There’s magic in reading a book that’s destined to stay with you through the years. The act of discovery is reactive. It ripples into perspective, tearing off rose-colored glasses or placing them back on. As with the best books, this alchemy alters everything. The world is suddenly different. And this is wonderful.
The terrible part comes next. There’s that twinge of sadness when the first impression is over because there is only one first time, one exhilarating intake of those perfect moments of pleasurable reading. Pride and Prejudice evokes these feelings in the happy souls who experience love at first read, and the loss is enough to make readers inclined, if only for a heartbeat, to go about wailing like Mrs. Bennet.
The good news is that Janeites can save themselves the trouble.
Much like rereading P&P, spending a few hours with Susannah Fullerton’s Celebrating Pride and Prejudice: 200 Years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece is a balm to the dismal fact that there is but one P&P among myriad imitations. It’s a bonus that Fullerton’s enjoyment in writing the commemoration is palpable; what the book tries to accomplish and indeed does is evoke the delight of what Austen called “my own darling child” by exploring what makes the novel unforgettable.
The table of contents is enough to get this reader excited. My favorite chapter is ‘Did They all Live Happily Ever After?: Sequels and Adaptations’ as it is an amusing summary of what happens when a novel enters the public imagination. Visually, Celebrating also has much to recommend itself. The pages offer illustrations adorning various editions, covers on translations and teen imprints, and historical depictions of place and person. Fullerton’s character analyses of Elizabeth as a luminously unique heroine in her time and Darcy as the mold from which many beloved romance heroes now spring are likewise irresistible.
Underscoring all is a history of the novel’s journey, from its inception in 1796, to its underwhelming public reception before it eventually reached epic literary status. By the book’s end, Celebrating presents an engrossing study of why P&P is so appealing. For Janeites, it is a thoughtful guide to everything P&P. For writers, it invites us to consider the forest for the trees. History buffs and literary enthusiasts will also enjoy a look inside the evolution of a masterpiece, from publication to metamorphosis through films, literary sequels and adaptations, and yes, merchandising.
I believe Fullerton has celebrated P&P in a way Jane Austen would appreciate. The tone of Celebrating Pride and Prejudice possesses nothing of the sparkly fandom that Lydia Bennet might exhibit, nor the dry pedagogical airs of Mary Bennet. It achieves something akin to the sisterhood between Elizabeth and Jane: best enjoyed with a warm cup of tea in a room shared with an old friend. I loved it and would highly recommend giving it a read.
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