Saturday, September 24, 2005

Pride and Prejudice

"Pride and Prejudice" was sold out last night, so I can't comment on the film. It's more than 20 years since I read the book, and I was trying to remember when I last read it. So familiar has the story become, through adaptions such as the BBC's, as well as "loose" adaptions like "Bridget Jones Diary" and "Bride and Prejudice." Even when I was at school studying it, it was dismissed by many in the class as a girls book, which always seemed particularly unfair for this most charged of domestic dramas. Perhaps the meaning was that the character you can identify with has to be Elizabeth Bennett. It's why the book has lasted, this modern sensibility, concentrating on this headstrong character. Darcy is a head we never get in to, so I guess for a male reading the book, its not about using Darcy as a role model, but wondering where on earth we might meet a woman like Lizzie Bennett? Perhaps I've spent the last 20 years or so doing just that! "The Great Gatsby" (today is Fitzgerald's birthday) was on television last night, the lush but static Robert Redford/Mia Farrow version. Daisy Buchanan didn't come across as so mentally disturbed in the book, though Tom is a 100% bastard in both. I mention this, because, despite everything, once Darcy has come to his senses (and moreover turns to be saint rather than sinner in the case of Wickham), Lizzie has the not indistinct advantage of moving into the biggest house in Derbyshire. Perhaps twas ever thus. "A single man in possession of a good fortune..." turns into Darcy. This is the stuff of fairytale of course, and its probably where one's only criticism of Austen can come in; that the rarified world she's writing of is just that. Here poverty is relative, and measurable, and impenetrable. Marriage is the only social mobility (though debt probably comes a possible second.) In retrospect the Bennett's have been living a long-term gamble on (a) having a son, and (b) getting good husbands for the girls. Gatsby is also about new and old money, and it's sway. Carraway is a "lowly" bond trader (ironic given the excessive wealth of that profession these last 20 years!) whilst Gatsby's money, though never clearcut, is potentially anything - given the fallout of the post-war years. It is the old money of Tom and Daisy that is finally the impenetrable place - it can do any damn thing it wants - and it is also the trap, and the moral. So Gatsby is a more attainable role model than Darcy, since its not about inheritance, but charisma. He doesn't - and can't - get, and keep the girl. Fitzgerald never wrote the coda to this great tragedy, that there are in fact, "second acts", to American lives, his own, with Sheila Ferguson, a different happiness (and different tragedy) than with Zelda. Had Gatsby lived, one hopes, he'd have downsized his dreams, and grown into a different sort of happiness - an attainable one. I love both of these books, but whilst the Austen has been "borrowed" innumerable times, Gatsby remains somewhat aloof to adaption. Can any woman truly find Tom Buchanan attractive? Beyond his money and connections? The role of reading groups, of discussions about books, of it being a mainly female phenomenon, has its effect, I guess. We're still waiting for the male writers who can address this market - though I've head good things spoken of Andrew Miller's "Oxygen" for instance, I've yet ro read it. Ian McEwan recently gave away a load of new editions of classics that he'd been given and almost without exception it was women who accepted, once they'd found one they'd not yet read!, and its an interesting conclusion, "when women stop reading, the novel will be dead." It's one of those "when's" that might never happen of course - but they probably said that of getting married, and having children, and just look at the demographics!

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