Friday, March 25, 2011

Reading 'The Nerds of Pride & Prejudice'

For several weeks after Christmas, my little pile of presents sat on the dresser, neglected while I got on with the business of summer holidays. Then when the family had returned home and worked loomed rapidly on the horizon, the house was finally put back into order and homes found for all the new bits and pieces. One of my new books, A Truth Universal Acknowledged: 33 reasons why we can't stop reading Jane Austen (edited by Susannah Carson), made it onto the little stool next to my armchair, then was promptly buried under the others. Just this week, though, I've pulled it from the stack and started dipping in. It's a perfect book for dipping, full of three or four page essays by all manner of people.

My favourite so far is Benjamin Nugent's piece, 'The Nerds of Pride & Prejudice', which contrasts Elizabeth and Darcy with Mary and Mr Collins, and the complete lack of meritocracy in Austen's fictional worlds. It's a sweet little essay, praising Austen's dialogue and drawing on his own nerdly experiences to highlight his horror at Elizabeth's eventual love of the prideful and essentially useless Darcy.
The awful thing about the place and time Austen wrote of was that young women like Mary Bennet stood no chance, their inclinations toward mechanical reasoning squandered because of their sex. But for contemporary nerds, young people disposed to think like Mary, it's helpful to be thrown temporarily into a world in which one's gifts are disregarded. If you read sci-fi novels, you'll generally read about worlds in which scientists ans the technologies they create drive the plot; if you read Austen, you'll read about a world in which technology means nothing and the triumphs and failures of conversational agility drive everything. Young nerds  should read Austen because she'll force them to hear dissonant notes in their own speech  they might otherwise miss, and open their eyes to defeats and victories they otherwise wouldn't even have noticed. Like almost all worthwhile adolescent experience, it can be depressing m but it can also feel like waking up (p. 94).
I'm certainly not much more disposed towards Mary or Mr Collins but it's a little jolt to my admiration of Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Oh, I'll love her still but I might read her witty repartee with a new eye.

Photo Source: Frances Maloney's review page at

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