I wrote a few months ago about enjoying Libby, the service provided by some libraries that allows you to listen to books. Recently I couldn't find any books on Libby I wanted to listen to so I searched their Humor category and was surprised to find Pride and Prejudice listed.
I must admit I have reached the age of mumbly-mumble without reading a Jane Austen book or watching a movie based on one. But I figured I would give it a shot.
And, what do you know? I enjoyed it a lot. Although it was published in 1813 I found it much easier to read than, say, James Fenimore Cooper or Herman Melville who came a bit later.
Since I came to it from the Humor category I was naturally interested in how well this comedy of manners worked for me. I found Mrs. Bennet and Cousin Collins were not nearly as amusing as I think Austen expected me to find them, but I delighted in the company, and very odd mind, of Mr. Bennet. Favorite example: When his wife complained about the entailment which meant she would be forced from her home when he died, Bennet offered the comforting thought that she might die first. Somehow this failed to console her.
Another point of interest was that everyone seemed to know the exact income of every eligible man. "He has 2,000 a year," or whatever. Was there a list posted on a bulletin board someplace? In our society talking about such things is considered terrible manners.
I was also fascinated by Austin's use of certain words. Amiable and agreeable appear constantly, and seem to be about the best thing you could say about someone.
But the most fascinating word of all is condescending. The odious and unctuous Mr. Collins describes his patron Lady de Bourgh as "all affability and condescension." He means it as a compliment. It indicated that she was willing to be gracious to her inferiors.
Today, of course, the mere implication that you think you have inferiors is what makes the word an insult. (And by the way the word comes from "stepping down with," and originally meant compromise. English is, as they say, a living language.)
The Grammarphobia blog has an interesting piece on Austen's use of the word.
I have also been reading In The Hurricane's Eye, one of Nathaniel Philbrick's excellent books about the Revolutionary War. In it he quotes George Washington, early in the fight, instructing his new colonels: "Be easy and condescending in your comportment to your officers, but not too familiar." The same usage as Austen, I believe.
And speaking of presidents... Not to get political but this reminded me of something Donald Trump said at a rally in March 2019: "You know, I always hear 'the elite, the elite.' Well, I always said… 'they are the elite, I'm not.' I have a better education than them, I'm smarter than them, I went to the best schools, they didn't. [I have a] much more beautiful house, much more beautiful apartment, much more beautiful everything. And I'm president and they're not, right? And then they say 'the elite, the elite.'"
He seems to be claiming that some group is bragging of being elite, but in this country elite is generally an insult thrown at intellectuals. The only person who seems to be hinting that he himself a member of the elite is Trump himself.
Which seems pretty condescending. See what I did there?