Today I would choose Pride and Prejudice. It's as refreshing as a sparkling stream--an enchanted one that reflects human nature when one peers into it. In her second published novel, Austen got everything right. The plot glides smoothly forward; the light, inviting tone pulls the reader along like a steady current; and not a word is wasted. Humor abounds and is evident from the first sentence, which only a literary genius could have composed: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." This opening promises so much--the single man, the schemers who hope to marry him off, and an abundance of fun. And Jane Austen delivers.
In Pride and Prejudice Austen created some of her most memorable characters. Chief among them, of course, is the captivating Elizabeth Bennet. Austen gave Lizzy Bennet intelligence and wit as well as vigorous good health and a beautiful expression in her dark eyes. Elizabeth is "alive to the very tips of her fingers," noted a critic in 1898, and more than a century later, readers agree. Proud, wealthy Fitzwilliam Darcy is attracted to Lizzy in spite of himself.
Minor characters can seem one-dimensional in other Austen novels, but not in Pride and Prejudice. Whereas Mr. Woodhouse is never more than a caricature of a worrying hypochondriac, the cynical Mr. Bennet emerges as a real man with a genuine affection for his second daughter. Mr. Collins would be nothing more than a buffoon except that Charlotte Lucas sees some worth in him.
The scholar Patricia Meyer Spacks has called Pride and Prejudice a Cinderella story. A woman of Lizzy Bennet's station would never have had the slightest chance of marrying a man of Darcy's wealth and stature, she has said. This may be true, but it doesn't bother me a bit. Fairy tales endure because they help us understand our dreams and motives, and this wouldn't be the first time one has found its way into great literature. Think of a story that begins once upon a time, long ago, when a king divides his kingdom into three parts. Sound like the stuff of storybooks? It's King Lear.