“Pride and Prejudice” at 200

She was not the prettiest of the sisters—Jane was the beauty; nor the eldest—Jane was that too; nor was she the cleverest—that was Mary; nor even the liveliest—Lydia took that prize. She was carelessly educated and due to that misogynistic sting-in-the-tail, the entail, her fortune amounted to a mere £50 a year. How then, did Miss Elizabeth Bennet come to be the most loved heroine in the history of fiction and Pride and Prejudice an abiding favourite?

On January 28, 1813, a parcel arrived at Chawton cottage in country Hampshire containing a three-volume novel, Pride and Prejudice by “The Author of Sense and Sensibility”. The author had chosen to be anonymous but did not mind that family, friends and their acquaintances came to know that it was Miss Jane Austen. It had begun in October 1796 under the title First Impressions when she, like her heroine, was twenty, attending balls at the nearby assembly rooms and falling in love (with an Irishman called Tom Lefroy). Although she would revise and, in her own words, crop and chop; by August 1797, the story of Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters of Longbourn was essentially complete.

That it took sixteen years to find a publisher seems incredible. And yet, as recently as a decade ago one sly fan sent out manuscripts of Pride and Prejudice, retitled and nothing but names and minor details altered, only to find it rejected by three publishers; it was recognised by a fourth.

A few days after the book’s publication, the Critical Review praised Elizabeth Bennet—“her sense and conduct are of a superior order to those of the common heroines of novels”. Some believed the author to be Theresa Boringdon (later Countess of Morley). A near contemporary, Mary Russell Mitford, wrote of 

an entire want of taste which could produce so pert, so worldly a heroine as the beloved of such a man as Darcy. Wickham is equally bad. Oh! They were just fit for each other, and I cannot forgive that delightful Darcy for parting them. Darcy should have married Jane. 

Wordsworth thought it unimaginative and Madame de Stael dismissed it as “vulgaire”. Others hailed the brilliance of the novel and the charm of its heroine. Sir Walter Scott wore his copy out as he recognised “a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which to me is the most wonderful I ever met with”. Miss Annabella Millbanke thought it a “very superior work … the most probable fiction I have ever read”. She found the “interest is very strong, especially for Mr Darcy”. Within a year she had married England’s most dashing bachelor, Lord Byron. She had not read closely enough—she clearly chose a Wickham, not a Darcy.

What was new, almost revolutionary, as Susannah Fullerton relates in her Celebrating Pride and Prejudice (Frances Lincoln, 2013), was a heroine like Elizabeth Bennet. Heroes, like Tristram Shandy, Robinson Crusoe and Tom Jones abounded, but women, like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa and Frances Burney’s Evelina, Cecilia and Camilla, were models of deportment and decorum—perfect, passive cyphers, subservient, sometimes victims, of superior men. Fordyce’s Sermons called on every young lady hoping for matrimony to “sit quietly, repress her wit and always obey her parents and betters”. This is the very book that the ridiculous Mr Collins reads to the Bennet sisters when he comes to propose himself. But Elizabeth Bennet is made of different stuff. She contradicts her foolish mother: “But you forget, mama, that we shall meet him at the assemblies.” And when she does meet Mr Bingley, and his friend Darcy refers to her as “tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me”, her reaction is not to blush or look crushed—but to laugh. This is the essence of Elizabeth Bennet.

And the essence of the author? William Deresiewicz, author of A Jane Austen Education, says it’s “confidence, mastery, serenity and tact”. But who was this genius? Despite the efforts of that superb biographer Claire Tomalin (and among many others, Elizabeth Jenkins and David Noakes) there is so much one does not know about Jane Austen. Others claim there is so little to know. As Terry Castle observed, she was “part of that last, infinitely poignant, generation of human beings who lived and died before photography”.

She was the seventh of eight children, and the younger daughter, of a country parson, Rev. George Austen, the son of a surgeon and grandson of a baronet, and Cassandra Leigh, the daughter of a clergyman and Fellow of All Souls. Educated, mainly at home, she shared a bedroom with her sister Cassandra and, although there were visits to London, and some time in Bath, her life revolved around her family in Hampshire and Kent. On July 18, 1817, in Winchester, as Virginia Woolf put it, “the most perfect artist among women, the writer whose books are immortal”, died “just as she was beginning to feel confidence in her own success”. Only three days before, on St Swithin’s Day, she composed a comic poem, a curse addressed by the saint to the people of Winchester:

Oh! Subjects rebellious! Oh Venta depraved!
When once we are buried you think we are dead
But behold me immortal …

So, even in extremis, that wit could not be smothered. She described the world of her fiction in advice to a niece, “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on.” There is too her more vivid, much-quoted line, the “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labour”.

Some have found chinks. Struck by the vulgarity of Mrs Bennet and her youngest three daughters—how could they be so different from the elder two?—Somerset Maugham suggested Mr Bennet should have married twice; his first wife having died after Jane and Elizabeth, he then married Miss Gardiner who bore him Mary, Kitty and Lydia.

Paula Byrne in a new study, The Real Jane Austen (2013), saw the relationship between Elizabeth and Jane mirrored in that of the Austen sisters, Jane and Cassandra. Time and again in her letters to her sister (at least those letters that Cassandra did not burn or snip) one can see what inspired Elizabeth and Jane.

Byrne points to an observation of Lizzy’s:

There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more I am dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of either merit or sense.

Byrne adds, “That is very much the sort of thing Jane Austen might have said herself in one of her letters.” Lord David Cecil, an ardent Janeite and author of A Portrait of Jane Austen (1978), also claimed that Elizabeth’s “humour and the general tone of her talk … are strikingly like Jane Austen’s, as they appear in her letters”.

In “Sister, Sister”, a controversial review of Austen’s letters in the London Review of Books, Terry Castle draws on Virginia Woolf’s observation that “it is where the power of a man has to be conveyed that her novels are always at their weakest”. Dr Castle speculates, “Perhaps this is because men are inevitably inferior to sisters. Even more so than in the fiction, Austen displays a remorseless eye in her letters for male fatuousness.” But reassuringly, fatuousness is shared liberally between both genders.

The Georgian obsession with comfort and income caused W.H. Auden to write:

It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle-class
Describe the amorous effects of “brass”,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.

It is true that Elizabeth admits to Jane she realised she loved Darcy on seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley. It is unclear if this was this another sisterly joke or an honest admission of the attraction of his acreage but, if it were merely about brass, would she have refused Darcy on his first, ardent, tortured, albeit offensive proposal? Having read the novel for the first time, Helen Garner, in a recent enthusiastic review, refers to this “scene of breathtaking muscle and spark”.

But all is, ultimately, well. As Deresiewicz puts it:

she gives us everything we want: the wittiest lines, the silliest fools, the most lovable heroine, the handsomest estate. And a hero who is not only tall and good-looking, but the richest and most wellborn man in sight.

And yet, despite its charms, the novel fell into a sort of slumber, rather like Sleeping Beauty, as it was remaindered after the author’s death in 1817. But Miss Lizzy continued to collect her devotees. Robert Louis Stevenson fell in love with her. George Eliot and her lover would read the novel aloud to each other. Disraeli read it seventeen times. A turning point came in 1870 with the publication of A Memoir of Jane Austen by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh. Jane would reach almost divine status during the First World War as Pride and Prejudice found its way into the trenches. Kipling sought comfort from it on the death of his son. In the next war Churchill had his daughter Sarah read it to him in Tunisia as he was planning Operation Overlord. He was comforted by “What calm lives they had”.

The Sleeping Beauty was now wide awake but as Claire Harman relates in Jane’s Fame (2009), it was the 1995 six-part television adaptation, starring a sparkling, spirited Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth and a brooding, bewitched Colin Firth as Darcy, that the novel became a phenomenon. A “real-life” off-screen fling may have helped fuel the flames. The director Andrew Davies took liberties by having Darcy/Firth dive into his lake at Pemberley. Emerging in a dripping undershirt and drenched breeches, he set off Darcymania. Among a marketing frenzy, tote bags appeared—“Dibs on Darcy—you can have Wickham”. This was accompanied by a devotion to Lizzy and together they, and the novel, went global. Martin Amis declared Jane hotter than Quentin Tarantino. Amis’s reaction to the book is fascinating too. He confessed in the New Yorker:

when I was introduced to the novel, at the age of fourteen, I read twenty pages then besieged my stepmother’s [Elizabeth-Jane Howard] study, until she told me what I needed to know. I needed to know that Darcy married Elizabeth. (I needed to know that Bingley married Jane.) I needed this information as badly as I have ever needed anything. Pride and Prejudice suckers you.

Translations—from Albanian to Vietnamese—are now available. It is Trots en Vooroodeel in Dutch; in Italian it’s Orgoglio e Pregiudizio. As Miss Fullerton relates, the immortal first line in American Indian Ojibwe reads, “It is true living knowledge that when a man alone has something of value, women may want to walk with him.”

To the horror of true fans, sequels, retellings and travesties have mutated. In 1994 Emma Tennant produced An Unequal Marriage. In 2008 Colleen McCullough published The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet; neither proved especially pleasing. Last year P.D. James wrote Death Comes to Pemberley, set six years after Jane saw Elizabeth and Darcy wed, and while the tone is for the most part Austenian, with Lady Catherine dead, Mr Collins absent, and Mrs Bennet rarely there, Lizzy lacks the foils she needs to shine.          

In the 2003 film Bride and Prejudice Lizzy dons a sari as Lalita Bakshi. In 2001, Helen Fielding emerged from left field with a loose and inflated modern cinematic version of Elizabeth as Bridget Jones (cleverly casting Firth again as Mr Darcy). As Louise Schwartzkoff observes, Fielding’s book is “less an adaptation that a nod to Darcy fever”. In 2005, sixty-five years after Greer Garson, Keira Knightley became the cinematic face of Elizabeth in a conventional, well-received version of the story. Intriguingly, Jane never gave a physical description of her heroine (apart from “tolerable” teeth and beautiful dark eyes), leaving it to her readers to provide one for themselves. Jane once saw at an exhibition a portrait that exactly matched in every detail her perception of Jane Bennet. (Patricia Meyer Spacks, the editor of an Annotated Edition of the novel, tracked it down and believes it was a portrait of one of George IV’s mistresses. Surely a Jane joke.)

While purists—Janeites—would prefer this enthusiasm were poured into reading of the novel, the twenty-first century has harnessed all its e-wizardry to embrace it. Audio books offer the unabridged version of eleven and a half hours—or one of fifty-four minutes. It can be read on Kindle, iPad or Kobo. Google and Twitter offer it free. The BBC has an online social game on Facebook, “Jane Austen’s Rogues and Romance”, dedicated to Wickham and Darcy. A YouTube blogger named Hank Green has created The Lizzie Bennet Diaries featuring a modern-day Elizabeth posting video blogs of her life with Charlotte Lu.

The most audacious adaptation (well, apart from Miranda Pillow’s Pride and Prejudice: The Wild and Wanton Edition) is surely Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009), which retains 85 per cent of the original beloved text but, with the remaining 15 per cent, makes Lizzy a deadly slayer of the undead who is about to behead Darcy when he distracts her by proposing marriage.

A few weeks ago Joan Bakewell suggested a contemporary rewriting. Mrs Bennet, the mother of five sons, hears that a successful businesswoman, Mrs Bingley, is coming from the North of England to make over a local store that has been long empty. She says to Mr Bennet: “My dear love, those boys … teenagers lying in bed till noon need something to shake them out of their torpor. There are bound to be jobs going. What a fine thing for local youth, isn’t it? … She’s bound to need one of our boys. Perhaps you might give her a call.” Of course Mr Bennet refuses: “Perhaps you can take an interest. You still have your looks, after all. She may even offer you a job when she sees how keen you are.” As Baroness Bakewell says, “And Mrs Bennet went along. That was ten years ago. She is now managing director of a FTSE-listed company.”

As Deresiewicz has it: 

everybody wants to inhabit the story for themselves, to cut Elizabeth and Darcy out of the picture book and see how they’d fit somewhere else. They are archetypes of the way we want to be: clever but good, fallible and forgiven, glamorous, amorous, and very, very happy.

The euphoria at this bicentenary seems, at times, more pronounced than that which celebrated the Declaration of Independence or the arrival of the First Fleet. There is no reason to believe that the marking of the bicentenary of the author’s death, in 2017, will be any less passionate.

Mark McGinness, a frequent contributor, is living in the United Arab Emirates.

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