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Seventh in a series on rereading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Here are Parts OneTwoThreeFourFive, and Six.

Elizabeth Bennet doesn’t take Lady Catherine’s advice about practising the piano, but she learns to practise something else, and that is the habit of close reading. It doesn’t bother her that she doesn’t play as well as some women do, and she doesn’t realize at first that she’s been equally careless about the way she judges character. When she reads Mr. Darcy’s letter in Volume 2, Chapter 13, however, she discovers that to be a more accurate judge of character, she needs to practise reading words and actions more attentively.

Her first impression of the letter is that it must be full of lies: “His belief of her sister’s insensibility, she instantly resolved to be false.” She reads quickly, carelessly, “with a strong prejudice against everything he might say,” certain that she already understands what Darcy did in separating Mr. Bingley from her sister Jane. It’s all too easy to skim the letter. She finds that “from impatience of knowing what the next sentence might bring,” she is “incapable of attending to the sense of the one before her eyes.” (It almost sounds as if she’s scrolling through Facebook posts or reading a Twitter feed….)

I think it’s really interesting in this scene that Austen says Elizabeth is “too angry to have any wish of doing him justice,” because it suggests she’ll only be able to get at the truth if she’s willing to look for it, even if that search has to be slow and careful. As Mr. Bennet says of her in the very first chapter, Elizabeth is quick: “Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters.” It sounds as if her father is praising her intelligence, and he is, yet she turns out to be too quick—to quick to judge, too quick to laugh, too quick to condemn. She has to learn to slow down in order to be both quick and accurate.

It’s only when she begins to read what Darcy has to say about Wickham that she starts to read more slowly, and from here on, the chapter is a lesson in the importance of close reading. It’s hard to understand something when you read so fast that you move on to the second sentence before you know what the first one says—it hardly counts as reading at all. She reads about Wickham “with somewhat clearer attention,” although paying attention to the contrast between Darcy’s story and Wickham’s own history of himself at first makes her think Darcy must be telling her “the grossest falsehood!” This is a more careful reading, but it’s still only a first reading, and she jeopardizes her chances of learning the truth when she puts the letter away and vows never to read it again.

First readings, even careful ones, can deceive. Fortunately, the unresolved questions from her first reading prompt Elizabeth to open the letter again “in half a minute,” and in her even more careful second reading, she “commanded herself so far as to examine the meaning of every sentence.” She tries to make Wickham’s story win out over Darcy’s, “flatter[ing] herself that her wishes did not err”—but another reading persuades her it’s impossible for Wickham to be the innocent one. Jane Austen stresses that it’s when Elizabeth “read, and re-read with the closest attention,” when “she weighed every circumstance,” when “Again she read on,” that she learns to understand the situation and the characters of both men—as well as learning something new about her own character and her previous pride in her “discernment.”

This question of how to read properly is an important one, and it’s worth noting that Austen’s model of close reading in this chapter resembles what St. Augustine says in Book 11 of the Confessions about the act of reciting a psalm. St. Augustine says,

Confessions, by St. AugustineI am about to repeat a Psalm that I know. Before I begin, my expectation is extended over the whole; but when I have begun, how much soever of it I shall separate off into the past, is extended along my memory; thus the life of this action of mine is divided between my memory as to what I have repeated, and expectation as to what I am about to repeat; but “consideration” is present with me, that through it what was future may be conveyed over, so as to become past. Which the more it is done again and again, so much the more the expectation being shortened, is the memory enlarged; till the whole expectation be at length exhausted, when that whole action being ended, shall have passed into memory.

In an essay on The Pilgrim’s Progress, C.Q. Drummond discusses this passage from the Confessions and writes about how “It is impossible to come to a text without expectations.” While Austen tells us that Elizabeth, on receiving Darcy’s letter, “had formed no expectation at all of its contents,” we also know that she has formed many expectations about the character of its author. (And while I’m rereading and writing about Pride and Prejudice in this series of blog posts without talking – much – about the pop culture that surrounds it, I don’t imagine that I can recapture the experience of reading the novel for the first time.) As Drummond writes of St. Augustine’s experience, in the case of each reading, “‘consideration’ is present”: “what is future may be conveyed over so as to become past,” and “what is expectation may become memory, even as memory determines expectation.” The present moment is informed by the past, and the past is informed and “enlarged” by the present reading, and thus Elizabeth’s close reading of the letter – “consideration” – transforms her prejudices.

In the days to come, we learn in the next chapter, Elizabeth “studied every sentence” of the letter, until she is “in a fair way of soon knowing [it] by heart.” She has learned that quickness has its dangers as well as its virtues, after she finds that “Widely different was the effect of a second perusal.” Whether she’s thinking of Lady Catherine’s advice about music or not, she’s finding that it’s important to practise constantly.

For further reading:

C.Q. Drummond, “Sequence and Consequence in The Pilgrim’s Progress” (In Defense of Adam: Essays on Bunyan, Milton and Others, ed. John Baxter and Gordon Harvey [Edgeways, 2004] 230-7).

My page Pride and Prejudice at 200 collects all the posts in this series on rereading the novel, along with links to other essays and articles on P&P.