For details on how to contact our editorial and commercial departments, click here
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was published 200 years ago on Monday.
Sharon Griffiths explains the enduring appeal of this hugely popular novel TWO hundred years old and still sparkling… Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is one of the earliest blockbusters.
Two centuries on from when it was first published in January 1813, it’s sold more than 20 million copies and hardly been out of print. It’s also sparked numerous imitators, sequels, films and TV shows – everything from zombies to a Bollywood version.
And it’s not just because of Colin Firth in wet shirt and tight breeches.
There’s a worldwide Jane Austen industry – amazing when you think it’s all based on half a dozen novels written centuries ago by the spinster daughter of a country vicar, living a quiet life on the fringes of the upper classes.
And why? When most authors are lucky to get even 15 minutes of fame, Jane’s enduring appeal is even more remarkable, especially as initially her novels were published anonymously.
So much for celebrity.
But although the image that’s endured down the years is one of maidenly modesty – “dear Aunt Jane”, Jane Austen was much sharper with a wickedly observant eye.
Amazingly, the first draft of Pride and Prejudice, known as First Impressions, was written when she was only 21. It wasn’t published until some years later, when Sense and Sensibility was selling well. An earlier novel had been rejected by return from a publisher, but as Jane Austen made her name, she was even invited to dedicate Emma to the Prince Regent.
She did so – but made satirical sport of it all too.
Her enduring popularity is largely because of the characters she created. Real people who leap from the pages and stay with us for ever.
Elizabeth Bennet, of course, and Mr Darcy, flighty Lydia, monstrous Lady Catherine de Burgh, obsequious Mr Collins and, of course, Mrs Bennet, desperately scheming to get her daughters married off.
Poor woman. She was doing her best to secure them a decent future and has only been mocked for her pains.
Every novel has a great cast of characters – Emma Woodhouse, organising her friend’s lives for them, Catherine Morland, who loved gothic novels, the splendid, constant George Knightley. All people we recognise.
Austen has been called the first chick lit author and in a way she was. Feisty heroine with a character flaw she has to overcome? Tick.
Handsome chap who sweeps her off her feet but who proves to be a rat? Tick. Difficulties with family/friends/life? Tick. Realisation of where she’s gone wrong and determination to change her life? Tick. Tricky hero who at first seems dull/arrogant/uninterested but is transformed by love and turns out to be The One?
Tick, tick, tick.
No wonder all the novels were re-packaged in chick lit pastels and have been used as the basis of teen films like Clueless.
But there is much more.
Those who haven’t actually read any Jane Austen find it easy to dismiss her as a little woman, writing of little things.
Yet she wasn’t that sheltered from the world. Her cousin Eliza, for instance, was widowed during the French Revolution when her husband, the Count Jean Capote Feuillide was guillotined in Paris. Eliza then married Jane’s brother. Jane’s brothers served in the navy.
The army and the militia, on a permanent war footing, feature frequently in the novels – and not just on account of their splendid red coats.
Even the Mansfield Park was built with the profits from the sugar and slave trade.
Jane Austen’s world may be small, but it is set very firmly against the background of bigger events.
What marks her out is her wit and intelligence and razor sharp irony. She can be wicked, almost merciless to those who deserve it. But also sympathetic.
In a world where a nicely brought up girl’s only career option is to marry well or be a burden on her family, she is sharp-eyed on the conflict of individual love on the ways of society and gentle with Charlotte Lucas who marries the odious Mr Collins with her eyes wide open.
She is understanding, too, of Fanny Price – possibly the least appealing of her heroines – who returns from the splendours of Mansfield Park to the crowded chaos of her family in Portsmouth.
All the major characters work their way towards greater self knowledge. Just because it’s done in the confines of drawing rooms of country houses, doesn’t make it any less valid than for heroes facing guns, danger or the peril of the high seas. Because there is so little action – a walk in the park, a picnic, a journey to Derbyshire – it puts even more emphasis on the characters. It’s a burden they carry easily.
“That young lady has a talent for describing the involvement and feelings of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with,” said Sir Walter Scott.
She has many famous fans – from Harry Potter author JK Rowling who says she’s read the books so many times she lost count – to Anthony Trollope, who wrote: “Of great criminals and hidden crams she tells us nothing.
But she places us in a circle of gentlemen and ladies and charms us... It’s not that her people are all good and certainly they are not all wise. The faults of some are the anvils on which the virtues of others are hammered until they are as bright as steel.”
On the other hand, Charlotte Bronte couldn’t understand her appeal. “I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses.’ And Mark Twain clearly loathed her.
“Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone,” he said.
Which seems just a little extreme.
Better to leave the last word with Trollope again: “Miss Austen was surely a great novelist.
What she did, she did perfectly...”
Exactly. Happy 200th anniversay Pride and Prejudice.
- There are a number of special events celebrating 200 years of Pride and Prejudice at Jane Austen’s house in Chawton, Hampshire jane-austenshouse- museum.org.uk and at the Jane Austen museum in Bath janeausten.co.uk.