What is this connection we have to Pride and Prejudice?

Note: This is a guest posting from Maren Robinson, production dramaturg for our spring/summer MainStage production of Pride and Prejudice.

Dear Reader, “What is this connection we have to Pride and Prejudice?”

(This being a blog post in which neuroscientists and I will state the obvious about reading and still fail to capture the ineffable quality of a novel beloved by generations.)

I have been struggling to write a blog post that does justice to the complex relationship many readers have with Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice in particular. Time studying literature through undergraduate and graduate degrees has changed how I read literature. I can read Pride and Prejudice and see rich material about class structure, the role of women, inheritance and the legal system. However, the ability to analyze the features of a book does not diminish the strong emotional response that I still have to reading the book.

Almost all fans of the book seem to recall the year of their first reading and maybe even have a dog-eared original copy. (I read it the summer after 8th grade; my copy is a now yellowing Signet Classic edition. The green cover features a painting of two women in dresses that I now know are not quite the right time period). Fans have their favorite lines, their favorite film adaptations (there are many to choose from). There are blogs and websites devoted to Austen and there are endless books by other authors that promote themselves as sequels, insert zombies, or murders at Pemberly. Where does this favored status spring from? What is it about the books and their author that inspires such love and such a sense of intimacy with these characters?

A March 18, 2012 Sunday Times article on neuroscience confirms what many inveterate readers already know, in short, that books offer, “the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.” However, the article goes beyond this easy reduction. Scientists have discovered that parts of our brain beyond those associated with reading words are activated when we feel a connection to what we read.

This makes perfect sense to me, and, I suspect, many readers. I am among those readers who keenly felt an empathetic shame on Lizzy’s behalf when her family behaves badly at a ball, to the point of feeling anxious and a little upset every time I read that passage.

The same article cites a Canadian analysis of MRIs which,

“concluded that there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. Scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions ‘theory of mind.’ Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers.”

That could be a description of almost any Austen novel with “characters trying to guess hidden motives” and “navigate interactions with other individuals.” So in spite of the changes in social codes, class and conduct there is still something about trying to understand and connect with others that resonates for contemporary readers.

Most of us did not need neurologist to tell us that we identify with characters in books and empathize with them. It is more a testament to Austen’s skill at capturing the range of human emotion that we continue to have such strong responses to these characters. If Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet learn to understand their own failings, their own minds and their own hearts, science suggests through them we learn sympathetically something about our own hearts and minds.

In bringing Pride and Prejudice to the stage, there is something that is familiar about these neurological impulses that will be familiar to all actors. Readers become audiences but actors work to understand and recreate the longings and frustrations of the characters. True, readers can share individual experiences of a novel through comparison and reminiscence, but the stage offers a very immediate way to share the story and participate in the lives of characters we come to feel we know as if they were real.

I was struck by hearing the cast read the play in one of the early rehearsals at how strange it felt to laugh out loud at Mrs. Bennet or Mr. Collins because so often that laughter has been in my head as I read and not shared with others.

I also laughed out loud when I got to the last line of the Times article,

“These findings will affirm the experience of readers who have felt illuminated and instructed by a novel, who have found themselves comparing a plucky young woman to Elizabeth Bennet or a tiresome pedant to Edward Casaubon. Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.”

Lizzy Bennet was the first literary example in the article showing just how large her character looms both in the literary world and the world at large. Mr. Darcy might agree since in his definition of an accomplished woman he said, “to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”