We often hear that humor, unlike wine, doesn’t age well. Rob the joke of its context, the argument goes, and it’s often stripped of its ability to make the listener laugh. Barbs rooted in the details of their day wither—think of old political cartoons, the fine points of which often elude us, as this example shows. (Beyond the fact that the anthropomorphic bull has a drinking problem, I’m not too sure what’s going on.)
But other themes are universal, and thus timeless. Love, debt, arrogance and mortification about what your family just said in public have been with us throughout history. These themes lie at the heart of Pride and Prejudice, a warm, humanistic novel that takes great delight in puncturing our shared human frailties.
The book’s plot uses a standard romantic-comedy framework. Indeed, the novel, written by Jane Austen in 1813, can credibly claim to have invented the mold. There’s hatred, then love, obstacles and misunderstandings, all with a big, happy ending to tie it together.
But what registers most is the wit. Austen’s characters benefit from the loquacious style of their time. They deliver ornate insults, the kind that take a minute to register and a lifetime to rebut. The excess courtesy of the era helps to inspire the comedy of manners, as indirectness and excess flattery establish a perpetual contrast between the superficial politeness of the speech and the sharp barbs contained within.
That humor is hard to capture in excerpts, as its effect is cumulative, building up through keen characterization and a number of perfectly expressed (and often absurd) characters. It’s abundant in the book, however, and retains the ability to make the reader laugh out loud, even after nearly 200 years.