What Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice Teaches Readers

Karen Swallow Prior :

Before she was a writer, Jane Austen was a reader. A reader, moreover, within a family of readers, who would gather in her father’s rectory to read aloud from the work of authors such as Samuel Johnson, Frances Burney, and William Cowper—as well as, eventually, Jane’s own works-in-progress.

Not surprisingly, then, in Austen’s novels, the act of reading is a key indication of how a character should initially be judged, and of major turning points in her development. For Austen, the way a character reads is emblematic of other forms of interpretation: One’s skills in comprehending written language are linked to one’s ability to understand life, other people, and oneself.

Characters’ choices of books are a frequent target of Austen’s satire. Persuasion, for example, opens with a vignette that might otherwise seem insignificant: the reading habits of the protagonist’s father, Sir Walter Elliot, who “for his own amusement, never took up any book” except one—the record of British families that contains his own lineage. In Pride and Prejudice, the insufferable clergyman Mr. Collins chooses to orate from James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women one afternoon because (as he piously proclaims) he abstains from novels. This episode clearly represents what Henry Tilney, Catherine Morland’s love interest in Northanger Abbey, means when he says, “The person … who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” On the other hand, Catherine’s friend Isabella Thorpe takes great pleasure in novels—but not high-quality ones. Accordingly, Isabella’s character turns out to be as excessive, hyperbolic, dramatic, and deceptive as the Gothic tales she recommends to Catherine.