Where once we had a social life, we now have Netflix. Actually, where once we had conversations, we now have Netflix. It’s utterly addictive: watching just one more episode of whatever is our latest fix rather than talking to each other or doing work or indeed going to bed at a halfway reasonable hour.
Last night, sated on House of Cards and The Killing and The Bridge, we found ourselves watching the old BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
It came out originally just after I’d done the book for GCSE English, one of the rare pieces of literature to survive being studied and remain a favourite. I still love Jane Austen, love her cool, elegant, dispassionate study of her world. Elizabeth Bennet has always ranked high on my list of People Out of Books I Want To Be.
I was never pretty or nice enough to be Jane. I did a passable Lydia/Kitty when drunk. (Did Kitty and Lydia drink? Perhaps if they thought they could get away with it, but probably not snakebite and black.) I had sinking moments where I realised I was really, probably, Mary. But who wouldn’t want to be Lizzie? Pretty, lively, clever, with integrity and wit enough to secure a marriage for love to a man of means? Yes please.
And so, I’ve always read it and watched it as Lizzie. I know the contours of her everyday so well that I live them with her, as familiar and unquestioned as my own. I love our close bond with Jane. I squirm at our younger sisters’ shameless exhibitionism. I relish our father’s barbed tongue and acid asides. As for Mr Darcy; do I really need to explain?
Maybe it’s because I’m making plans for my husband’s approaching fortieth birthday. Maybe it’s because my own is not far behind. But last night, I realised – properly realised – for the first time that I am twice the age of Lizzie Bennet. That I am old enough to be her mother. And, as I giggled and writhed at Alison Steadman’s familiar, bustling, self-absorbed, ridiculous Mrs Bennet, I realised that of the two, it’s not the daughter whom I resemble most.
Mrs Bennett is a caricature, of course; drawn in lurid tones for comic effect. I’m not that bad, I promise. It’s just that until last night, I’ve never before felt sympathy for her. I’ve never before seen a glimpse of myself in her circumstances and preoccupations.
I don’t stage-whisper to friends at social occasions about the eligibility of possible suitors for my children’s hands. I don’t trade in gossip about settlements and scandal (not audibly, at least). I don’t have to worry that my estate will be entailed away from me if I don’t produce a son (unless “estate” means “house”, “entailed away” means “repossessed” and “produce a son” means “pay the mortgage”). I don’t think I make myself ridiculous in social situations, not least because I almost always have to drive.
But I do have long, fraught conversations about schools and catchment areas. I do fume and fret about property prices and the best place to live. I do worry about saving and stabilising and doing all in my power to secure and smooth my children’s future. I wish I were worthier. I do care about other things, some of them passionately. But what honestly keeps me awake at night? They’re all three of them sleeping not far away.
Mrs Bennet’s main ambition in life is to marry her children to wealthy men, and (the introduction of same sex marriages notwithstanding) that’s definitely not mine. Perhaps, though, there’s a different way to interpret what lies behind her silliness and narrow mindedness. Perhaps they are just the natural consequence of the general vertigo-inducing responsibility of making choices for small human beings whom you love beyond all else. Perhaps we’d all look a little ridiculous, if the things which mattered most to us were bared for all to see. It’s hard not to be narrow-minded when it comes to your children. It’s hard not to succumb to an attack of the vapours at the sheer liability of it all.
I am still Lizzie in my mind. I probably will be when I am a hundred (on the days when I’m not Jo March or Anne Shirley; assuming, of course, that I get to a hundred at all). She’s the heroine, after all; she’s the promise and the anticipation of being young and having all the possibilities of life as yet unfettered and unrealised. But you can’t grow up to be someone younger than you are; you can’t live without those fetters and realisations changing you. I wonder who else I’ll read differently as I get older. I wonder who else I’ll see myself in, even when I’d really rather not. You can’t be the character at 40 you wanted to be at 20. Can you?