Donna Leon's book of a lifetime - Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

 

 

Yes, it is about love, but sometime later in life the reader realizes it is also about the love that comes from resignation, seen when Charlotte Lucas accepts the offer of the unspeakable, plodding Mr. Collins.  She knows she is not young, and she is poor; she knows she is not a catch, and so she will accept Mr. Collins’ proposal and love him until death do them part.  Mr. Bennet is mildly concerned for his daughters’ futures and puts up with his wife: it’s as close to love as this disappointed man can come, the best he can give.  Lady Catherine probably loves her daughter, poor thing.

To read the book a half century later is also to see how overwhelmingly the book is about money.  (Breaks your heart to read this, huh?)  Every man has his worth, and it is expressed in pounds per year.  Mr. Darcy is thus worth more than his friend Mr. Bingley, and indeed, he gets the sparkling Lizzie, and Mr. Bingley gets the sober, even-headed Jane.  And Mr. Collins, who is not worth as much as either one of them, gets Charlotte Lucas.  Frivolous – not to use a stronger word – Lydia gets Wickham, who has to be paid off to have her. 

Lizzie and Jane and their sisters are pretty much – I don’t like having to say it – worthless.  No dowry, father’s house entailed, no education, not even enough to enable them to be governesses: failed the arrival of Darcy and Bingley, what would await them?

What woman is worth the most?  Lady Catherine’s listless, ailing daughter, Anne.  One of the comforts of age is that even this grim knowledge of social reality does nothing to diminish the sparkle of life that fills every page of this most glorious of novels, and so the reading of it is a lifelong joy.

 

By Its Cover is published in hardback on 3 April (William Heinemann, £17.99)

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