I am reading Pride and Prejudice just now. If you’re wondering, Lizzie is on the way to visit Charlotte and Mr Collins. Don’t worry about ‘ruining’ what comes next, for it is not as though you, dear reader, have that many spoilers for me, do you?
By the mid-point of my fourth year of undergrad, I knew the following facts about Pride and Prejudice: There was a man named Darcy, played by Colin Firth (whom I knew largely from The Importance of Being Earnest). He was the main guy for whom females swooned. There was another guy named Bingley, and some of my friends felt that he was too much overlooked and, in fact, preferable to Mr Darcy in his own way.
They named a (bluegrass? folk?) band after him.
That winter (spring? 2005) I saw Bride and Prejudice. Between then and now, when I am actually reading the book for the first time, I have seen Bride and Prejudice several times, the BBC miniseries once, the Donald Sutherland film once or twice, Austenland at least twice, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies once. My favourite overall, if you want to know, is Bride and Prejudice. My favourite Darcy is probably Colin Firth. My favourite Lizzie is probably Aishwarya Rai. My favourite Mr Bennet is Donald Sutherland. And my favourite Mr Collins is Matt Smith.
My disadvantage, then, when coming to Pride and Prejudice is the fact that, when Mr Darcy turns up, I know exactly what his destiny holds. And when Mr Wickham turns up, ‘Seems like a nice chap,’ is largely meaningless. He’s not, and I know it. This means that the foreshadowing about his character/future by Mrs Gardiner seems very heavy-handed to me, but perhaps that’s only because I know the future.
I had a similar, though less acute, problem for Jane Eyre, having seen only the 2006 miniseries — mind you, even before seeing the miniseries, I knew there was a madwoman in the attic because I spent a lot of time with English majors in undergrad.
I wonder what it would be like to read about Darcy’s growing fascination for Elizabeth Bennet not knowing where this would lead, or to meet Mr Wickham and not know, ‘Scum of the earth!’, or to encounter Mr Collins and not already have the heeby-jeebies. It is not a reading experience that I have the luxury of enjoying.
Nevertheless, this disadvantage is not a real problem. This is one of the key features of what one may consider great literature. The pleasure of reading derives not merely from the discovery of plot (of which I do not recall everything, and of which small details are rarely all translated to screen). It derives from the words on the page themselves — thus, reading Jane Austen for the first time is still reading Jane Austen for the first time. I may have heard some of her dialogue spoken by actors on the screen, but now is the first time I have encountered her style and her prose itself.
Moreover, I am, myself, a great re-reader. I re-read The Lord of the Rings for the fourth time this year. Likewise the Aeneid, with my third round through Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Euripides’ Bacchae. The delight of re-reading a book, or reading a book you’ve already seen adapted on screen, whether it’s ‘high’ literature such as Pride and Prejudice or more ‘pop’ like A Princess of Mars, is not from the big plot points, but from the small things, the beauty of language, the characterisations, going back over favourite moments, etc.
This I can get from Jane Austen any time, whether I’ve seen the film or not.
But at least when I get to Persuasion, about the only thing I remember is the name Captain Wentworth.