Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
Costume dramas. Mr Darcy. Bonnets, crinolines and frustrated posh girls searching for a rich husband. Bridget Jones. You'd think that by now, Pride and Prej would have been popular-cultured to death. However, despite its apparent status of Regency chick-lit, this is still a cracking read - Austen's reputation as a sly social commentator is well justified. Any society so precisely layered and codified is of course a ripe target for satire; Austen's humour is more subtle than scathing, but it's clear that the broader social issues are just as important to the novel as the central love story.
By now, I'd imagine that everyone knows the story. Miss Eliza Bennett is a young lady of modest fortune and high intelligence, who nonetheless overestimates her ability to judge people's characters. Mr Darcy is an eligible, rich bachelor, who thinks rather too much of himself, and disdains all society less exalted than his own. He particularly despises Eliza's provincial friends and insufferable relatives, to the extent that he deliberately breaks up the happy relationship between his best friend and Eliza's sister. Of course, as with all star-crossed lovers, true love conquers all and it all ends happily ever after. It's a deceptively simple formula that forms the core of the book and lets Austen do what she likes with the rest of the characters.
Eliza and Darcy are not actually that interesting as character studies - while she is undoubtedly a fine and feisty heroine, who does a good job of disliking Darcy to start off with, it's hard to blame her for her initial prejudice, as he does come across as a prize arsehole. His character development, too, is not great, and seems rather contrived - our subsequent discoveries of how nice he really is sit uncomfortably with his character as it's originally portrayed, and this looks more like a plot device than a genuine "misunderstood gruff guy with heart of gold". Instead, it's the minor characters that provide us with most of the entertainment.
From cameo appearances to snippets of conversation to Eliza's own observations, the social mores of the time are mercilessly exposed, ridiculed and lamented, via the members of Eliza's family and social circle. Her mother and younger sisters are particularly dreadful - empty-headed gossips who abdicate all responsibility for their actions - as is their odious cousin, the snobbish and servile Mr Collins, but even the less important characters are deftly sketched with a sharp eye for detail. Sir William Lucas, a well-meaning but pompous old bore obsessed with his knighthood; his poor unattractive daughter Charlotte, marrying Mr Collins because she knows she'll never get another offer; spiteful Miss Bingley, trying to attract Mr Darcy's attention by disparaging Eliza... and of course, Eliza's father, Mr Bennett, whose main purpose in life seems to be watching and laughing at the fools around him. All these caricatures show a fascinating picture of pre-Victorian country society, and are also usually very funny.
Don't be put off by the dated language. And certainly don't be put off by the Colin Firth hype and the chick-lit reputation. This book is deservedly a classic, and if you like witty banter and the pricking of pomposity you can't go far wrong here.