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Jane Austen didn’t like the way her mother read Pride and Prejudice aloud. Mrs. Austen read too quickly, “—& tho’ she perfectly understands the Characters herself, she cannot speak as they ought” (Letters, 4 February 1813). Jane writes to her sister Cassandra that she’s grateful for Cassandra’s praise of the novel because she has been having “some fits of disgust” recently. She is at home in Chawton without Cassandra, keeping the secret of her authorship from her neighbours and enduring the irritation of listening to her mother’s interpretation of her characters. She can’t control what other people do with the language of her characters, and she can’t control the errors in the printing: “The greatest blunder in the Printing that I have met with is in page 220—Vol. 3. where two speeches are made into one.” She’s just written one of the greatest books in English literature, and she must know she’s accomplished something very important, but the fact that the book is now out in the world being judged and interpreted by others is making her restless.
A few days before this letter, she wrote to Cassandra with the good news that “I have got my own darling Child from London”: Pride and Prejudice had just arrived in Chawton (Letters, 29 January 1813). Jane Austen’s “darling Child” has come to visit, and the way she uses this metaphor, I don’t think she means that the publication of her novel is its birth. When she talks about reading the proofs for Sense and Sensibility, her first published novel, two years earlier, she says, “I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child” (Letters, 25 April 1811). If the proofs of the novel are already a nursing child, hungry for more from its creator, the birth of the novel must happen when the author completes the manuscript.
The publication, therefore, must be the mature (revised) child’s introduction to the world, and we could debate the age at which this happens. Pride and Prejudice was born long before January 28, 1813, the date on which it was published. (I’ve sometimes referred to its 200th birthday in 2013, but I ought to be careful to call today the 200th anniversary of the novel’s publication instead.) First conceived of as First Impressions in 1796, the story went through several developmental stages, about which Austen critics can and do speculate, yet we’ll never know exactly what happened as First Impressions was transformed into the novel that would become world famous as Pride and Prejudice. Like any mother, Jane Austen worried about her child at every stage of its development, and about how the life of that child would unfold.
In her letter, when she thanks Cassandra for her praise, Jane acknowledges that despite being bothered by the way their mother read the book aloud, “Upon the whole however
I am quite vain enough & well satisfied enough” (Letters, 4 February 1813). She tries to insist to herself and to her sister that she’s happy with the book, yet she immediately turns again to criticism, joking (and I’m quite sure this is a joke, though not all critics have thought so) that “The work is rather too light & bright & sparkling;—it wants shade;—it wants to be stretched out here & there with a long Chapter—of sense if it could be had, if not of solemn specious nonsense—about something unconnected with the story; an Essay on Writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparte—or anything that would form a contrast & bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness & Epigrammatism of the general stile.”
Jane Austen is at the same time completely confident about her achievement in Pride and Prejudice, and utterly unsatisfied with the publication of the novel. Sharing the novel with the world means leaving herself and her work open to criticism, criticism that she hasn’t dealt with History, Literature, and Politics (and she has been criticized many times for not addressing these things directly), and it means allowing other people to read and interpret the story and characters in their own ways.
And my, have those readers ever taken liberties with the story and characters.
I’ll limit myself right now to a very short list of the various responses to Pride and Prejudice: this novel has inspired more sequels, prequels, and adaptations than any of Jane Austen’s other novels. As you already know, even in the last two decades our culture has produced everything from the 1995 A&E/BBC/Colin Firth’s wet shirt tv series, to Bridget Jones’s Diary, to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, to board books designed to introduce babies to the novel. Maybe you’ve already made the connection between these two pieces of information as well: that Stephanie Meyer’s best-selling Twilight books and movies about vampires are inspired by Pride and Prejudice, and that E.L. James’s phenomenally best-selling erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey (and its own sequels) began life as Twilight fan-fiction.
Pride and Prejudice sells, and it now sells both itself and a huge range of stories inspired by, or capitalizing on, its own popularity.
When it was first published, the title page said only, “By the author of Sense and Sensibility,” and Jane Austen’s authorship was a secret from nearly all the world. Some members of her family knew, and while she wasn’t ready to tell her neighbours, she clearly took pleasure in knowing that those neighbours knew about the book. She wrote to Cassandra that “you must be prepared for the Neighbourhood being perhaps already informed of there being such a Work in the World, & in the Chawton World!” She found her niece Fanny’s praise “gratifying,” and confessed that “my hopes were tolerably strong of her, but nothing like a certainty.” Sharp, critical, and even cynical at times herself, Jane appears to have been sensitive about her writing, to have longed for praise even as she claimed not to need too much of it. She said of Fanny that “Her liking Darcy and Elizth is enough. She might hate all the others, if she would” (Letters, 9 February 1813).
Countless people over the past two hundred years have joined Fanny Knight and Cassandra Austen in liking Darcy and Elizabeth, and in praising Pride and Prejudice. Most of them have been in Britain, North America, and Australia, but according to The Independent, “China, India, and Russia are beginning to swot up on all things Austen.” The World has known Jane Austen’s “darling Child” for two centuries now, and it doesn’t seem likely to forget Pride and Prejudice any time soon.
I agree with Alex Clark, who makes the excellent point about the “cultural fetishisation” of Pride and Prejudice that “we should separate our regard for a book from all the white noise that surrounds it.” She emphasizes, “That’s not to say that we should wish Pride and Prejudice to be less well thought of than it is.” Yet how do we begin anew to talk about this novel, without wet shirts and zombies, without white noise or shades of grey? We begin at the beginning, of course: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
In the next few weeks, I’m going to be rereading Pride and Prejudice and blogging about the novel itself. I hope you’ll join the conversation about rediscovering Austen’s masterpiece by commenting here on my website, and/or on Facebook and Twitter (@Sarah_Emsley).
Let me start by asking you, not about your favourite film adaptation or sequel, but about your favourite quotation from the novel. If you had to choose just one line, what would it be? Here’s mine: “Happy for all her maternal feelings was the day on which Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters.”
My page Pride and Prejudice at 200 collects all the posts in this series on rereading the novel, along with links to other essays and articles on P&P.