In an amusing coincidence, right after Ann and I did our Hollywood vs. Bollywood P&P movie extravaganza, my bookstore got its review copy of a new book, So Odd a Mixture: Along the Autistic Spectrum in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, which, as you might gather from the title analyzes the characters in Pride and Prejudice for characteristics of autism spectrum disorders.
Now, I do admit, I thought this was a pretty, um, shall we say “niche” thing to write about, but I figured what the hey, I’d evaluate it seriously anyway, because we might as well carry it if it was good. And just to make sure I was evaluating it as well as I could, I read the original book version of Pride and Prejudice over the weekend. I had already read the intro to So Odd a Mixture, so I knew which characters the author was going to “diagnose,” and was therefore paying attention to the possible signs she might have found.
When I got back to work, I dove into the main chapters of her argument, where she analyzes, character by character, the following: Mr. Collins, Lydia, Mary, Mr. Bennet, Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Darcy, Anne de Bourgh, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh. (I think that was everyone.) If you’ve read P&P, take a moment to consider which of these characters you might consider possible candidates.
Mr. Collins I had no problem with. While the more classic public conception of a person with high-functioning autism (HFA) is the introverted anti-social wallflower, *cough*Mr.Darcy*cough*, there are many who are quite intent on being social, just like other extroverts. Except, because they have autism, they are impaired in their ability to read those essential social cues from others that tell them how to go about this being social, and they end up violating many of the “obvious” rules of social intercourse. So Mr. Collins is unable to see that his choice of reading sermons out loud to a household of teenage girls, or his addressing Mr. Darcy without an introduction, or his frequent monologues, or his constant comparison of everything to Lady Catherine and Rosings, and so on are all highly inappropriate, and he completely misses the fact that everyone around him is put off by his behavior.
Mr. Darcy I also had no problem with. I thought the chapter on him was probably the best one, as might be expected. The author notes that Darcy is at his most socially awkward when he is in an unfamiliar situation, and appears most charming and “normal” when met at his own home. When having to deal with crowds, noise, chit chat, and flirting, he is stiff, his face lacks affect, and he makes very forthright statements that aren’t exactly calculated to make him any friends. But in his familiar environment, surrounded by things he knows and people he grew up with, he can stop focusing so much on managing himself and spare more attention for understanding other people. The author treats his character fairly, and even expresses some optimism that Lizzy’s astute understanding of social interaction will eventually guide Darcy to greater understanding and comfort as well.
But the author’s arguments were somewhat undermined, for me, by her practically hateful treatment of Mr. Bennet. Now, I thought at first that maybe I missed something about Mr. Bennet in the movies, that his character was just more sympathetically portrayed, and that I would find more autistic characteristics in the book. I didn’t get that impression upon reading it. The author makes the argument that he is callously cruel to his wife and children; that he has been extremely irresponsible in his mismanagement of money, leaving them all in danger of poverty and homelessness upon his death; that he neglects essential social duties that would further them in society; and that he retreats to his library due to autistic overstimulation, essentially abandoning his family much of the time. She claims that he has scarred his children for life and driven his wife to near nervous collapse. She uses all the negative evidence she can find from other autism research books that point to the negative effects of having someone with autism as either a husband or a father. This interpretation of his character is so strikingly at odds with the one of Darcy that it almost seems as if two different people wrote them. How can we trust her sympathetic view of Darcy’s Asperger Syndrome, when she is so ready to condemn all autistic fathers and husbands? Besides which, I’m not sure there are very many readers who don’t also want to retreat to the library when Mrs. Bennet, Kitty, and Lydia get going.
And then there are the characters that it seems she added to take up some more space. Anne de Bourgh hardly belongs there, because she was barely in the book at all. For a diagnosis that relies on observed behavior, it seems like quite a reach to diagnose a character who shows up on two or three pages, total. Lydia gets saddled with the dual diagnosis of some sort of HFA and ADHD, due to her inability to see future consequences for her actions and her apparent callousness toward her family’s reaction when she elopes. Mary is too reliant on book learning and logic, and therefore must have Asperger’s as well. Mrs. Bennet is socially unaware and inappropriate, and shows signs of anxiety disorder! But her issues have undoubtedly been made far worse by her marriage to an uncaring and unaware husband, and her constant worry about her precarious position in life, should he die. There might actually be some argument for Lady Catherine, with her strict adherence to her own set of social rules, tendency toward bald pronouncements and monologues, and basically the fact that she puts up with Mr. Collins so well.
So while the idea was interesting, and some of it had merit, I ended up feeling like we couldn’t carry it due to how negative the author’s attitude toward Mr. Bennet was. The last section of the book discussed the various couples’ likelihood of future happiness, and she took the opportunity again to get in a number of digs at the poor man. If she had just stuck with the chapters on Darcy and Mr. Collins, all would have been well. If anyone else feels like reading the books, I suggest skipping the chapters about the Bennets, at the very least. I suspect this book will go over better with the more strictly Austen crowd than the autism community, because they won’t be as shocked or offended by the vitriol, but I wouldn’t want to recommend the book to a person on the spectrum, or even a parent.
-posted by Dana