Reading Austen in China

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May 20th 2010
Published: May 20th 2010
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"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." That pithy, gripping line was the first thing that met my eyes as I eagerly flipped open "Pride and Prejudice" to the first chapter yesterday, with the sole purpose of hearing those very words echo in my mind.

Having worn out my copy of "Atlas Shrugged" (and my patience for it); having read "The Enchanted April" too many times to count; and not wishing to return to the surprisingly dismal "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," I set out in search of classic English literature, looking for older novels for my own edification and in the hope that the increased difficulty of the language would keep me occupied longer.

I discovered that finding unabridged versions of English classics is difficult here: my last outing only turned up a copy of Great Expectations, which I must admit I found irksome the first time around - not promising. What I found infinitely more intriguing was the group of men outside the small shop in the "Culture Market," playing Chinese chess in the semi-darkness of the alley, under a veil of cigarette smoke. I recently began playing international chess, so I would have watched had it not been for my shopping partner, who probably would have found it boring.

At last, I applied to my mother for English language literature that I could live with for the next several months. I hinted that I should not mind knowing more of Austen. A box filled with tomes both old and new arrived this past week; and the box was hardly opened before I was at my armchair, reading.

My goal: to read the entire oeuvre of Jane Austen, with which I am sadly only briefly acquainted. The definitive collection (i.e. my Mom's old books supplemented by the few novels she couldn't find in the house) is now stacked on my nightstand, and I feel ashamed that I have only read two of the books represented: "Pride and Prejudice" and "Sense and Sensibility."

Though I have read it a number of times, good old P&P is the first one getting pored over: a tribute to an old friend. The first time I ever read it, I was in Scotland for three weeks, it was summer and the book was on my school reading list. I remember laying in bed under the sloped roof of an old cottage, groaning as Mrs. Bennet exclaimed over the lace on someone's dress. How agonizingly trivial!

This was in an early chapter. As I slammed the book shut in frustration, I was sure the rest of it would only turn out to be more of the same. But I was missing the point; Austen was most certainly mocking this type of trivial concern, and as the plot unfolded I found myself holding my breath as Lizzy opened the letter from Mr. Darcy, as well as at many other pivotal moments. I had to read it again for my English Lit. class, which I did without hesitation then and many times afterwards.

I'm not sure what "point" I can make about reading Austen in China - I'm mostly writing about reading anyway - but it is interesting to me, and it seems to be an important act: I am becoming acquainted again with characters moving in a world almost as alien to me as the one I am in now. The benefit is that at least I am an inheritor of the English language (such as it is today) and some of the cultural norms in the world of Austen's England; and "seeing" the characters navigating difficulties in their own complex culture is somewhat heartening, given that I must navigate them in a culture very different from my own.

I also hope that reading Austen, who I believe had a very developed understanding of human nature and some kind of fundamental morality (read human decency), will give me some insight into the interactions that occur across "barriers" of language, culture and nationality. Austen wrote incisively; hopefully some of her wisdom will eventually come to bear on the more bewildering aspects of my life as a woman involved in her own quasi-farcical romance: a romance with China.



27th May 2010

You might just be following in Austen's footsteps--this blog is very eloquently written--and to make you feel better you have me beat--I have only read half of Pride and Prejudice--don't tell you mother--I haven't even watched the movie in entirity and I know she would not approve! :) Maybe I will pick up a copy and read it on the way to Italy!

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