In the romance world, there are a few novels that are referred to as seminal works in the genre, but none are talked about more than Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. There are endless retellings and riffs on the tale, there are “sequels” (from sweet to the erotic), and there are debates about which movie/tv version is best (the BBC miniseries with Colin Firth is the winner here usually.) Mr. Darcy has become a romance character archetype that pops up again and again.
I’ve been writing in the romance genre for over a decade now and have been a reader for longer than that. Plus, I love modern historical romances. Pride and Prejudice should’ve been part of my reader life. However, though it’s been on my shelf for a long time, up until two weeks ago, I’d never read it. I’d seen the BBC miniseries and loved it, so I knew the story. But I’d never actually read the book.
I think what it comes down to is that I was scared I would’t be able to get into a classic, that it would be slow or hard to follow or dull. See, I took honors English classes in high school and some additional literature courses in college, and I was scared off from classics because what I had to read a) I wasn’t ready for or B) was utterly bleak and depressing. I remember long nights of slogging through Of Human Bondage, Beowulf, Great Expectations and Canterbury Tales. It made me dread the classics. There were a few exceptions. I enjoyed Shakespeare and more modern classics like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, but overall, I was completely turned off from classic literature. So when I dropped my English major freshman year (I had double-major in English and Psychology), I vowed only to read what I wanted to read going forward, not what I was supposed to read. And so it’s gone for the years since college.
But a few weeks ago, I was scanning my bookshelves for my next book to read and came across a copy of Pride and Prejudice that I had picked up on a whim at a used bookstore years before. Recently, I had seen that a few modern P&P retellings were about to be released and they’d piqued my interest, so I decided I couldn’t read a retelling until I’d read the source material. So, finally, I pulled it off the shelf.
Well, 24 hours later…the 500-page book was done. I devoured it, y’all.
All of my fears about it being slow or hard to understand were unfounded. This book is an absolute page turner, the super short chapters making it nearly impossible to put down. And it was such a fun, romantic, engaging read. I laughed aloud and fell for the romance like so many others have. I’m mad at myself for waiting so long. I promptly went out and bought more of Jane Austen’s books and read a retelling (more on that below.)
So why am I telling you all this? Why am I admitting my romance writer shame? ;) Well, I suspect that I’m not the only one who was scared off from classics by well-meaning high school curriculums. If you’ve suffered a similar readerly “trauma”, then maybe consider giving a book like Pride and Prejudice a chance. I promise it won’t feel like a homework assignment.
And then once you read the original, there’s an endless supply of retellings and re-imaginings out there. As soon as I finished P&P, I went back to my shelves where Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld had been sitting for literal years. I’d ordered it as an add-on through my Book of the Month club membership and then had forgotten about it. I raced through this modern take on P&P as well. It was fun to read them back to back because I could catch all the references to the original since it was so fresh in my mind.
Next up, I have Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin, which was one of the new release retellings that helped me decide to read the original first. I haven’t read this one yet, but I’m looking forward to it!
So, talk to me, how do you feel about the classics? Anyone else traumatized by high school reading assignments? And for those of you who read classics, what other ones should I seek out? Have you read Pride and Prejudice? Do you have a favorite retelling or re-imagining?