Should I return to college as an English major? Maybe not.
Yesterday I took a look at the courses English majors are required to take at UC Berkeley. Reading lists are provided with the course listings. One of the courses (English 45B, which covers the 18th and early 19th centuries) puts Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice at the very top of the list. Possibly because it’s an alphabetical list, though a few items are out of order. So I thought, hey, I’ve never read it. I’ll give it a try. This will give me some good information about whether I would enjoy being an English major.
Pride and Prejudice is amazingly, mind-numbingly boring. It is an absolute crock. I’ve only read about a quarter of it, but no inducement on Earth would persuade me to go on. The novel concerns itself entirely with the marriage prospects of idle rich girls. Everyone in the book is rich. They have servants. There is, from time to time, a passing mention of a cook or footman, but the servants have neither faces nor names.
What’s worse, the characters in the novel have no interests whatever, other than gossiping, idle chitchat, and dissecting one another’s manners. Were world events unfolding in the years around 1810? Certainly. (The novel was published in 1813.) In 1810 Napoleon married Marie Louise, his second wife. Napoleon was the self-declared emperor of France, a nation quite near England. Also in 1810, he annexed Holland. In 1812, of course, the British army soundly defeated the upstart United States and burnt the capital of the U.S. to the ground.
Ah, but Elizabeth is concerned only with Mr. Darcy. The fact that the cook’s husband is ill, or that Napoleon has annexed Holland — these things concern her not for a moment. In Austen’s austere world view, nothing exists but rich people and their social encounters.
When the English department at UC replaces Jane Austen with Terry Pratchett, call me. I mean this quite seriously. Pratchett was a humorist, but his novels have far more meat on their bones than Pride and Prejudice. They have poor people. They have people taking huge risks and nearly getting killed (or more than nearly). They have recognizable literary themes. They have insight into human nature.
Or maybe Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald. Yeah, call me when you add that course to the syllabus.