Austen’s Powers: ‘Pride and Prejudice’ turns 200 today – and the girl’s still got it
Our favourite literary characters may have worn bonnets and top hats, but they’re not so different from us.
Today and for the rest of 2013 bookish bonnet-lovers all over the world are celebrating the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice which was first published on 28 January 1813 by Thomas Egerton of London.
The 2003 BBC poll The Big Read placed the novel second after Tolkein’s The Lord of The Rings in a top 100 list of Britain’s favourite books. It has never been out of print and has spawned numerous screenplay and literary adaptations.
To mark the anniversary, Jane Austen’s House Museum is creating a database of the worldwide celebratory events and has a travelling exhibition that considers the popularity of the novel throughout its two-hundred years. The BBC is also recreating Netherfield Ball – the turning point in the romance between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy.
The curator of Jane Austen’s House Museum, Louise West, says that: “”the universal themes of Pride and Prejudice such as dilemmas for women about their role in society and their future happiness are still as relevant today as they ever were”.
“While we understand the attribution of the chick lit label, this book is so much more than this and always was. Today more people are able to engage with the story through print and other media and so it is relevant to each new generation that encounters it.”
Austen’s shrewd wit has kept her readers laughing for centuries because not that much has changed since. The deeply personal relationship that many readers share with these characters goes hand-in-hand with its resonance today. Be it in the form of love, schadenfreude, social faux-pas or greed.
Women didn’t have it easy in Austen’s day and their main means of social advancement was by marrying into money. With a gonzo-esque dedication and participation in turn-of-the-century high society, Austen writes and watches the shenanigans of her characters as they clamber up the social hierarchy. Austen’s novels were published anonymously during her lifetime since any such authorial female entrance into the public sphere was considered downright butch and worse still, terribly improper.
Even the humble J.K. Rowling, disguised her sex by using her initials instead of her name when Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in 1997. The mainly female shortlist recently announced by the 2012 Cost Book Awards sings a very different tune. Now it is just about an okay time to be a woman and a writer.
In Pride and Prejudice, there are no deaths, no kidnappings, and not really much action – save for flustered flirting, red cheeks and feigned coy glances. Elizabeth Proudman, Vice Chairman of the Jane Austen Society, believes that it’s Austen’s characters that have enabled Pride and Prejudice to stand the test of time: “I first read it when I was 15 and I have read it regularly ever since. Every time I read it, I see something different and my point of reference changes – now I’m much more interested in the character of Mrs Bennet than her daughters”.
The plot is structured entirely around the characters. None are really good or bad so much as delicately, nuanced and depictions of what could be very real people. Take away their underskirts, whip off their top hats and plonk them in another book and another period, and they’d survive. Perhaps this is why E.M. Forster called all of Austen’s characters “round”.
Never explaining too much, Austen enables her readers to put their own personality into the book. Take Darcy for instance. He is handsome, brooding, obnoxious – and rumoured to be worth at least 10 thousand pounds a year.
But we never know what he actually looks like nor are we allowed to entrench too deeply into his thoughts. He becomes the chameleonic ideal man, capable of adapting to each reader’s individual sensibilities. Whether he is Colin Firth in a wet shirt is a different matter entirely. That is more of a universal sensibility.
Set in the fictional town of Meryton in Hertfordshire, Pride and Prejudice is centred around the trials and tribulations of the dysfunctional Bennet family and everyone they meet. Mr and Mrs Bennet don’t get on. She is riddled with bustling maternal instincts and has all the chutzpah of a Jewish matchmaker, and is vulgarly preoccupied with her daughters’ fiscal futures. Meanwhile he is nonchalant, bookish and spends much of his time ignoring all his daughters but Elizabeth, and with a sideways smile pointed in the direction of his wife.
Their five daughters Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia are unmarried, much to Mrs Bennet’s dismay and Mr Bennet’s indifference. The novel follows Elizabeth, our plucky heroine, as she grows up struggling with manners, money, morality and marriage.
She holds her own in battles of wit and is of course retaliation against the novels of sensibility that dominated the Eighteenth-century, whose heroines were always too busy suffering from severe cases of the spleen and fanning themselves to make a joke. The perfect heroines that sat around waiting to be found by a man, the passive and delicate literary creatures such as Evelina and Lydia Languish don’t stand a chance against Elizabeth. She’s much more of a feminist “Celia shits” kind of girl – a precursor to Louisa May Alcott’s Jo March in Little Women.
Austen herself said of Elizabeth, “I do think her the most delightful creature ever to appear in print.”
News travels fast in the Bennet household, that an eligible new bachelor is in town. Cue Mr Bingley, his wingman Darcy and lots of society nights out as the sexual tension mounts between Jane and Bingley and the tension mounts between Elizabeth and Darcy.
Austen orchestrates a whole cast of loveable and horrible characters to roam alongside the Bennet family: snobbish Lady Catherine de Bourgh, pragmatic Charlotte Lucas, catty Miss Bingley, deceptive Mr Wickham and the obsequiously delightful Mr Collins. Throughout all the shenanigans Austen masterfully observes that throughout all this social climbing, all echelons of society can lack social graces.
Class warfare that has always existed but its current resurfacing in the press in light of David Cameron’s cuts, bears resemblance to the stratified social milieu of Austen’s day where, it was a truth universally acknowledged, that a lot of people were gold diggers – and a lot of the rich ignored a whole lot of the poor.
Despite her romantic fictions being restricted to the landed gentry, Austen’s perceptive realism and biting social commentary about the economics of feminism have ensured that Pride and Prejudice not only transcends generations but will remain of historical importance and a literary classic.
For more information about Jane Austen’s House Museum visit www.jane-austens-house-museum.org.ukTagged in: Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Austen, Mr Darcy, Pride and Prejudice
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