An afternoon with Austen: 'Pride and Prejudice' read-a-thon at Pitt

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It was 1:33 p.m. Saturday, and Jane Austen was getting a good laugh.

Not polite, behind-the-hands titters, but outright guffaws, as University of Pittsburgh English department chairman Don Bialostosky intoned Chapter 19 of "Pride and Prejudice," the Austen novel that was published 200 years ago and may be more popular today than when it appeared.

Mr. Bialostosky was one of several volunteers reading the classic novel aloud Saturday in the English nationality room at Pitt's Cathedral of Learning, an effort that was expected to wrap up about 8 p.m. when the final person at the podium hit Chapter 61.

He chose Chapter 19 on purpose, because that is the place in the story where the heroine, Elizabeth Bennett, finds that she simply can't convince the cluelessly stuffy clergyman, William Collins, that she really, really, totally has no interest in marrying him.

As Austen put it:

"Really, Mr. Collins," cried Elizabeth with some warmth, "you puzzle me exceedingly. If what I have hitherto said can appear to you in the form of encouragement, I know not how to express my refusal in such a way as may convince you of its being one."

Replies Collins: "You must give me leave to flatter myself, my dear cousin, that your refusal of my addresses is merely words of course ... and you should take it into further consideration, that in spite of your manifold attractions, it is my no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you. Your portion is unhappily so small, that it will with all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications."

How's that for clumsy courtship?

Austen's humor is one reason her novels have stood the test of time, said Mr. Bialostosky. "I sometimes say that she had a sharp-tongued ear for catching the foibles of characters, and she had a moral clarity; she was very direct about how she evaluated everyone. She didn't wait for us to infer that Collins is a fool."

While it is true that Austen's novels often involve women trying to find the right man to marry, it's important to note that it not only reflected the realities of the time, but was modern when it was written, coming less than a century after a period when most marriages were arranged, said Allison Thompson, secretary of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America, which co-sponsored Saturday's marathon reading.

While film versions of "Pride and Prejudice" -- there have been five for movie theaters and TV since 1940 -- often play up the love interests of the characters, she said, "they sometimes ignore the biting fear that lies underneath these novels."

In "Pride and Prejudice," the matriarch of the Bennett family "has a real fear that her five daughters won't be married and the father is really quite a slacker in not helping out with that."

While Mr. Darcy, the hero of the book, has an income of 10,000 pounds a year -- millions of dollars in today's money -- the real Jane Austen, who never married, eked by on about 50 pounds per annum, Ms. Thompson said. Despite the fact that her father was descended from rich wool merchants, his occupation as a clergyman and the family's eight children meant that she could write firsthand about the lifestyles of the wealthy and those who struggled on limited means.

Elizabeth Bennett, like her author, is also quite poor, and so as laughable as clergyman Collins is, it is a real act of courage for her to reject his offer of marriage, since he stands to inherit the Bennett estate, said Kevin Stemmler, a Clarion University English professor who brought 21 students with him to the read-a-thon.

"While Elizabeth is smart and thrifty," Mr. Stemmler said, "she is committing a daring act to reject that marriage and want more."

By the same token, when her best friend, Charlotte Lucas, later agrees to marry Mr. Collins herself despite expecting no happiness from the match, that also mirrored the necessities of the times, he said.

"Charlotte's reaction -- I don't have any other options and my family is poor -- represents this class culture" Austen depicted so brilliantly, he said.

Besides the movie versions of Austen's novels, and the adaptations and the spinoff books, there is also an industry of Austen merchandise, as Ms. Thompson demonstrated with her tennis shoes featuring Austen's face on the toes and a quote from "Emma" on the sides: "If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more."

Ms. Thompson bridles at the notion Austen has lasted because she was the "mother of chick lit."

"Her novels are not really pre-eminently about love," she contends. "They are about the heroine and sometimes the hero and other characters growing up and overcoming their faults and if they do, they get true love as a reward."

Austen also did not weigh down her prose with long descriptions of clothing, objects or appearances.

In "Pride and Prejudice," she said, we're only told that Elizabeth has "fine eyes," that her sister Jane is beautiful and that Mr. Darcy is tall.

The rest is left to readers' imaginations, she said, and no one was better at opening the door to imagination than Jane Austen.

Mark Roth:, 412-263-1130 and on Twitter: @markomar.

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