“Pride And Prejudice” by Jane Austen (1813)

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Several years ago, I hefted my way through Jane Eyre which, while turning out to be very much worth it, I described at the time as being the reading equivalent of “eating a whole deer raw with a fish knife”. I’ll stick with that analogy for this one. Pride and Prejudice, for all its fans, was to me like trying to eat a whole deer raw, antlers first, with a plastic picnic knife and one hand tied behind my back. Are you getting the impression I didn’t like it? You’d sort of be right, but not fully. Let me explain after the synopsis.

I’m sure you know the story. This is the tale of Elizabeth Bennet, intelligent second daughter of the Bennet clan, a young woman who is prime meat on the marriage market of Regency England. Her mother, the hypochondriac Mrs Bennet, is distraught that none of her five daughters are yet married, and hopes they soon will be, as the money and estate can’t be passed down through the female line. At yet another ball, Elizabeth meets Mr Darcy, a brooding, unpleasant man who doesn’t seem capable of socialising in any normal way. The two of them turn against one another quite quickly.

But then Darcy reappears and admits that he loves Elizabeth, most ardently. Elizabeth rejects him, thinking him boorish and proud. He respectfully steps back and soon Elizabeth is caught up in the matrimonial dramas of her sisters. But then, upon visiting Darcy’s house of Pemberley, she meets those who know him better and she comes to think that maybe she’s been too hasty with her first impression. If only he could overcome his pride, and she her prejudice, they may yet make for a happy couple.

And if that’s not what happened, then I probably fell asleep for several pages along the way.

What did I like? Well, I didn’t think I much liked any of it while I was halfway through, but in talking to a friend about bits of it, I realised that I do enjoy both Mr and Mrs Bennet and their relationship. He loves and tolerates his wife for all her insecurities and issues as she worries herself silly about her daughters – at one point, when Elizabeth has turned down the proposal of Mr Collins, her mother doesn’t speak to her for a few weeks. I also really enjoy the linguistic sparring of Elizabeth and Darcy, but the scenes are few and far between, and they don’t match Beatrice and Benedick by any means. Elizabeth, nonetheless, is a feisty character, displaying traits that, for the time, may be considered unseemly for a young woman, such as running across country alone to attend to her ill sister, muddying her dress along the route.

However, my overarching feeling was, “Get on with it, you snobs!” as they all waffled on about who should marry who. I get that there are themes here on whether one should marry for love or money, but they sit slightly submerged between conversations about who’s travelling where, who will be attending each ball, and how much money everyone has. I can see how it was important at the time, and there are some moments that may have even appeared quite daring, such as the youngest daughter, Lydia, eloping against her family’s wishes, but I found little relevance to now, aside from the idea that we shouldn’t judge on first appearances, and that excessive pride is unattractive. I think I’m just underwhelmed because the language is so ornate it was like trying to find a golf ball in a thicket to pick out what was actually going on, and people had really built it up for me. Austen can write, I’m not doubting it, but she’s too florid for my tastes.

Also, at no point does Darcy get wet.

I’m not sorry I read it, I feel it has its place in the canon for a reason, and I’m not calling it a bad book by any means. But I do think it’s overrated, and I’m in no hurry to attend to an adaptation (it’s just been announced that ITV are doing a new one soon). However, the film of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies sits on my desk, so I sense I’ll be returning to a twisted version of this world shortly. Something has to liven it up.

“Wicked” by Gregory Maguire (1995)

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There are two sides to every story.

There are two sides to every story.

“A mile above Oz, the Witch balanced on the wind’s forward edge, as if she were a green fleck of the land itself, flung up and sent wheeling away by the turbulent air.”

If I’m not reading, I do enjoy the theatre, particularly a good musical. One I’ve always been particularly fond of is Wicked, which I last saw in March earlier this year. It feeds into my minor obsession with the fact that there are two sides to every story, and often we only hear one of them. Gregory Maguire, however, has a habit of producing novels that show us another version of events. In Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, he shows us another version of Cinderella’s tale. In Mirror, Mirror, he reveals the motivations of Snow White’s stepmother. And in last year’s After Alice, he explores the effects Alice had on Wonderland once she’d gone. But in Wicked, we get to see the events of The Wizard of Oz from a completely new angle.

Starting years before Dorothy blows into Oz and meets her rag-tag bunch of friends, a baby girl is born in Munchkinland with bright green skin, something never seen before. Her parents, the devoutly religious Frex and the flighty, flirty Melena are suspicious and find it very difficult to love the child, whom they name Elphaba. Born with razor-sharp teeth and a pathological fear of water, as well as her verdant skin, Elphaba is an anomaly too far, and the family move out to Quadling country where she can be raised without drawing too much attention.

Soon enough though, Elphaba is old enough to attend Shiz, a hugely prestigious university in Gillikin country. There she meets Galinda, the snooty social-climbing wannabe-sorceress; Doctor Dillamond, one of their teachers who happens to be a Goat; and Fiyero, a prince from another land who is handsome but nervous about being in a new environment. Elphaba gets involved with Doctor Dillamond’s research into the differences between animals and Animals, the latter being those that possess sapience and can take jobs among humans. The Wizard seems to want to restrict the rights of the Animals, and Dillamond and Elphaba become determined to stop it.

After travelling to the famous, fabled Emerald City, Elphaba and Galinda meet with the Wizard, and Elphaba decides that she has to stay in the city to help against the plight of the Animals, as fewer and fewer of them are given respect or allowed into the human realms. What she does there sets her on a path that will one day lead to her being dubbed the Wicked Witch of the West.

If you’ve ever seen the musical version of this story, be prepared that this novel is incredibly different to that. While some of the characters are still here, they often have very different backstories and futures. Nessarose, who later becomes the Wicked Witch of the East, for example, is in a wheelchair in the musical, but in the novel her disability is that she lacks arms. But I’m not going to go into all the differences here, because they simply are too numerous. Let’s look at the book on it’s own merits.

Above all, it’s an exploration of good and evil, and how they can appear different to different people. It also looks at rumour and folklore, and how stories spring up, as well as prejudice, against the Animals mostly, but also against the smart and spiky Elphaba who is judged continually by Munchkins because of her skin colour. Elphaba is called evil and wicked by those that don’t know her, but there’s an argument to be made for it. Her work in the Emerald City can divide even the readers, as we wonder whether she’s a terrorist or a freedom fighter, a distinction that seems to occasionally rise in our world, too. She is not placid, though, and she’s definitely working at something and her intentions are good, even if the execution is less so. Galinda (who later changes her name to the more familiar Glinda) is considered good, but it is suggested simply because of her position in status and good looks. She seems content to stand by and let evil happen, perhaps making her more evil than those performing the evil itself.

I’m not very knowledgeable on the world of Oz, but it feels like Maguire has dug deep into the many original novels set there to build up a world that feels very real, despite its strangeness. He manages to imbue the fantasy world we know from the film with a sense of reality, not letting things just “be”. This is a world where there is sex, education, politics, war, terrorism, racism and murder, despite to some people seeming to be just a funny world of brightly coloured cities and roads, and friendly scarecrows and cowardly lions. We find out how the Lion came to be cowardly, where the winged monkeys come from, and why exactly Elphaba is so obsessed with getting those shoes.

While it’s a really interesting book and a great conceit because I love the idea of seeing stories from another angle, it’s quite dense still and not especially easy going. I wonder, perhaps, if I prefer the musical, and think that I do, as the story is far simplified (and actually on almost an entirely different trajectory) and places an emphasis on the relationship between Elphaba and Galinda. Plus the songs are really good. The book is for completists, and it’s the first of a series which, I presume, will go on to show what happened in Oz once Dorothy and the Wizard had left, but if you really want the story of the witches of Oz, I’d go see the musical.