Author: Jane Austen (1775–1817)
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics (2007 edition)
Bought from: Book Depository
Jane Austen was born in Hampshire, England to a clergyman father (not much is recorded about her mother). She grew up in a large close-knit family. Jane and her siblings were encouraged to read from their father’s extensive library and they wrote and acted in their own little plays. Jane started writing poems and stories in the 1790s and began the first drafts of what would evolve into some of her best-loved works. Jane Austen never married.
Jane Austen lived and wrote during what is today called the Regency Era. In 1811, George III was declared by Parliament as unfit to rule (as dramatised in the 1994 movie The Madness of King George). His son, George, the Prince of Wales, ruled as Prince Regent until he ascended the throne as George IV when his father died in 1820. He ruled as monarch until his death in 1830 when his brother William IV became King. He would rule for only 7 years and was succeeded by Queen Victoria. The Regency Era is sometimes used to refer to the period from the time George IV became Regent (1811) to the ascension of Victoria (1837).
Culturally, the Regency Era was marked by rigid social stratification. The upper class consisted of the royal family, aristocrats and the gentry including the landed gentry (land owners who lived entirely off the rent from their lands). Below them were those worked for a living in trades or professions, a calling which was generally considered demeaning by the upper class. Those from even lower down the social ladder (eg household servants) had practically no hope of improving their station in life.
In the arts, the Regency Era overlapped with the Romantic Era (mid-18th century – mid-19th century). English Romantic literature was dominated by the poetry of Samuel Coleridge, Lord Byron, William Blake, William Wordsworth and John Keats. Novels were becoming popular and Jane Austen is the most famous practitioner of the genre. There is on-going debate whether Austen was a Romantic writer. In any event, today she is remembered for six novels of love amongst the gentry. Four of the novels were published anonymously during her lifetime – Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816). Another two, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, were published posthumously in 1818. Jane Austen’s novels were well received when published but it was not until the 20th century that her reputation soared. She became the attention of scholarly interest and a fan favourite. Her novels are regarded today as classics of English literature and have been adapted many times for the big and small screens.
Pride and Prejudice was voted number 2 in a poll of the top 100 best-loved novels conducted by the BBC’s The Big Read (2003). In an amazing testament to the novel’s timelessness, in July 2013, the American website Entertainment Weekly voted it number 3 in its list of All-time Greatest Books.
What is the story about?
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
The first line of the novel (one of the most famous in English literature) inverts what appears to be a key social imperative of Jane Austen’s time, which was that every girl hoped for marriage to a gentleman with wealth or more wealth. Against this canvass unfolded the improbable love story between Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, both members of the gentry but clearly separated by a gulf –Darcy was the owner of a country estate called Pemberley; while Elizabeth’s family did own a property, it was entailed to male heirs only.
One minor character observed:
Pride … is a very common failing I believe. By all that I have ever read, I am convinced that it is very common indeed, that human nature is particularly prone to it, and that there are very few of us who do not cherish a feeling of self-complacency on the score of some quality or other, real or imaginary. Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.
(Chap 5, p 19)
Prejudice complements pride, giving rise to and feeding on each other. In one early exchange between Darcy and Elizabeth, their respective prejudices emerged:
“I am perfectly convinced by it that Mr Darcy has no defect. He owns it himself without disguise.”
“No” – said Darcy, “I have made no such pretension. I have faults enough, but they are not, I hope, of understanding. My temper I dare not vouch for. – It is I believe too little yielding – certainly too little for the convenience of the world. I cannot forget the follies and vices of others so soon as I ought, nor their offences against myself. My feelings are not puffed about with every attempt to move them. My temper would perhaps be called resentful. – My good opinion once lost is lost for ever.”
“That is a failing indeed!” – cried Elizabeth. “Implacable resentment is a shade in a character. But you have chosen your fault well. – I really cannot laugh at it. You are safe from me.”
“There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil, a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome.”
“And your defect is a propensity to hate every body.’”
“And yours,” he replied with a smile, “is wilfully to misunderstand them.”
(Chap 11, p 52 )
Darcy and Elizabeth were both proud and prejudiced in their own way, often making judgements after only one or two brief encounters (hence the title First Impressions of an early draft of the novel). The story came to a happy ending only after they managed to put their prejudices aside.
Pride and Prejudice is first and foremost a romantic tale. It is also a critique of social inequality, especially gender inequality. Jane Austen depicted a time when young ladies married not for love but for financial stability or advancement (as epitomised by Charlotte Lucas). Elizabeth, Austen’s alter-ego, was the only character who seemed to be immune to this societal pressure.
The novel revolves pretty much around the gentry class that Jane Austen was herself a part of – so the tenants and servants, for example, of the various families were practically invisible. However, she did find room for a number of characters from outside her social class. The most rational adults in the novel were Mr and Mrs Gardiner, the beloved uncle and auntie of the Bennett girls. Mr Edward Gardiner was a businessman, an activity which was dismissed with contempt by the Bingley sisters and Lady Catherine. Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the only aristocratic character in the novel, was mercilessly skewered by Jane Austen as condescending and domineering.
Jane Austen is often named as one of the pioneers in the use of free indirect speech, a way of combining the views of a (usually omniscient) third person narrator with those of a character. This can be sometimes hard to spot. Take the following paragraph:
More than once did Elizabeth in her ramble within the Park, unexpectedly meet Mr. Darcy. — She felt all the perverseness of the mischance that should bring him where no one else was brought; and to prevent its ever happening again, took care to inform him at first that it was a favourite haunt of hers. — How it could occur a second time, therefore, was very odd! — Yet it did, and even a third. It seemed like wilful ill-nature, or a voluntary penance, for on these occasions it was not merely a few formal enquiries and an awkward pause and then away, but he actually thought it necessary to turn back and walk with her. He never said a great deal, nor did she give herself the trouble of talking or of listening much; but it struck her in the course of their third rencontre that he was asking some odd unconnected questions — about her pleasure in being at Hunsford, her love of solitary walks, and her opinion of Mr. and Mrs. Collins’s happiness; and that in speaking of Rosings, and her not perfectly understanding the house, he seemed to expect that whenever she came into Kent again she would be staying there too. His words seemed to imply it. Could he have Colonel Fitzwilliam in his thoughts? She supposed, if he meant any thing, he must mean an allusion to what might arise in that quarter. It distressed her a little, and she was quite glad to find herself at the gate in the pales opposite the Parsonage.
(Chap 33, p 156)
Are the lines “How it could occur a second time, therefore, was very odd! — Yet it did, and even a third. It seemed like wilful ill-nature, or a voluntary penance, for on these occasions it was not merely a few formal enquiries and an awkward pause and then away, but he actually thought it necessary to turn back and walk with her” examples of free indirect speech?
How is the book?
This is a complete and unabridged Wordsworth Classics imprint. It comes with an introduction and brief notes written by Ian Littlewood, University of Sussex. This volume also includes 64 illustrations, uncredited by Wordsworth but a quick search on the internet show these were done by Hugh Thomson.
Austen’s works are in the public domain. This Wordsworth Classics edition costs S$4.09. It can be bought for less.
A light romance punctuated by comic moments.
Comparisons with the Brontë sisters, especially Charlotte, are unavoidable although the fact is they lived in different periods and wrote in different styles. Pride and Prejudice was famously criticised by Charlotte Brontë: “a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck”. Yet it is easy to see one of Austen’s heroines such as Elizabeth Bennett as the spiritual and literary ancestor of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.