Welcome to the new series of Positive Psychology Book Club!

Each month I will review a fairly recent work of modern contemporary fiction through a positive psychology lens  – announcing the book we are reading and giving you a month to read it in advance. However, as this one has turned up unannounced not having told you of these plots and plans afoot, here is how this will work.

As this is Month One, I have chosen a book that a lot of people will have read and if not read – seen one of the many adaptations. For the uninitiated, I do provide a brief outline. Every month I will suggest a work of modern fiction to read and at the end of that month, we consider it from a positive psychology perspective.

‘One sheds one’s sickness in books – repeats and presents again one’s emotions, to be the master of them’ – DH Lawrence (The Letters of DH Lawrence)

The overlap between reading fiction and PP

Yes, we are talking ‘emotional mastery’! That kind of psychological dexterity – to know and recognise our own emotions and to gain understanding and insight of them rather than be led by them entirely. To be mindful and to exercise self-compassion. These are some of the many aims of Positive Psychology. There are, however, more layers to this exercise than that as further we consider some of the major concepts in PP and how these relate to the novel; what it could mean to you in terms of hope, strengths, meaning, or even just the positive emotions of enjoying the process. And then there is the ‘flow’; it is a desirable state to be in when you are absorbed in a book and someone comes in and it is an hour later than you thought it was because you have been in another life, somewhere else, with other people.

As alluded to in the Lawrence quote, a book is one thing but what your mind does with it is quite another. Your mind will be responding to plot and the subtext; themes, language especially metaphor but also humour & narrative technique – the culture and customs, the social and political world order and a multitude of different perspectives that could be applied to them. The more you know about the text prior to reading it – what others consider the themes to be, an outline of the plot – the more you are likely to gain more from it as you are reading. We will come back to that another time

Now I confess here, I am not upset by ‘spoilers’; in fact, what the resolution of the novel turns out to be is secondary to the journey. Yes, I do often read a last page or chapter very early on. However, in this club, I will endeavour to avoid spoilers.


Our first PP book club book!

For this month only: I decided to go back in time and start with an old classic, an old favourite, ever since Mr Darcy strode out of the lake in the BBC adaptation – the nation remembered Pride and Prejudice and that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife……

The themes are still universal and remain relevant despite the age of the book – hence so many adaptations: money, class, gender, love, family are just a few of the themes that are still as prevalent in our modern society.

By way of background Pride and Prejudice, was written by Jane Austen in 1813 – so quite some time ago: pre-cars, pre-internet, pre-phones. The implications of that on communication and knowledge (of one’s full circumstances) were extensive. When you read fiction that was written some time ago, it can take a while to shift into the mindset of how very different life was then. I love this, that we have a ‘voice’ telling a story set so long ago with at least some degree of authenticity as to what it was like then and with no idea of what lay ahead. Our story focuses on the Bennett Family and their girls: Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty and Lidya. It has been hyped as a romantic novel in which the heroine – Elizabeth – marries for love, but that it is to miss part of the gently made but perfectly done criticism of the system in which they are working. The ‘system’ is a patriarchal one in which their family property will pass to a male heir on the death of their father rendering the whole family homeless. The prospect of being unmarried and homeless was a genuinely frightening one. They must, therefore, marry. With urgency.

The heroine of the story is Elizabeth Bennet, the second daughter and, her father believes, the cleverest and certainly his favourite. Elizabeth is very close to her sister Jane and her friend Charlotte – through her conversations with them, we get to know our heroine’s inner thoughts. That and the technique of free indirect discourse where the author takes on the voice of the character – as Jane Austen does at the beginning with that very famous opening in the unmistakable voice of the much-vexed Mrs Bennet. This is a great literary technique to be able to show emotion and allow us to empathise with the characters (or laugh at them).

When Mr Collins proposes to Elizabeth, she turns him down on the basis that he would not ‘make her happy’. The characters were aware of their desire to seek happiness and Elizabeth, at least, demonstrates the hope in her character by standing by her decision. An interest in and desire for happiness has been around for a while!

There is a lot of talk about money all throughout the book and you may wish to consider whether or not Austen relates money to moral worth? There is a clear patriarchal system at work and the talk of money emphasises the reliance the women have on men because of their lack of opportunities in the world due to the fact that men owned the land and there was no such thing as a career for a woman (There were jobs for lower-class women). The landed men, of course, do not have ‘careers’, they have an income from their inherited land, other investments and so their time is taken up riding horses, visiting other estates and socialising. Life for the poor at those times was hard. There was poor educational provision, no health service, no social security of any kind – It was the threat of this life that provoked Mrs Bennet’s quivering and tremblings and left her most vexed when she imagined that prospect for her daughters.

So when the handsome Mr Bingley moves into the neighbouring estate and his friend Mr Darcy, even more handsome and wealthier, come to visit – there is much excitement as the quest to get the girls married begins apace.


Positive Psychology Ponder Points (PPPPs)

The study of strengths and strengths-spotting works really well with novel-reading. There are many ways to categorise character strengths and much research has been carried out on this – particularly notably by the VIA Institute and by Alex Linley at Cappfinity; they are qualities which to you are energising, your good friends would probably note these particular strengths, they feel like you are ‘being you’ when you use them, they are natural, authentic and could probably apply across many strands of your life positively. As fiction, particularly, allows for all possibilities – it has come from the writer’s mind but is then reconstructed in the mind of the reader. Character strengths are abundant – often portraying love, resilience, bravery, perseverance, hope, humour, kindness and creativity. Which strengths do you admire? Which ones do you recognise in you?

People are still reading books in the face of all the distractions in the world! Despite the fact that there is information everywhere. And Facebook And Twitter. And TikTok. People are still buying books and borrowing them from libraries. How do you feel about reading? What does it bring to your life?

Psychological dexterity – through your empathy with the characters, you are considering what they must do in order to live well and can notice how they handle their emotions. You can take time to notice yours in response. The world of the novel, as a form, is one of shortcomings, failures and compromise. Rarely in a novel do we see a depiction of an epic hero or a tragic hero – more a hero that has some changes to make in her or his life. Consider how you feel as you observe characters change.

Discover how the practice of mindful reading – being present, exploring ideas, noticing the crafting of the words and the shaping of stories – can also deepen your appreciation of life.

Most novels demonstrate hope in some way – through the journey that the characters take. They do not know what lies in store for them and yet they strive on, hoping that they will create a better life. Where do you see the hope in this novel?

Elizabeth’s needs/values. It does seem at first that Elizabeth is seeking a love marriage after turning down Mr Collins and then Mr Darcy. What does this say about her values? Her mind seems to quite change once she catches sight of Pemberley, Darcy’s extensive and stunning estate. Is this still true to her values?

More PPPPs on P&P from TPPP are available in the Facebook group – Positive Psychology Book Club.

Next month’s book is Little Scratch by Rebecca Watson. Faber Publishing. “Wry, funny and heartbreaking. little scratch captures beautifully a rhythm not just of trauma, but also of the small, defiant, everyday happinesses that push through and against it! – Sophie Mackintosh So whether you need to order your copy at the library, get it on your kindle or buy the actual book, that is the read for next month!

Read more about Nicola Morgan and her other articles HERE


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