Happy 200th Birthday to “Pride and Prejudice”

William Deresiewicz writes up a nice encomium on the novel for The New Yorker's Page-Turner blog:

Austen is inscrutable. As with Shakespeare, the magnitude of the achievement is incommensurate with the life that produced it. But in Shakespeare’s case, there is a lot we do not know. In Austen’s, there just isn’t very much to know. She grew up in a large and literate family; shared a bedroom with her sister her entire life; never went abroad, caused a scandal, sought to enter high society, corresponded with illustrious peers, got rich, went broke, or took a lover; and she died a spinster (and without question, a virgin) at the age of forty-one.

The prodigy’s genius tends to be all overflowing passion—think of Keats or Shelley, Austen’s near contemporaries. The autodidact’s tends to be all rough edges and loose ends—think of Melville or D. H. Lawrence. When we turn to Austen—and above all, to “Pride and Prejudice”—the qualities that come to mind are confidence, mastery, serenity, and tact. Especially tact. She spares us knowledge of herself, leaves us free to read the story through the window of her perfectly transparent prose. She doesn’t tax us with her personality. She keeps her feelings out of it—not her judgments, her feelings, and she never confuses the two.

“Pride and Prejudice” discredits one of our most deeply held beliefs: the idea that emotions have an absolute validity. Feelings are not right or wrong, we say; they just are. Or rather, feelings are always right, because they are—and we always have a right to them. It is a notion that was promulgated by the same feminism that helped to elevate Austen to her current eminence. So much of the feminist struggle involved asserting the legitimacy of women’s feelings. Emotions—the reality of female discontent within the patriarchal system—were the bedrock, in a sense, of the feminist argument.