Interesting Facts about Pride and Prejudice

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 PrejudiceJane 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?

47 thoughts on “Interesting Facts about Pride and Prejudice”

  1. I hate to be the first to admit this, but the appeal of Pride & Prejudice is totally lost on me. Throw me in the “overrated” column on this one!

    Really interesting topic, though, as always. It’s funny that Charlotte Bronte didn’t really like the book, because Jane Eyre always seems to be lumped in the same category with it. Wonder what she’d make of that? ;)

  2. I have at least two gaping holes in my literary experience. Both of them absurd.
    Despite having acted in, or directed, many Shakespeare plays I have never seen, or even read, King Lear (and I even have a producer nagging me to stage a production).
    I have never read Pride & Prejudice.
    This article has caused me to obtain a copy of the latter. Thank you for the spur.

    • Well I’m very pleased to have spurred you, Brian! I’ve read it twice, once because, like you, I felt it was a gaping hole in my reading, and again when I had to cover a seminar on it recently at university. I found something to enjoy both times, especially the irony, though I’d be very interested to hear what you make of it!

      Personally I find King Lear overrated – some great lines, and I imagine that when staged it would be rather better, but I don’t think it has the fine balance of comedy and tragedy that Shakespeare managed in Hamlet (or Macbeth)…

  3. One of my favorite books, ever! Thanks for pointing out the irony in the first line. I fear that many people miss Austen’s irony and thus perhaps do not get the full benefit of the books. I for one am glad that Jane did not marry. Somehow “Jane Bigg-Withers” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

  4. That would have been a horrible name! I love Jane Austen’s works, I’ve read quite a few and they are all enjoyable to read. I think a lot of the appeal for P&P is how pertinent it is to real-life, regardless of the century. How many people judge others prematurely? Assume they know a person, then it turns out they had it all wrong? Not to mention the romance… Most everyone can relate to the characters, and daydream along with them…

  5. PD James is my favorite mystery writer and her Pemberley book motivated me to read P&P. Both fictional works were well done, and in their own style. James did a good job of mimicking Austen without overriding Austen. Enjoyed the interview very much, thank you.

  6. Great post. And I don’t think that it is overrrated. I just read it a few weeks ago, and enjoyed it a lot. I haven’t thought that I would like this bookso much, since I am not quite a big reader of romance. But this was a very sweet story, indeed. And I want to read more from her now.

  7. Not at all over-rated. There are many, many layers in the novel that the many adaptations and retellings have missed or ignored. It is a story about social manners and Austen’s observations of the latter were so acute and so well-articulated. My only complaint of Austen’s oeuvre, not this particular work, is how she chose to leave out a wider part of society in favor of the parlors and country homes. She was writing during the times of the Napoleonic Wars and they certainly made their mark on both her characters and her own real life society. Yet, she did not write about it much at all. I recall reading somewhere that she wrote to a friend or family member in a letter that she didn’t like to deal with “odious subjects”. I can’t find it now or I’d quote it here with the source. This is the only thing, really, that bothers me about her work.

    • Absolutely right about social manners being central to Austen’s writing – she was a great observer of the drawing-rooms of her time. I know what you mean about the Napoleonic wars – a similar thing has been argued about the slave trade, which is there in Mansfield Park in Sir Thomas Bertram’s overseas business but isn’t really dealt with head-on. It says something about Austen that she has attained ‘great writer’ status despite refusing to tackle arguably the two greatest historical events/themes of her day…

      • I feel that Fanny Price in Mansfield Park would not have been made aware of her uncles overseas business dealings in any great detail & therefore would have known little of slavery. The book is moulded around Fanny’s life in a small country province, where it is unlikely that women had the kind of access to knowledge of the world that we as women have today! Unfortunately slavery was considered acceptable 200 yrs ago & probably just accepted & not discussed. Slavery & war are both covered in the excellent book Longbourn Pride & Prejudice the Servants Story by Jo Baker. Thanks for your interesting post & interesting discussion thread! Keep up the good work

        • Regarding slavery, at the end of the eighteenth century and during the early part of the nineteenth, it was far from being considered acceptable in England. The judicial decision in the case of Somersett (1772) is often regarded as being highly significant as confirming that slavery was not legal on English soil – it’s hard to tell, because the decision was never reported in writing so we only have second-hand accounts, but certainly it indicates that the courts were ambivalent-to-unfavourable towards slavery – and around that time, there was also considerable anti-slavery sentiment amongst the public. In 1807, of course, there is the Slave Trade Act which abolished the slave trade in the British Empire and then in 1833 slavery itself was abolished in the whole Empire (I believe a good part of the delay was due to the political and legal necessity of compensating slave-owners who had their erstwhile property literally walk away).

          The lack of discussion of slavery in Mansfield Park might actually be more to do with the fact that – since, as you point out, she lives in rural England – slavery is simply not something that impinges much on Fanny’s life. And, of course, there is the narrative aspect that slavery had nothing to do with the story. To introduce it when it probably wouldn’t be a normal topic of conversation would mean introducing a whole new subplot (with associated word count), or else leaving it hanging there as a strange, disconnected scene without have any relevance to anything else.

          If nineteenth-century readers were anything like twenty-first century readers, anything ‘out of the ordinary’ in the narrative immediately makes the reader think that it must be plot relevant – otherwise why was it put in? And then if it turns out to be irrelevant, the reader feels cheated. Or, if it’s a short sermon on the evils of slavery dropped into an otherwise-fun novel, preached at.

          • Interesting summing up of slavery laws indeed. It is heartening to know that slavery was not taken lightly by the courts! It is unfortunate that it was considered for any period of time acceptable by members of the gentry, who made their living off of slaves working their plantations overseas. I cannot imagine that the gentry would have made a habit of discussing the slave trade with their wives & daughters, which was my point about the lack of its discussion in Mansfield Park.

      • I once read that Austen wrote about the things she had access to… and it makes sense. As a woman in her time she was in drawing rooms and among other women’s conversation. I am not sure how much they talked about slave trade and wars. So was it that she didn’t know, had no interest or maybe was fearful of writing something unfounded? We’ll probably never know…

        • I once came across the same thing – and when I read it, this was held to explain why, apparently, there is no scene in any Jane Austen novel that does not have at least one woman present. I haven’t personally checked, but I can believe it.

  8. I don’t think P&P is overrated in that it is an excellent novel, very entertaining and insightful and also a great study of the change in class structure in England at that time (as many of Austen’s novels were). I wouldn’t consider the greatest novel of all time, or anything like that. But there is great value (frankly, fun) in reading and studying it. Wonderful post, by the way :)

    • Thanks! I think ‘fun’ is a good word for Austen. There’s witty social observation, irony, and a fine romantic plot underpinning all of that, which means she’s first and foremost great fun to read. And thanks for reblogging!

  9. Austen’s style is her strength; to me she is the first genuinely modern writer – light, spare, suggestive rather than prolix as so many of her peers. Balzac, a near-contemporary, was much more of an intellectual writer, but is not modern/contemporary with us as she is.

    But past that, P & P is a failure. Austen begins mocking the society of her time and its mores, but in the end supports the conventions she initially derides, and that combination, or contradiction, is disappointing. Dostoevsky does the same thing, but tears strips off his own ideas and attitudes as a means of defending them. Austen is not in that league, even a little bit.

    • Very good point – and it’s good to hear this view put forward, as I know this novel polarises readers. Is it, at bottom, a success? As you say, whatever else you make of the novel’s resolution, it is in some ways a failure in that it reinforces the very ideology it mocks – that’s perhaps all a writer can do, Austen seems to imply: mock and deride. In the end (or at the end, of the novel) one has to reinforce the very values one wishes to change … but can’t. Interesting view! Thanks for the comment.

  10. I find the use of her words ‘universally acknowledged’ relevant even today, given our constant usage of ‘global’. Austen was an observer of details, of persons she may or may not have encountered in her little world. She weaves romance into the various plots of her novel deftly. The fact that her words evoke such diverse opinions 200 years on, is definitely proof of the ‘pudding’! I am prejudiced!

  11. Pride and Prejudice is the only one of Jane Austen’s novels that I really like, and that I’ve read multiple times. She has the wit and the observation, and she also manages to suit the various couples perfectly.
    I can see why the Victorians thought Elizabeth was too pert – Darcy and the Bingley women agreed about that… To me, Elizabeth seems to be someone who is somewhat more intelligent and better-read than most of the people around her, resulting in a certain amount of frustration; it’s probably a choice between pertness and screaming. Or murder. I wonder if Jane felt the same way, and that is why she wrote? Of course, it was not then – and is not now – fashionable for women to be too intelligent.
    I think Pride and Prejudice has survived because the book as a whole works: story and characterisation are both good, Austen didn’t succumb to any outlandish fashions in writing (e.g. epistolary novel, or heavy-handed moralising), and the issues involved (love and marriage) are universal and still relevant. It’s still a book you can curl up with and enjoy, two hundred years later, rather than feel you have to struggle through out of some sort of literary duty.
    A great book? It has survived, in print, for 200 years, being read for pleasure by millions. It has survived on its own merits, rather than as a result of an expensive marketing campaign.

    • Thanks for the comment! I think all of what you say is right, and I especially agree about the absence of heavy-handed moralising. It’s one of the things she (thankfully) didn’t take from Fanny Burney, whom Dr Johnson and other great literary giants admired not least because of her didacticism. Austen prefers wry wit and irony, which are much more palatable for modern readers.

  12. *sigh* P&P! Great post! I remember standing up shouting P&P when first seeing the trailer of the last P&P movie in cinema. People were looking at me funny but I couldn’t care less – I was in heaven (even though most movies don’t do the book any justice).
    Also, I just went online and bought “Death Comes to Pemberley”. Thanks for the help, I have been contemplating this for a year now I think, being generally against Jane Austen sequels. But I loved the way PD James said the same thing about using another author’s work… so I’ll read it. Let’s see.

  13. VERY nice to add PD James in this post! See, I am one of those strange individuals who NEEDS to know the author. I have been turned off some works just b/c of the authors and their demeanor. HUGE EXCEPTION with Antonia Fraser, Alison Weir and Nancy Mitford. They can be however they want, they can abuse me or even demand that I get them tea: they will get it.


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