A Memoir of Jane Austen, Celebrating Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet, Hugh Thomson, Jane Austen Society of Australia, Keira Knightley, Lost in Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Pride and Prejudice 200th anniversary, Susannah Fullerton
Pride and Prejudice is a diamond, writes Susannah Fullerton in her new book Celebrating Pride and Prejudice: 200 Years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece. It’s “sparkling,” as Austen herself said, it’s a “universal symbol of Love,” it’s “timeless,” and “it refuses to crack under pressure: it survives the onslaughts of filmmakers, sequel writers, critics and fans.” Why do so many people keep reading and rereading Austen’s most famous novel? Fullerton, who is President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia and the author of Jane Austen and Crime, answers that Pride and Prejudice is new every time. We discover new things in the novel on each rereading, she suggests, but we ourselves are also changed by our reading each time.
Over the past few months, I’ve been blogging about the experience of rereading Pride and Prejudice, “unplugged,” as it were, away from the sounds of adaptations and reinterpretations of the novel in popular culture. I’ve enjoyed reading Fullerton’s book as a guide to the novel itself, and to its critical reputation and cultural afterlives. The best way to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice is to read the novel. Reading it with Fullerton as a guide is an excellent way to enrich the celebration.
Fullerton deepens our appreciation of Elizabeth Bennet’s liveliness by reminding us how different Austen’s heroine is from other late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century heroines who “try terribly hard to be good and to please everyone.” Elizabeth is delightful partly because she’s “a heroine who can get cross”—a “new creature” in fiction, who contradicts her mother. She has “strength of mind as well as body.” Fullerton remarks that in the 2005 film adaptation of the novel, the camera is always focused on Keira Knightley’s lips, hands, and body, not on the wit and intelligence of Elizabeth Bennet.
In this witty, intelligent book, Fullerton offers detailed chapters on the composition and publication of Austen’s “darling Child,” reactions to the novel, the famous first sentence, and Austen’s style, followed by five chapters on Austen’s characters, before turning to surveys of translations, illustrations, book covers, sequels and adaptations, film and theatrical versions, and memorabilia. I especially enjoyed her analysis of that beloved opening sentence, her history of illustrations, and her commentary on the problems of translating Pride and Prejudice. The first line has inspired a great deal of critical analysis as well as countless reworkings in both literary and non-literary contexts. In one sentence, Austen challenges her readers to think carefully about everything that follows in the novel, and about everything we read and think we know in our own lives: “This book, it appears from its opening, will be about the difference between truths and falsehoods.”
While I enjoyed seeing examples of illustrations—by Hugh Thomson, Chris Hammond, Rhys Williams, Helen Sewell, Philip Gough, Joan Hassall, and several others—collected here and reproduced in colour, I really like what Fullerton says about how most of the artists have focused on grace and elegance. “Usually the sharpness is lost—Elizabeth is not shown climbing over stiles.” It’s fun to see the way the famous first sentence has been translated in Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Norwegian, Spanish, and Turkish, and fascinating to read Fullerton’s remarks on some of the challenges of translating Austen’s irony and her use of free indirect discourse.
Over and over, Fullerton reminds us to return to the text of the novel itself, in English whenever possible, and without other people’s images of how the characters look. There is an ongoing tension, which I—and I’m sure many other readers—appreciate, between her curiosity about the afterlives of the novel, and her interest in the original text. Even as she appreciates and marvels at the global phenomenon that is Pride and Prejudice, and describes her research into the way the novel is interpreted and reinterpreted around the world, she persuades us to go back to what Austen wrote.
Fullerton notes that as more and more people read Pride and Prejudice on a Kindle or other e-book reader, without an illustrated book cover, we may be returning, full circle, to “the impersonal and dull ‘boards’ of Jane Austen’s day,” reading text that isn’t so heavily influenced by design features. One design feature she speculates about, which I’d love to see implemented by a publisher someday, is the inclusion of a blank page, as in Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, on which readers trying to picture Elizabeth Bennet could “imprint … their own image of the most beautiful and desirable female imaginable.”
As readers, we sometimes try to change Pride and Prejudice, whether we imagine ourselves into the story (as the heroine Amanda does in the tv series Lost in Austen), wear t-shirts that proclaim “Mr. Darcy is mine,” or imagine the lives of the characters beyond the ending Austen wrote. In doing so, we can take comfort from the fact that Jane Austen herself imagined lives for her characters beyond the printed page, as she searched in London for portraits of Mrs. Bingley and Mrs. Darcy (which she described in a letter to her sister Cassandra on May 24, 1813), and talked with her family about the fates of the other Bennet sisters (for example, Mary eventually married one of her Uncle Philips’s clerks, as we learn from James Edward Austen-Leigh’s 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen).
At the same time, it won’t surprise you at all (if you’ve followed my series on rereading P&P) to find that I agree with Susannah Fullerton’s emphasis on what Austen wrote and published in Pride and Prejudice in 1813—and on the power of the novel to change us. There are many ways of celebrating, interpreting, and reinterpreting the novel. Some may glitter more than others, but only Pride and Prejudice sparkles.