Pride & Prejudice & Snickering

empty chair

An empty chair awaits readers of the Duluth, Minn., public rendition of Pride and Prejudice.

Last weekend, I took part in a marathon public reading of “Pride and Prejudice,” by Jane Austen. The event, hosted by a local writers group, was a celebration of the novel’s publication two-hundred years ago. The reading began on a Friday evening, stopped for the night, and spanned the next day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The sanctuary of a local church provided a great venue for the event.

The sanctuary of a local church provided a great venue for the event.

You might think that the atmosphere would have been staid, literary, and slightly pompous, but there was actually a lot of snickering – at least when I read. While that could have been the result of my poor attempts at voicing characters with English accents, I’d like to think it was from the subtle humor employed by Austen two centuries ago, which still resonates today.

The sanctuary of a quaint stone church served as an atmospheric venue. For those requiring refreshment, tea and cucumber sandwiches were served in the basement. About twenty-five readers each took turns reading aloud for twenty-five to thirty-five minutes. They were a diverse group — ranging from the Mayor of Duluth, actresses, poets, English teachers, Jane Austen-lovers, and me – who had never read the book, but I’d seen the movie.

I hadn’t read aloud from someone else’s writing in many years – since reading bedtime stories to my sons. And I was amazed at just how funny Austen’s writing is. It didn’t strike me that way when I read my section silently. But when I practiced it aloud at home, the irony of the passages was clear. It made me wonder if Austen wrote the book to be read aloud as entertainment on long evenings before the invention of television.

A respectable crowd gathered for the reading.

A respectable crowd gathered for the reading.

The section I read featured a clergyman who had originally wanted to marry Elizabeth — the narrator of the story (played by Winona Ryder in the movie version). Elizabeth visits him and his new wife, who was Elizabeth’s best friend, and who won the minister by “default” after Elizabeth turned him down. The scenes are set in their home and then move to the mansion where the minister’s patroness, the condescending and imposing (to everyone but Elizabeth), Lady Catherine de Bourgh (played by Judith Dench).

I was heartened that the irony of Austen’s portrayal of the clergyman and Lady de Bourgh was not lost on the small audience gathered to listen. My reading was punctuated by quiet laughter in several appropriate places. It just goes to show that although many years have passed and our lives are very different from those who lived when the story was written, human nature is similar enough that we can still relate.

Me reading (amid snickers).

Me reading (amid snickers).

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