Reading Pride and Prejudice for My Mother

I've lost count of how many times I've read Pride and Prejudice. I've even lost count of how many copies of it I've owned over the years. The clothbound Penguin classic version I bought on a whim this year... the professor-approved editions with full appendixes and introductions... the generic paperback iterations... and of course, the first one. The first one has long been lost -- lent to a friend, consumed into the ever-growing mass of volumes that fill the bookshelves in my family home, given away during a move, who knows -- but I remember it vividly. It was a paperback, but a big, sturdy one. It had a murky, blue-black cover with a portrait of a single woman in Georgian garb peering out, a design I've never seen since, though the concept is a popular one. It was given to me by my mother.

My family was built on books. My parents met in graduate school, where they were getting advanced degrees in English, and while my father went on to teach literature at Notre Dame, my mother worked as a freelance journalist and stayed home with the kids. He read The Hobbit and the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy aloud to me and my brothers while we were still toddlers. She spearheaded the Junior Great Books programs at our grade schools.

So when my mother and I had the house to ourselves for an evening -- say, due to a big Notre Dame game -- our girls' nights had a decidedly literary bent: We watched Austen. My mom would make peppermint tea for us, and I'd settle in, thrilling to the adultness of watching a real movie with my grown-up mom. One night she was peeved that she had rented the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma instead of a more faithful film version. I still loved it. I was watching Austen -- and Dickens, and E.M. Forster -- long before I was mentally equipped to slog through their written works. Already the characters were becoming familiar, the plot turns working their way into the crevices of my memory.

One night, when I was around 10, my mom came into my room to tuck me in. She'd been away, perhaps for a work function, and she was still dressed up and smelling of her musky perfume. And she'd brought me something in a little brown paper bag: Pride and Prejudice. As I paged through it in awe -- a real, unabridged classic, my first! -- she hugged me and told me she believed I was ready. A conversation we'd had about one of my favorite YA books, A View From Saturday, had convinced her that I was finally in possession of the analytical tools I'd need to process the complexity of Austen. I felt such a thrill of pride, trying to remember what I'd said to her to merit this gift, then giving up. She believed in me, and so I believed in myself.

But I struggled with it, of course. A pile of lively, accessibly written YA novels always beckoned from beside my bed, and our frequent trips to the library meant this pile was ever-refreshing. Austen's prose trafficked in obsolete meanings, archaic terms, and complex constructions. Even after I first hacked my way through it, a significant portion of the meaning flew high over my head. Only upon a much later reading did I find myself laughing at Mr. Collins' absurdities and realize Austen was funny.

I can't remember how far along I was in this halting reading process when my mother passed away. Her death was very sudden; no goodbyes had been said and no memories carefully documented for a time of need. I had always been, to some degree, a mommy's girl, and her loss was a shock I could not process as an 11-year-old. For years, I barely spoke of her, and tried not to think of her either. But I still read, insatiably, and she was there whenever I opened a book. Because of her, I stopped mentally excising unpleasant events from books as I read. Sometimes, mothers die -- not just the mothers of heroines in fantasy novels, but real mothers as well. Once I'd confronted the latter, it seemed absurd to avoid the former. Because of her, I clung to Pride and Prejudice more determinedly.

Reading Pride and Prejudice as an 11-year-old did not feel like enjoying a sharp satire of pre-Victorian manners, nor did it feel like reading an amusing romantic comedy. It barely even felt like reading a coherent story. Each sentence, filled with unfamiliar words and employing winding, comma-ridden constructions, loomed so large before me that I could only glimpse the narrative around the edges. I planted my flag on the last page and felt only vaguely that I'd just read a very nice story about some people who fall in love and get married. A very old story. The dated language and customs made the characters seem irretrievably distant, as dry and brittle as flowers left pressed in a book. Not old enough to grasp much of what I read, I nonetheless felt great pride in my literary prowess as I closed it. I didn't realize it, but forcing myself to doggy-paddle through the whole tome was a vital step toward being a full-fledged reader. It was my first real literary challenge, and I learned that patience and perseverance were needed to overcome intellectual stumbling blocks.

I've written of Pride and Prejudice in a more comic manner before, but the book's role in my life can't be reduced to a single terrible lesson about dating. In fact, it's so tempting to put stock in every apparent bit of advice in the book precisely because it's really chock full of wisdom and insight. But as a tween on a mission, I mostly felt it was the book my mother wanted me to read, believed I could read. So I pored over it until I felt I understood it. (I didn't, but, then again, I was 11.) Then I tackled Austen's other classics -- Emma, Sense and Sensibility. Every one of her books was nestled somewhere on my family's bookshelves, and I took advantage. When perusing an unlabeled excerpt of Austen's unfinished novel, Sanditon, during a standardized test in high school, the style felt so deeply familiar to me that I Googled it afterward to confirm that it was written by Austen.

Today, Pride and Prejudice is a relatively easy read I can zip through in a couple of days. The style has become comfortable to process; after an Austen binge, I'll sometimes find myself thinking in Austenian turns of phrase. I laugh at Elizabeth's wit and Mr. Collins' embarrassingly florid speeches, well up at the misunderstandings keeping apart our heroes and heroines, and search the text for new themes. And in that last part I'm never disappointed. Each reading has brought new levels of understanding and honed my ability to read fully. In high school I began to comprehend how the book commented on the manners and marriage markets of Austen's time. In college, I explored how Austen revolutionized the form through her usage of free indirect discourse, and even fixated on details like how cleverly she structures the chapters of the book.

After countless readings, Pride and Prejudice has become a part of every stage of my life. I read it in middle school, in high school, in college, and I still reread it now that I'm out on my own. The book has come to hold much more real meaning for me than it did when I was a clumsy kid. But the lessons it taught me all sprang from that first time -- and I know they were all lessons my mother would have wanted me to learn. Perhaps that's why, after 14 years of readings, the flavor to me hasn't been muddied. There's still a distinct tang of peppermint tea, and of being a 10-year-old whose mother is tucking her safely into bed. The book was a part of my mother, and it was a part of our relationship, and now it's a part of me. And for me, those things can never be separated.

This year is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, and there has been plenty of coverage to celebrate this milestone. But how can you really pay tribute to a book that's meant so much to so many readers? How can you honor a person who gave you the world but isn't there to be thanked? I'm still trying to figure it out.