but he has his head screwed on. His patronisation of the right sort of upper class type – namely that who also has an overinflated ego and thrives on being flattered – is hugely beneficial to his career and fortune. Lady Catherine’s patronage has assured him an excellent parish with promotional opportunities, not to mention good connections and a free meal at the big house several times a week. The old adage of ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ certainly rings true for Mr Collins, and though he values style over substance and money over morals, it can’t be denied that his laughable egotism and toe curlingly cringeworthy flattery of his social superiors have helped to secure him a very comfortable life indeed. Even though he does prosper financially, however, he never prospers emotionally; he has no true friends, and his wife married him for convenience, not love. Everyone with sense and heart can’t stand him, and his company is suffered, not desired. His inability to see the true value in other human beings will ensure that he never experiences the true happiness of life, that of loving and being loved, which really makes him the greatest of fools.

Finally, there is Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She is a well built, handsome woman, with a huge house, a large fortune and a massive ego. She loves nothing better than putting other people in their place and reminding them of hers; she enjoys Mr Collins’ company so much because he shows her the deference she believes she deserves. Lady Catherine takes every opportunity to make those she considers to be beneath her feel small, and Elizabeth’s spirited exchanges with her and refusal to be cowed into submission takes her completely by surprise because she has clearly never been challenged before. Lady Catherine’s identity and sense of wellbeing is built on her high opinion of herself, but she is sadly deluded about many aspects of her life. She believes that her nephew Mr Darcy loves and respects her; he doesn’t, because she has never given him any reason to. She believes that her daughter, the silent and sickly Miss Anne, is a genuine catch and that Mr Darcy, handsome and eligible as he is, will marry her. She believes that she is a Lady Bountiful, valued and appreciated by those to whom she dispenses her advice; really she is a strongly disliked busybody who is more of an inconvenience than a blessing. Lady Catherine is a fool because she is blind to the realities of her behaviour and how it impacts on others; she is blind because she cannot see the human value in people beyond their parentage and their bank balance; and she is blind because she cannot see that she only inspires respect in those who need her for her money and influence, and no one truly loves her for who she is. Her demeanour and dialogue are funny because they demonstrate her pompousness and her delusion, but they are also rather sad, because they demonstrate how lacking in kindness and love she is. She will forever be stuck in her big house, alone with the pathetic daughter she knows deep down will never make a good marriage, visited only out of duty rather than pleasure. What a fool she is indeed.

Austen’s depiction of foolishness is not just for comic effect, or to mock. It raises questions of what is good, and what is moral; it raises questions about the duties of parents, and of those blessed with rank and influence. It sets up comparisons between characters, demonstrating that those in society who deserve respect are not those with money and titles, but those who put others first and judge people’s worth on their actions rather than the size of their house and their connections. There is also a degree of sadness about the foolishness of her characters; their behaviour prevents them from enjoying the respect of those around them, and from entering into meaningful, fulfilling relationships. All of them are lonely in their own way, and compared to the happiness of those they are wont to criticise, their lives are small indeed.

Re-reading Pride and Prejudice has once again highlighted just how brilliant Austen is; every time I come back to her novels, they offer me a fresh and delightful new perspective. I notice new details, new insights, and marvel at just how complex Austen’s supposedly simple, romantic tales are. All of humanity is within her pages, and as we as readers grow and change over time, so do her novels, offering us further riches each time we return, a little older and a little more experienced. I think really, if it came down to it, I could just get rid of all my other books and read Austen for the rest of my days, and never cease to be satisfied. I am so pleased I started on this re-reading project; next up will be Emma. I hope some of you will join me to read this wonderful novel next month.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

This is the second time I’ve read this book, and I’m delighted to be revisiting it for Muriel Spark Reading Week. I read it quickly and perfunctorily before, not really remembering an awful lot apart from the charisma of Miss Brodie and the atmospheric depiction of the windswept, slightly menacing streets of pre-war Edinburgh. This time around, I was amazed at the brilliance and complexity of Spark’s portrayal of an intelligent, passionate woman, robbed of her future by the death of her fiancé during WWI and instead becoming devoted to the cause of educating Edinburgh’s girls. Miss Brodie is unconventional and daring; she gets the girls to hold up their textbooks in case another teacher peers into the classroom during their lessons; instead of teaching them what is inside its pages, she is telling them the story of her doomed fiancé, or of her latest European holiday, or of the rise of Mussolini in Italy. Miss Brodie’s methods of teaching – she doesn’t believe in a curriculum of study – puts her at odds with the rest of the school staff, apart from Mr Lowther and Mr Lloyd, the singing and art masters, who are both in love with her. Her charismatic style has inspired the unquestioning devotion of a select group of girls, called the ‘Brodie set’ by the other teachers, who are invited to tea and taken to the theatre, and confided in about Miss Brodie’s love affairs and her problems with the other teachers at school. Even when they have gone up to the senior school and left her classroom for good, the ‘Brodie set’ remain Miss Brodie’s special favourites, and she demands their unswerving loyalty as a result.

We know from the start that one of her ‘set’ will betray Miss Brodie; the narrative is cleverly constructed, with a present, past and future all happening concurrently. The ‘present’ is of the girls in their senior school, no longer taught by Miss Brodie, but there are regular flashbacks to the past, as well as glimpses of the future fates of the ‘set’ and Miss Brodie herself. At first Miss Brodie appears a wonderful teacher; she refuses to teach just the facts and instead focuses on enlightening the girls in her care of the finer side of life; of goodness, truth, and beauty; of art, and travel, and culture. She doesn’t talk down to them; at ten years old she deems them perfectly old enough to discuss complicated issues with, such as sex and the rise of Fascism in Europe, and she always encourages them to be individuals and true to themselves. However, slowly, as the story moves forward, back, forward, back, we see a more detailed and disturbing picture coming into focus. As much as Miss Brodie encourages individuality, she only encourages it if the individual sentiments being expressed tie in with her own. The facts she teaches are her own opinions and tastes; whatever she likes is right and has value and meaning; whatever she doesn’t is wrong and not worth notice. She discourages ‘team spirit’, and doesn’t want the girls joining Girl Scouts or team games at school, not because it will diminish their individuality, as she claims, but because it will take them outside of her control. This is where Miss Brodie’s trips to Europe and her admiration of Hitler and Mussolini become worrying; the photographs of black shirted men all marching in a line that she pins to the noticeboard in her classroom is what Miss Brodie wants to create with her ‘set’. She wants clones of herself, and this is reflected in the art teacher Teddy Lloyd’s slightly creepy portraits of each of the girls; the only true likeness that can be seen in their painted faces is that of Miss Brodie. As time goes on and Miss Brodie starts to use the girls to play games and live out her own fantasies, some of them start to drift off as they resent her control and have begun to see her true colours. Eventually she will be betrayed by one of them, after the consequences of Miss Brodie’s controlling ways claim a life. This betrayal costs Miss Brodie her job, but ultimately so strong was her power that her influence over the lives of her ‘set’ will never truly wane, even after she is dead.

I found this such a fascinating, clever, funny and also somehow moving novel. As disturbing as Miss Brodie’s desire for control was, her passion, creativity, intelligence and independence were inspiring and Spark  brings her so vividly to life. I couldn’t help but think of her with compassion when I read of her fiance’s death; like so many others, she was a ‘surplus woman’ after the war, and had to forge an independent life for herself with little hope of the husband, children and home she was brought up to expect. She is the embodiment of a mid century spinster, throwing herself into teaching, hobbies and travel, developing an eccentric and forceful personality; she probably would have been someone entirely different had she married as planned. I do think there is something more than just a criticism of Fascism in Miss Brodie’s methods of creating clones of herself; I think Spark was also creating the idea of Miss Brodie wanting to build a legacy, leaving a part of her personality and world view behind through the children she taught. They became the offspring she never had the opportunity to have. It is, after all, rather symbolic that Miss Brodie dies of a ‘growth inside her’ –  but not a child; instead, a malignant cancer, destroying her from the inside.

No review of mine could hope to do justice to the complexity and intricacy of this novel, which is a real work of art. I haven’t even touched on the intense religious atmosphere that reigns throughout, and of how Miss Brodie herself is a sort of High Priestess of her own religion; it’s no surprise that one of her set ends up a Nun when you think about the almost religious devotion they had for their teacher in their youth. In fact, the path of unswerving devotion, followed by disillusion and betrayal, and then a reconnection later in life is a fairly typical religious narrative, echoed in many Bible stories, and this turns out to be the story of the most prominent of Miss Brodie’s ‘set’. I found reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie a real intellectual challenge; it was stimulating as well as entertaining, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I’m looking forward to reading more Spark in future, and am delighted that Simon and Harriet are doing such an excellent job of promoting her brilliance this week. I must also thank the lovely Lija at Penguin for sending me this gorgeous new edition of the novel; it’s part of the Penguin Essentials series and the covers are all very striking; do check them out!

Pride and Prejudice – Varying Observations

I have now finished Pride and Prejudice, and when I tell you that I sat up until the wee small hours for a good few nights because I couldn’t bear to put it down, I think that shows how much I loved it. What a brilliant book this is; so witty, well observed, lively, emotive and deeply, deeply, satisfying.  It contains none of the weaknesses I consider Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park to have; in Pride and Prejudice we have a three dimensional, wonderfully flawed heroine and an equally three dimensional and wonderfully flawed hero, and Austen is excellent at allowing us to get inside both of their heads and so come to understand and sympathise with them on an emotional and rational level. There were several points where I was filled with so much joy that I couldn’t read on; I had to have a little wistful moment with my hand pressed to my chest and my eyes gazing off into the middle distance, digesting the wonderful piece of dialogue, tete a tete, or scene I had just been thoroughly delighted with, before I could come back to my senses and process the prose again. How anyone can say that they don’t love Jane Austen, I really cannot understand. She is a miracle. The world would be a less joyful, less romantic, less hopeful place without her.

Pride and Prejudice has so many interesting characters and subplots and themes to tease out, and I can’t possibly hope to get to them all in just a couple of posts, but I am going to try and look at a few. Firstly, the novel hinges on miscommunications and misunderstandings. There is the obvious one, on which the whole plot pivots, which is Elizabeth’s misunderstanding of Darcy’s character due to her ill advised trust in Mr Wickham’s deliberate miscommunication of his life story, but there are also plenty of other ways in the novel in which characters, by saying too much or too little, or by failing to understand a situation, influence the plot. Elizabeth makes a fatal error by choosing not to communicate Mr Wickham’s true colours once Mr Darcy has made them clear to her; her decision to keep quiet paves the way for Lydia’s elopement. Jane’s failure to make her feelings known to Mr Bingley causes Mr Darcy to misunderstand her modesty for disinterest, and convince Mr Bingley that Jane doesn’t love him. This then moves the Bingleys and Mr Darcy away from Netherfield to London, prolonging the action and introducing a good deal of tension to the plot.

Miscommunication doesn’t always cause problems, though; in some cases, it is a major benefit. A seemingly minor miscommunication is Jane’s inability to address the letter about Lydia’s elopement to Elizabeth in Derbyshire correctly; this delays the letter’s arrival by three days. However, in this three days, Elizabeth has had the opportunity to see Darcy in a totally different light, through going to his home, meeting his housekeeper, and witnessing him behaving as a kind, courteous and amiable gentleman, highly respected by all who know him. It is from this point that she begins to fall in love with him; yet if she had received Jane’s letter on time, Elizabeth and the Gardiners would have been obliged to cut their trip short without ever going to Pemberley. Moreover, Darcy’s arrival a day before he had said he would be at home ensures that he crosses Elizabeth’s path and sets in motion their renewed relationship; if he had made his plans known, Elizabeth would never have dared go to Pemberley at all. So, miscommunication and misunderstandings cause just as much joy as they do trouble, and without them, Pride and Prejudice would have been a much shorter and less interesting novel.

Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I am particularly struck by Austen’s portrayal of the Gardiners. Seemingly minor characters, they are actually incredibly important as surrogate parents for Jane and Elizabeth, demonstrating to them what a good marriage looks like. In a novel full of ill matched marriages, they are a beacon of hope. Without them, Jane and Elizabeth would have no model for what happy matrimony should be; Mr and Mrs Bennett are an unfortunate pair of role models indeed. Married too young, Mr Bennett soon realised  to his cost that prettiness is no substitute for brains. He quickly lost all respect and patience for his wife, and Mrs Bennett was always too dim and too selfish to have developed an understanding and respect for her husband’s character. After 25 years of marriage, they barely tolerate one another, and clearly have little pleasure in each other’s company. Lydia and Wickham’s marriage is an exact copy of this relationship, and Austen makes it clear by the end of the novel that they will have the same fate; Wickham has lost all respect for Lydia, and Lydia’s ardour for Wickham has rapidly cooled. Mr Collins and Charlotte Lucas’ marriage is another ill advised pairing; Charlotte is far too sensible and rational for Mr Collins, and will never be able to esteem or love her husband. However, she knows what she is doing, and has placed her desire for a home and children above her desire to give and receive love in marriage. This cool rationality with no romance in sight horrifies Elizabeth. For her, only a love match will do. But how does she know a love match is possible? Certainly not from her parents; rather, it is through witnessing the marriage of her beloved aunt and uncle. The Gardiners represent a perfect union; attractive, intelligent and sensible, they are equals on every level. Their mutual devotion is an example Jane and Elizabeth look to in modelling their future marriages, unlike their silly sister, who is her mother’s favourite and so naturally follows in her footsteps by making the most imprudent and hasty marriage possible.

Finally, I love how Austen creates such comedic characters, passing no authorial judgement, but simply allowing them to show their own stupidity through their dialogue and actions. Mr Collins’ ridiculous obsequiousness, pomposity and total lack of tact or social awareness is hilarious, and no one needs to tell us this apart from Mr Collins himself. His letters are especially priceless; he genuinely thinks he is being of consolation by telling the Bennetts that it is all their fault that Lydia has run off with Wickham, and that, oh, by the way, so does Lady Catherine, and everyone else he has told of their misfortune. Yes, just what they want to hear at this moment in time! Mrs Bennett is no better; even in her moment of most distress over Lydia’s elopement, she still manages to think about the dilemma of wedding clothes, and when the wedding is confirmed, the excitement of ordering the trousseau is what gets her out of bed. This focus on trivial, shallow details is Mrs Bennett’s speciality; she always fails to see the bigger picture and is like a child in her wildly swinging emotions. Her favour of her children dependent on what they do to please her is also a symptom of her childish and shallow personality; as soon as Elizabeth announces her engagement, Jane and Lydia are cast off immediately, and Elizabeth, who she had previously declared disowned and never bothered to show much affection to, has suddenly become her favourite child. Mr Collins and Mrs Bennett (and Lady Catherine, as well, of course – ‘I insist on being satisfied!’ has to be the best line in the whole book!) provide comic relief at times of heightened stress in the novel, and Austen’s structuring is rather Shakespearean in this way. Having such characters as this keeps the novel ‘light, bright, and sparkling’ – without them, Pride and Prejudice would lack the humour and frivolity that makes it such a fun as well as such a satisfying read.

I could go on for hours but I shall stop here…more thoughts in a couple of days. Meanwhile don’t forget to check out Muriel Spark Reading Week at Simon and Harriet’s – I will be participating with the rather predictable The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (I don’t have any other Sparks – and this new edition is gorgeous!) and please do read this wonderful interview with Anne Tyler, who I have never really mentioned, but is one of my favourite authors. I’ll definitely be reading some of her books this summer.

Exhibitionist

London’s museums are doing themselves proud with their multitude of fascinating exhibitions at the moment. I really am spoilt for choice when it comes to opportunities to broaden my mind! However, the one that has most been calling to me is the Natural History Museum’s Scott exhibition, and last Sunday I finally made my way over to see it. I don’t know an awful lot about the history of polar exploration, and have deliberately not read much about the Scott expedition, as I can’t bear the thought of their tragic end. However, the exhibition promised to not dwell on the tragedy, but rather to celebrate the achievements of the expedition, and this was an angle that intrigued me. Accordingly I found myself wandering through the cavernous entrance hall of the museum, which is a real feat of Victorian engineering and prime example of how they managed to build beauty into all aspects of architectural construction. I hadn’t been inside for years (despite working next door for two!) and it really did blow me away. I also loved marvelling at the huge T-Rex skeleton on display, and hearing the delighted exclamations of the hundreds of children crowded around it, who seemed to think it might come back to life any minute and gobble them up!

Once I’d managed to get through the assault course of small children, prams and several kiosks selling dinosaur themed merchandise that lay in my path from entrance to exhibition, I arrived in the quiet and peaceful exhibition hall and was immediately entranced by a photograph of the Terra Nova, the ship that transported them from Britain to the Antarctic, surrounded by ice and a sky so white I could almost feel the cold emanating from it. In the background they were playing sounds of the Antarctic and it all felt incredibly atmospheric. I wandered through the first section, which explains the context of the expedition, and what the aims of it were. They have display cases containing the food rations, clothing and equipment they took with them,  and alongside the usual dried and canned goods they had crates of chocolate, biscuits, tea, baked beans (I had no idea they went back so far!) and eccentric Edwardian condiments that were sponsored by the manufacturing companies who were eager to be associated with such an exciting adventure. The most interesting product they took with them was a canned food called ‘Pemmican’, which was invented by Native Americans and is a blend of meat, fat and dried fruit that is high in energy. It was adopted by those working in the fur trade and was also given to soldiers in the Boer War. I don’t fancy the idea of it myself but the Scott expedition members seem to have found it pretty tasty!

In fact, I found the domestic arrangements of the expedition members the most interesting aspect of the whole exhibition. This is probably rather shallow of me, as the exhibition made much of the scientific discoveries the zoologists, geologists and astronomers of the group achieved and had some wonderful specimens on display that were picked up on the trip, such as penguin embryos and volcanic rock formations. For me though, all of this paled in comparison to the diaries, photographs, menu cards, books and other intimate, everyday items that revealed the reality of life in a small hut shared with ten or so men for over a year. The exhibition space recreates the dimensions of the hut, so that you can experience just how claustrophobic it must have been. In this space they had to eat, sleep, work and play, and the photographs of how they laid it out, making bunk beds and partitions out of used storage crates and decorating their individual areas with photographs from home was so touching. I loved how they celebrated birthdays and Christmases with elaborate meals, decorations and presents; they were a real family and pulled together to support one another during what must have been a very challenging and emotionally difficult time. The resident chef was the true star of the show for me, though, managing to create interesting and varied meals out of very limited ingredients every day. He kept the team well fed and their spirits up; as we all know, there’s no comfort for a weary soul like a good meal.

The team stayed in the base camp for almost a year, preparing for the final push to the South Pole. During this time they had conducted many trips out to lay stores along the route, as well as other expeditions to collect scientific specimens, take photographs and measure weather conditions. The expedition was certainly not just about being first to the Pole; it was also about enabling the world to greater understand the Antarctic regions and its flora and fauna. However, making it to the Pole was Scott’s overriding priority, and 16 of the men set out to reach it in September 1911. Along the route, 11 were to eventually turn back, leaving the final 5, including Scott, to finish the expedition. We all know how the story ends, and I found it horribly moving to read the diary entries of those left behind at base camp, their worry increasing every day as the date of the Polar party’s return came and went with no sign of their friends. Eventually they had to conclude that they had not made it, but had to wait eight months before conditions were good enough for them to attempt to find out what had happened. It took them less than two weeks to find the tent where their bodies lay; the tragedy of how close they were to making it back alive struck them all and many were wracked with guilt for the rest of their lives at the thought that they could have tried harder to save them.

It is a very sad story, but the exhibition did an excellent job of celebrating what was achieved and the significance of what was discovered over the course of the two years the party spent in the Antarctic. They may not have been the first to reach the Pole, but they made some incredible discoveries and left a legacy of heroism and bravery that means they will never be forgotten. I was enthralled by it all, and now can’t wait to read Scott’s diaries, as well as the party zoologist, Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s account of his time in the Antarctic, The Worst Journey in the World. There is also a wonderful book of photographs of the expedition that will certainly be going on my birthday list.

After all that tragedy, I needed a pick me up, so I popped across the road to see the new British Design exhibition at the V&A. It celebrates the best in British art and design from 1948 to the present day, and it really is fantastic. I was mainly interested in the immediate postwar displays, which explored how artists and designers responded to the austerity of the war years, expressing themselves in stark, clean, simple lines that reflected the ideas of progress and modernity. However, under the surface there was a great wave of nostalgia and patriotism, exacerbated by the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, and this tension between traditional, rural values of a Green and Pleasant land and a striving towards a new, urban future of modern, technologically advanced cities is everywhere in the designs of the time. I was especially fascinated by the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, which was a beautiful survivor of the Medieval period and almost totally destroyed in a terrible night of bombing which devastated the city. It had to be largely rebuilt after the war, and the striking modernity and creativity of the Cathedral design reflected the idea of the city rising from the ashes to a new future. New model towns grew up all over Britain, such as Harlow and Milton Keynes (otherwise known as Roundabout City!), built to house those who were bombed out of their homes during the war, and these contained high rise tower blocks and homes filled with clean lines, huge windows, open plan layouts and plenty of green space; ‘new utopias’ for a new age.

V&A exhibitions are always brilliant – though I am biased – and I left this one feeling very proud of how Britain regenerated itself after the war and also fascinated by how much about a society can be deduced from the way it expresses itself through its art, architecture and manufacture. I encourage those of you who can to come and visit, and don’t forget to go to the shop – it is absolutely full of wonderful British Design related things, and I was especially tempted by this book of Eric Ravilious paintings – I love his art and his depictions of rural British life demonstrate perfectly that tension between tradition and modernity that is so evident in post-war British design.

So, a lovely day of exploring and learning was had, and all that was left to do afterwards was have tea and cake with a friend back in Highgate, where I once again spotted a beautiful piece of British design; check out the teacup chandelier!!

Pride and Prejudice: First Impressions

I must admit, I have never really loved Pride and Prejudice. I have a typically British love of the underdog, and a desire to promote what I believe to be underappreciated. Pride and Prejudice is most often quoted as being Austen’s ‘best’ novel, and the vast majority of people who read Austen seem to claim it as their favourite. I suspect this is largely thanks to the 1990s adaptation starring Colin Firth, whose rise from the lake in see through shirt and skin tight breeches, dripping with irresistible, repressed English male sexuality (and water, of course), earned Pride and Prejudice legions of new fans. As such, Pride and Prejudice doesn’t need my promotion, and so I have reserved my praise and raptures for Austen’s less read masterpieces; namely, the exquisite Persuasion, and the marvellous Emma. I have always found Pride and Prejudice somewhat lacking in comparison to these two younger sisters; it is witty and sparkling and has engaging characters a-plenty, but it never really inspired my affection. I read it several times during my teenage years, and studied it for my A levels, and each time I failed to see the magic others did. It has been a good seven years since I last picked it up, and now, older, wiser and more open minded, I am seeing it with fresher and less critical eyes. Especially as I am reading it so soon after Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility, both of which I think are rather flawed, at last I can see what others do; this really is a close to perfect novel, and one in which you can see the development of Austen’s style and confidence as a novelist. At present (100 pages in), I can’t fault it.

The first thing that has struck me is how hypocritical, proud and a poor judge of character Elizabeth is. After Mr Darcy’s brilliantly catty put-down ‘not handsome enough to tempt me’ – Elizabeth, though she laughs it off and pretends not to care, obviously takes the comment deeply to heart. Her resentment is so keenly felt that regardless of Darcy’s behaviour after his initial criticism of her, she is determined to hate him and find fault in all he does. This is rather ironic, as she is very quick to criticise Darcy for his inability to give people second chances. Darcy – which I had totally forgotten – actually realises his mistake within seconds of his ill advised comment and is not shy about making his admiration of her known. He defends Elizabeth when the Bingley sisters mock her and attempt to put her down, and makes a genuine effort to build up a repartee and earn his way back into her good graces. He is never unkind or short with her – except when he begins to worry that he may have taken things too far, on her last day at Netherfield during Jane’s illness – and in an environment where Elizabeth is out of place and uncomfortable, and the Bingley sisters do their utmost to make her feel small – Darcy makes it clear to the Bingleys that he approves of her, both in appearance and intelligence, and does his best to lessen the impact of their incivility. His former brusqueness is obviously down to shyness; his close friendship with the amiable and rather simple Mr Bingley suggests to the more astute reader that Darcy is an entirely different man to those he trusts and loves, and his reputation as being proud and aloof is only really evidenced when he is in the company of a large group of strangers. This all points to a social awkwardness, a hatred of small talk and a hatred of being looked at (he hates dancing, I am sure, because he dislikes being paid attention to) that Elizabeth, as a gregarious and confident girl, cannot understand or relate to. Therefore, she misreads Darcy’s shyness for pride and snobbery, and makes no attempt to try and understand him further; which, as we all know, will turn out to be a big mistake.

Enter Mr Wickham, who I always want to call Mr Willoughby; they are so similar! The awkward encounter between Mr Wickham and Mr Darcy on the street in Meryton piques Elizabeth’s interest, and she revels in Wickham’s dirt-dishing on Darcy. She doesn’t stop to wonder why a perfect stranger is so keen to tell her his dirty laundry, or blacken the name of Mr Darcy so thoroughly in their very first conversation; to someone a little more mature, this would ring alarm bells. Why is Mr Wickham so anxious to get Elizabeth on his side? Why is he so vocal about Mr Darcy’s apparently dastardly behaviour, despite the fact that he has only just met Elizabeth and they haven’t established anywhere near a level of intimacy that would merit him telling her such personal confidences? Obviously he is up to something, but Elizabeth doesn’t even think to doubt him. So bitter is she towards Darcy for his comment at the ball that she delights in a further excuse to think ill of him, and happily trusts a perfect stranger who clearly has several chips on his shoulder. Jane, who I had previously thought of as a bit of a drip, shows some sense and does raise doubts as to Wickham’s trustworthiness, but Elizabeth will have none of it. She is determined to hate Darcy, and though she is normally possessed of plenty of good sense and intelligence, her vanity over the slight she has received overrides all other considerations. When she mentions Wickham to Darcy, and Darcy refuses to say much on the issue, this should have shown her that Wickham was the one to distrust; Darcy is the true gentleman in declining to trample on someone else’s reputation. However, she takes this as a further sign of his guilt, and, silly thing that she is, falls even more in love with the handsome and supposedly hard done by Wickham in the process. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, after all; and no woman can resist a man in a uniform.

So here we are, at page 100, with a lively, fun loving, passionate and intelligent heroine who, through her own pride, is getting herself into a very tricky situation indeed. Normally I would find such lack of insight infuriating, but I actually love Elizabeth for it. Love is blind, and haven’t we all been in a position of failing to see what is right under our noses because of our misguided affection for a man (or woman!) who is very handsome and says all the right things? Of course we have! Elizabeth is marvellously human, and a magnificent creation. So is Mrs Bennett; I had forgotten how awful she is – the epitome of the embarrassing mother – and don’t even get me started on Mr Collins! He deserves a post of his own. Mr Darcy has especially warmed my heart, however; his awkward attempts at showing Elizabeth that he actually admires her rather a lot and is sorry for what he said are very endearing, and it’s obvious that he finds Elizabeth’s curtness hurtful. He is not very good at communicating with people, and this social shyness is debilitating, giving him a reputation he doesn’t deserve. I just want to give him a hug; what woman can resist a vulnerable man?! I am delighted to be so thoroughly enjoying myself and am looking forward to reading further and getting into some interesting discussions with you all. There are so many characters I want to explore and so many issues bubbling under the surface; what a magnificent novel this is! More to come over the next week!