On Charlotte Lucas’s Choice

Like many long-time readers of “Pride and Prejudice,” I’ve returned, again and again, to the problem of Charlotte Lucas. Pretty much everyone in “Pride and Prejudice” gets the spouse they deserve, except for Charlotte. Elizabeth’s best friend is a sensible, intelligent person, but because she isn’t young, pretty, or rich, she ends up married to the maddening and empty-headed Mr. Collins. (Lizzy calls him, in a letter to her sister, a “conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man.”) “Pride and Prejudice” is a joyous novel, but Charlotte’s marriage is like the tomb in that Poussin painting “Et in Arcadia ego.” Even at Pemberley, I am here, it seems to say.

I first read “Pride and Prejudice” in high school, and back then I didn’t devote a lot of thought to Charlotte’s marriage. As time has gone on, though, it’s seemed more and more important to me. Growing older involves making compromises, and I suppose that has something to do with it. But I’ve also become more familiar with the importance, in life, of choice. In a lot of ways, that’s what “Pride and Prejudice” is about: how we make choices. And no story in the novel says more about choices, about their difficulty and meaning, than Charlotte’s. Continue reading “On Charlotte Lucas’s Choice”

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Writing Is the Process of Abandoning the Familiar

The novelist and editor Anna North discusses the Odyssey’s timeless lesson about leaving the comforts of home. Published in The Atlantic, 19 May 2015

My grandfather first recommended the Odyssey to me. When he died a few years ago, I went looking for my original copy because I wanted to read from it at the funeral. I found it in my parents’ house, with the original receipt still inside. So I could date exactly when I first got the book: I was eleven years old.

I have strong memories of reading it for the first time. The Odyssey’s a great book for kids. A lot happens. There’s strangeness, magic, excitement. Of course, the names are very weird to a modern person, and I remember getting tripped up over that. But still, I loved it.

It’s an obsession that’s stayed with me into adult life. I’ve always been interested in Greek and Latin literature. I’m excited by the ways those traditions show how old our concerns are. If you read Livy, for instance, you find that almost everything that’s said in American politics had probably said by the Romans, too: everything from concerns about men not being manly enough anymore to debates about the kinds of things the founding fathers cared about. With the Odyssey, it’s possible to see how many of the stories we still tell exist in ancient texts—they’re archetypal. There are things that human beings like to talk about, and always have, and a quest is one of them. Continue reading “Writing Is the Process of Abandoning the Familiar”