2013 marks the bicentenary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, surely Jane Austen’s most famous novel. Over 20 million copies are thought to have been sold worldwide. Here at Interesting Literature we thought we’d look around for some interesting facts concerning this Austen classic.
The opening line of Pride and Prejudice is arguably the most famous opening line of any novel: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’ But what is less widely known is that the tone of this opening line is almost certainly ironic. Far from being Austen the detached, impartial narrator, this is actually Austen ventriloquising her characters’ thoughts – specifically, those of Mrs Bennet, whose views in the novel are often derided by Austen’s narrator. The clue is in the phrase ‘universally acknowledged’, since how many things in life really are universally acknowledged?
Originally titled First Impressions, the novel is, as its title makes clear, about the central characters’ need to overcome their pride (specifically, Mr Darcy’s haughtiness and snobbery) and their prejudice (specifically, Elizabeth Bennet’s inverted snobbery over Darcy’s upper-class aloofness). But that title, Pride and Prejudice, was a cliché even when Austen used it for her novel. The phrase is found in two important works of the 1770s, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But the most important precursor to Austen’s novel by a long way is Fanny Burney’s 1782 novel Cecilia, in which that phrase, ‘pride and prejudice’, appears three times in rapid succession, with the words ‘pride’ and ‘prejudice’ capitalised: ‘The whole of this unfortunate business, said Dr Lyster, has been the result of PRIDE and PREJUDICE. […] if to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you owe your miseries, so wonderfully is good and evil balanced, that to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you will also owe their termination.’ For more on the origin of Austen’s title, and the fascinating stories behind other classic book titles, see Gary Dexter’s excellent book Title Deeds: The Hidden Stories Behind 50 Books.
But what is particularly interesting is the fact that Pride and Prejudice matches Burney’s novel in other respects, notably character and theme. In Burney’s novel, Cecilia Beverly, a wealthy heiress, insists that the man she marries must take her name; however, the man she wishes to marry, Mortimer Delvile, has a powerful and supercilious father who insists that his son marry for money and that he must not sacrifice the family name of Delvile. Consequently, the terms ‘pride’ and ‘prejudice’ run throughout the novel, as they do in Austen’s. In Burney’s story, Cecilia capitulates – unlike in Austen’s, where Elizabeth eventually wins over Mr Darcy, despite Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s – and Darcy’s own – pride. Austen admired Burney’s novel and even mentioned it in another of her own novels, Northanger Abbey. It seems likely that she was influenced by Cecilia when she wrote Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen herself famously accepted a marriage proposal from a man named Harris Bigg-Wither; the next day, she regretted it and withdrew her acceptance. She never married.
Reading is key in the novel: Mr Bennet is bookish, and Elizabeth takes after him in this respect, and other respects too. Mr Darcy thinks the best way a woman can improve herself is to read voraciously. This is very different from Jane Austen’s sister-in-law, who attended a school in London which included lessons on how to get out of a carriage gracefully! It is also very different from the less sophisticated Mrs Bennet, the girls’ mother, whose ‘voice’ can be heard in that opening line.
The novel has been adapted and retold on numerous occasions, with doyenne of crime fiction P. D. James recently reworking the novel as a murder mystery, Death Comes to Pemberley. Here is James talking about her novel:
In his vast study of plot structures, The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker suggests that Pride and Prejudice is more straightforwardly in the ‘comedy’ genre than it may first appear to be. He points out that much of the novel turns on misunderstandings, characters misreading others’ intentions or others’ personalities, and people generally getting things wrong: the Bennets think Mr Wickham is the wronged one and Darcy the villain, but it turns out that they have this the wrong way around. What used to be more explicit in, say, stage comedies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – indeed, going right back to Shakespeare – is made more subtle and internalised in Austen’s novel. Rather than having her characters literally confuse one person with another – because of some absurd coincidence, wearing similar clothing, swapping hats, and the like – instead her characters find they have misread a person’s motive or misjudged their honesty, as with Mr Wickham. But underneath it all Pride and Prejudice is firmly in the comedy line. Pride and Prejudice is a long way from the stories Austen wrote as a child: in one of her first stories, ‘The Beautiful Cassandra’, the heroine (based on Jane’s sister) shoplifts a hat and punches a cook.
The novel still divides opinion, 200 years on. Many Victorians, such as Charlotte Bronte, disliked the novel, often because they found the character of Elizabeth too ‘pert’. Others find Austen’s wit and irony overrated. What do you think? Is this a classic novel, or one of the most overrated books ever written?