Today is the bi-centenary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Two hundred years of pleasure for readers around the world began on this day in 1813. The happiest episode of my life as a teacher is centred on this great book.
The class were second years. We were nearing the end of the novel, the part where Mr Bennet receives Mr Collins’ letter in the wake of Lady Catherine’s impertinent interview with Elizabeth. The bell rang. Time up. There were universal groans, an unusual occurrence in our academy. The following day I proceeded to the classroom to be greeted by an ominous silence, another unusual occurrence. A sentry, one Sally by name, had been posted at the door with a face like thunder. Her companions were all seated and ready, books out and opened at the correct page. This was an unprecedented development. Sally pointed to the rostrum. ‘Sit’, she ordered. ‘Read. And no stoppin’ ‘. I meekly obeyed. Dispensing with the customary prayer, in the certain knowledge that such an expenditure of valuable time would not be well received, I took up the reading from the previous day.
“Mr. Darcy, you see, is the man! Now, Lizzy, I think I have surprised you. Could he, or the Lucases, have pitched on any man within the circle of our acquaintance, whose name would have given the lie more effectually to what they related? Mr. Darcy, who never looks at any woman but to see a blemish, and who probably never looked at you in his life! It is admirable!”
Ten minutes into the class Mr. M. put his head in the door with what seemed to be a message of some urgency. The class turned as one and glowered at his effrontery.’Mr. M.’, I said, ‘I think it would be best to come back later’. Guessing that this was not an environment conducive to his health and safety he backed out apologetically. We read on, eventually reaching that long awaited moment in chapter fifty eight.
“You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever.”
The denouement unfolded and the novel was finished before the bell. There were sighs and smiles. We took a moment to surface, breathe deeply and move on. For me it was a day to remember, a temporary hiatus in the daily grind of noise, stress and argument.
There are those who, in their eagerness for curricular change, demand that all material should be ‘relevant to their lives’. If we had a tune to that we could hum it. We were perpetually exhorted by the ‘experts’ with the flipcharts to present material which would be centered on pupils’ own way of life. ‘The real world’ they told us was what mattered. More of the same for them, in fact. And yet, here were north Dublin working class fourteen year olds riveted by the goings on of Regency gentry complete with stately homes, clergy with livings, entailed estates, coaches and landaus. Surely education is opening the mind to otherness, autres temps, autres moeurs. Education is knowing that life can be lived elsewhere, that difference too has validity and that there are a multitude of differences. Education moves us on from our natural inclination to insularity. We reach out to the world. We move towards what Jane Austen herself would call ‘understanding’.
So, today, we give thanks to the Lord for Jane Austen who has done so much to add to our portion of happiness.