Timeless or tedious? 'It is not that it shows all the political awareness of a copy of the Beano, simply that it is an immensely dreary novel'

As Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy reappear in yet another dramatisation of Pride and Prejudice, we ask if Jane Austen's classic really is the most perfect English novel - or just a 19th-century Mills & Boon
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First taxed by that classic Austen opener back in mid-1970s teendom, I must have balked at it a dozen times before goading myself on into the dense verbal undergrowth that follows. Even now the edition pressed on me by my mother still has the unworn look of a text that is only read on the rare occasions when someone is paying you for the effort. And why exactly? Something to do with the practised coyness of the style and thesense of futility that rises off the material laid out for the reader's inspection.

The standard anti-Jane Austen line, peddled by post-Marxist critics of the Terry Eagleton school, is puritan-cum-utilitarian. Here we are, to put it starkly, in a cosy, early 19th century world, tracking the social manoeuvrings of the aimless, young unemployed who live off capital and whose lifestyle depends for its languor on the sweat of a servant class whose existence they barely trouble to acknowledge. A whole bunch of historically fascinating stuff is going on outside the rectory window - the Napoleonic Wars, the first stirrings of Regency era reform - but no, Miss Austen is absorbed by the effect that Elizabeth Bennet's dirty skirt-ends will have on her friends the Bingleys after her trudge through the mud.

There is not the slightest point, though, in damning Miss A for her lack of historical engagement. Novelists are entitled to choose their subject matter, and one might as well criticise Ronald Firbank for not writing about the Battle of the Somme. It is not that Pride and Prejudice shows all the political awareness of the Beano, simply that it is an immensely dreary novel, spun out to four times the length warranted by its subject matter. To watch Elizabeth Bennet's stop-start progress into the arms of Mr Darcy is to be reminded of one of those ornamental clocks striking the hour, when two figures emerge and move with painful slownessto bring their arms within touching distance.

I am not alone in my inability to comprehend Austen's appeal. Kingsley Amis once offered some feeling remarks on the "self-righteous, it's-alright-when-I-do-it niggling informativeness that we normally associate only with Jane Austen heroes". To the fact that nothing ever happens can be added a second disabling drawback: the tediousness of the characters. Mr Darcy's pompous rationalisings I frankly yawned over. The comic potential of fatuous Mr Collins, the tuft-hunting clergyman, is exhausted by the end of his first appearance. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is an hilarious old snob, certainly, but think what Thackeray could have done with her - could have done with the whole scenario, whose moral implications he would have probed with far more subtlety than Miss A. Even old Mr Bennet is confined to the status of witty walk-on, when what one really wants to see is how he treats his prattling wife after the girls have gone to bed.

For a novel so esteemed for its bat's-ear dialogue and ever-shifting moral positions, Pride and Prejudice is surprisingly keen on telling rather than showing. We know what Lady Catherine and Mrs Bennet are like right from the start, because the author never lets them out of her clutches. In consequence, they never acquire the extra dimension that might turn them into real people.

And yet all this is nothing compared to the uses to which the novel has been put over the years by its admirers. How the heart of the averagely intelligent reader must sink whenever there is news of a new adaptation, with its double helpings of bonnets, Colin Firth rearing priapically from the lake and the substitution of romance for the devious calculation that is the book's real subject. The Jane Austen cult has been running for a couple of centuries now, ever since the Prince Regent declared that he slept with a set of her novels by his bedside. From it derives not only that tradition of modestly satirical "English" novels, whose denouements consist of anguished glances and pressed hands by the fireside, but shelf-fulls of suspect theorising. The real give-way about Morris Zapp, the shifty professor of David Lodge's campus novels, is that he is a Jane Austen specialist. Meanwhile, a tribe of superior women writers go unregarded. Why doesn't someone make a film of The Rector's Daughter, F M Mayor's devastating portrait of early 20th century spinster life? It would make a change from another two hours of carriages grinding up the country house gravel and genteel simpering over Georgian tea-cups.