Celebrating Pride and Prejudice, Claire Tomalin, Colin Firth, Elizabeth Bennet, Fay Weldon, Hazel Jones, Jane Austen, Jane Austen's "darling Child", Jane Austen's Letters, Lansdown Media, literature, Maggie Lane, Miss Benn, Paula Byrne, Pride and Prejudice, Pride and Prejudice 200th birthday
On Wednesday, January 27, 1813, Miss Mary Benn dined with Jane Austen and her mother at Chawton Cottage, which happened to be the day that the first published copy of Pride and Prejudice arrived in its author’s hands.
Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra that “in the eveng we set fairly at it & read half the 1st vol. to her” (29 January 1813). She didn’t tell Miss Benn that she was the author, “& I beleive it passed with her unsuspected. — She was amused, poor soul! that she cd not help you know, with two such people to lead the way; but she really does seem to admire Elizabeth. I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, & how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.” As Claire Tomalin says, “Just for once in her life, whether she knew it or not, Miss Benn was the luckiest person in the kingdom” (Jane Austen: A Life, 1997).
The 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice is fast approaching. Many new books will be published to mark the occasion, including Paula Byrne’s biography The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things and The Cambridge Companion to Pride and Prejudice. This month, Lansdown Media has published Celebrating Pride and Prejudice, by Hazel Jones and Maggie Lane, which I bought at the JASNA AGM in New York.
The illustrations are beautiful: the title page of the first printing (with “by the author of ‘Sense and Sensibility,’” instead of “by Jane Austen”); photographs of Chawton Cottage and Austen’s writing desk; the watercolour sketch of Jane by her sister Cassandra; a portrait of Annabella Milbanke (who thought P&P “a very superior work”), later the wife of Lord Byron; and photographs from the Jane Austen Festival in Bath.
Not surprisingly, there are many images from the film and television adaptations of the novel, with a particular focus on the wet shirt scenes from the 1995 P&P and from “Lost in Austen.” Jones and Lane ask, “Could we ever hope to explain to [Jane Austen] the fascination of a man in a wet shirt?” Colin Firth is on the cover of the book, although readers will need to wait until page 43 for the wet shirt photo.
Two pages from Jane’s January 29, 1813 letter to Cassandra are reproduced, and readers can see part of the passage about reading P&P aloud to Miss Benn. However, one page of the letter is photographed overlapping another, and part of the writing on the right hand side of the first page is cut off. This omission means that the important line in which Austen calls the novel “my darling Child” appears as “I want to tell you that … darling Child from London” instead of “I want to tell you that I have got my own darling Child from London.” Now, I would have traded at least one of the wet shirt photos to make room to reproduce the letter in full, but I recognize that not all readers will agree with me.
Hazel Jones and Maggie Lane offer an excellent overview of the way Austen’s “light & bright & sparkling” novel (Letters, 4 February 1813) has been read and re-imagined over the past 200 years, along with a persuasive analysis of reasons why so many people have been fascinated with P&P and its heroine. I like what they have to say about one of the reasons Elizabeth is so attractive, which is “her good humour and disposition to be happy — to make the best of things that she cannot alter.” When her aunt and uncle change their travel plans, and Elizabeth learns that she won’t get to see the Lake District, she is “excessively disappointed.” However, “it was her business to be satisfied — and certainly her temper to be happy, and all was soon right again.” When Jones and Lane tell the story of the creation and publication of Pride and Prejudice, they begin with “two remarkable facts” about the novel: “that it was turned down by the first publisher to whom it was offered; and that Jane Austen made less money from it than from any other book published during her lifetime.” It is easy to lose sight of these two facts now, when Pride and Prejudice is both a classic novel and a very popular one, “its fame, popularity and influence on contemporary culture increasing with every decade.”
Celebrating Pride and Prejudice is a beautiful, well-written book, and reading it is a wonderful way to mark the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s most beloved novel. “All the elements that have always been requirements for a good read are to be found in Pride and Prejudice — romance, angst, mystery, intrigue,” write Jones and Lane, “and all are expressed in clear, accessible prose, with rich seams of wit and irony running through.” They cite Fay Weldon’s view of Austen’s achievement: “Pity Jane Austen if you must, this maiden lady without children or sexual experience. But she would have known the exhilaration of the writer when she put down her pen after Pride and Prejudice. I bet she knew that what she’d written would outrun the generations.”
Quotations from the letters are from the fourth edition of Jane Austen’s Letters, ed. Deirdre Le Faye (Oxford University Press, 2011).