Friday, December 23, 2016

In Trying Times, the Balm of Jane Austen

by Susan Chir

New York Times

December 23, 2016

There are grim passages in our lives when each day begins and ends with dread, when endurance is a form of victory. In one such time, when the life of someone I loved was hanging in the balance, I turned to reading for solace. The diagnosis was grave, the treatment arduous and life-threatening in itself. My days and nights were kaleidoscopes of terror: weekslong hospitalizations, middle-of-the-night sprints to emergency rooms, daylong drug infusions at clinics, beeping monitors, doctors’ verdicts.

Though I read voraciously in good times and bad, it soon became clear that not just any book would do. I couldn’t get through a new book; it was too hard to summon the energy to concentrate. I needed the comfort and relative ease of familiarity, the literary equivalent of a warm bath.

I picked up my worn copy of Pride and Prejudice. An uncle who had a secondhand-book store in the East Village gave it to me as a birthday present when I was 11. I was too young to appreciate much of it, and struggled with the archaic language. But the enduring delights of this novel seduced me then as now: the spirit and wit of Elizabeth Bennet, who defies convention by spurning the hand of the wealthy, haughty Mr. Darcy; the pomposity of Mr. Collins; the vulgarity of Mrs. Bennet; and the slow journey toward self-knowledge that finally unites the lovers.

In Pride and Prejudice, tragedy is held at bay. The suspense revolves around whether Bingley or Darcy will fall in love or be driven away by inferior social standing, or how badly the Bennet family will embarrass itself at the next ball. The most serious crisis is the seduction of Elizabeth’s sister and how it affects her marriageability.


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