This Week In My Classes: The Pride and Prejudice Paradox

I don’t teach it very often anymore: it’s too popular.

This is my version, I guess, of Yogi Berra’s line “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

oxford-pride-and-prejudicePride and Prejudice is the only work I ever teach (in any genre) that has routinely been read already, often multiple times, by many of the students in the class. You’d think that would be a great thing — and actually, in some ways it is. Students who know the novel really well bring their own expertise to our discussions; their enthusiasm, also, enlivens it. Both of these things are freeing for me: I can count on informed participation and turn much more than usual to other people in the room to help me out with details, and I can also play devil’s advocate more, with less risk of sowing confusion and more chance of just stimulating debate.

I have been reminded this week, though, returning to Pride and Prejudice in the 19th-century fiction class after many years of assigning Persuasion instead, that the novel’s familiarity has its drawbacks as well. Over the years I have found that those who know it very well may be quite entrenched in their readings of it, for example, particularly about how they interpret or judge specific characters. Students who are strongly attached to particular adaptations may also be particularly prone to reading characters or scenes in particular ways. If they’ve always read the novel for pleasure before, they may not be accustomed to paying much attention to how it is written or structured, or to questioning its premises. Their love and knowledge of it may also intimidate their classmates who are reading it for the first time: too many remarks prefaced by “I’ve read this novel multiple times” would certainly have shut me up, when I was an undergraduate, because I would have been afraid my own preliminary observations wouldn’t hold up.

Obviously, these are all ultimately pedagogical issues: it’s up to me to try to make the novel fresh again, if I can — to introduce new questions or contexts, to posit alternative interpretations, to move us from character analysis to thematic or formal issues, to do my best to bring everyone into the discussion, to make the most of the wonderful fact that so many people read and reread Pride and Prejudice just because they want to. Wouldn’t it be great of that were true of more of the novels I assign, after all! And yet it’s not. Jane Eyre probably comes the closest, but even the Brontë enthusiasts are few and far between compared to the Austen lovers.

pride-and-prejudice-penguinI wonder, actually, if part of the difficulty I have knowing quite what to do with the gift (and I do mean that!) of a room heavily populated with Janeites is that I’m not one myself. It’s impossible not to love Pride and Prejudice, of course. Though Persuasion is my personal favorite among Austen’s novels, I am on record exclaiming over the treat P&P always is to read. But Austen is not the novelist that thrills or interests me the most — she never has been, or my own research and teaching career would look much different! It’s that whole ineffable affinity thing: as Henry James said in that line from “The Art of Fiction” that I seem to quote more than anything else of his, “nothing will ever take the place of the good old fashion of ‘liking’ a work of art or not liking it.” For me, the result of “that primitive, that ultimate, test” was someone else — and not just one someone either, really, as I get more excited about a lot of other authors I read and teach than I do about Austen. I’m not trying to be contrarian or some kind of “hipster” Victorianist — my preferences are frightfully canonical, but they really are Victorian, which Austen, after all, is not.

In any case, while I do think Austen is great, she’s just one kind of great, not the only kind. Her unstoppable popularity sometimes seems like such a self-fulfilling prophecy. I can’t and don’t doubt the sincerity of her admirers, though, including those in my class. I really do welcome the energy, expertise, and keen attention they bring to discussion. I just hope I can keep them half as engaged when we move on to Vanity Fair and Jane Eyre, because I believe those novels are every bit as brilliant in their own (wildly different) ways as Pride and Prejudice is in its.

And maybe next time around I’ll try something else altogether — Emma, for instance, which would be a stretch for me and probably for more of my students, too, than is the case with Pride and Prejudice. Familiarity needn’t breed contempt, but I wonder if unfamiliarity isn’t a pedagogical advantage. This would be one way to find out!

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6 Responses to This Week In My Classes: The Pride and Prejudice Paradox

  1. I know an 18th centuryist who taught a Jane Austen course once and refused to do it again. He thought the class was a great failure. He could not find a way past the LOVE. One student even brought her mother to class a couple of times. The mother was a regional JASNA preseident or something like that.

    In his regular 18th century literature courses, TOO MUCH LOVE was never a problem.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      Well, in a way, of course, it’s a nice problem to have! I was thinking today, as I worked on my notes for class, that maybe my real problem is that I myself don’t have anything very interesting or surprising to say about Pride and Prejudice. If you’ve read it often, you’re good without me, probably. I’m not even really sure what would count as something surprising to say about it, besides, possibly, “I don’t love it.”

  2. Alex says:

    I was wondering, Rohan, do you find yourself in a position where you know the students who will be taking your class before you have to decide which novels you’re going to assign? Maybe because I was at a very small university for much of career I always knew not just which students I would be tacking the following year but had also taught them before. This meant that I could make a judgement based on past experience as to which texts I would ask them to study and vary it from year to year according to what I knew of them. It was a very useful way of working.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      Not before I order the books, no, and I think even if I did, I probably couldn’t fine-tune the reading list to suit them, since the class is around 40 students and though there are often some familiar faces, there is also always a mix of students I haven’t met before. It would be nice if I could! The best I can do is think about which books I assigned in the other course (I do two, one Austen to Dickens, and the other Dickens to Hardy) and not repeat myself even if I decide some authors will overlap (Dickens always does, of course).

  3. marly says:

    I’d be tempted by “Mansfield Park” because there are so very many modes in it of behaving properly and improperly for both sexes, so many places on the heaven-to-hell scale of women’s lives, and such a variety of choices that may plunge a young woman downward (forever!) or secure an upward step.

    Must say that I love Austen’s clever chat, and in any of the books.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      I have never loved Mansfield Park – and I did not fare well with Emma this time either. I think it’s back to Persuasion for me next time around! Though I admit it has been nice having Pride and Prejudice as a reference point now that we’re into Vanity Fair: they have so much in common and yet are so profoundly different in both style and spirit.

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