Published on Saturday January 19, 2013
Leslie Scrivener, feature writer, Toronto Star
At home, on the bedside table, rests a stack of books that are on bestseller or must-read lists: Behind the Beautiful Forevers, How to be a Woman, 419 and others. They come and go. Some are in progress, some abandoned, some to be read and one that is always there.
You may have read Pride and Prejudice, by the brilliant satirist Jane Austen, published 200 years ago this month. The story of Elizabeth Bennet (prejudice) and Fitzwilliam Darcy (pride) — really a story of money, marriage and social mobility— may be the most reread novel in English.
It’s perennially among the top favourites in any poll of books the British reading public can’t live without. Her clear prose, writes Claire Harman in Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, provides material for “a lifetime’s rumination about relations between the sexes.”
A Google search of the first few words of its famous opening sentence — “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” — yields 2.8 million results. And many unfortunate adaptations — “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man who takes his facial grooming seriously. . . ”
It is reported that Pride and Prejudice’s bicentennial will boost tourism in Britain.
The web is full of Jane Austen blogs and anniversary contests. The BBC is recreating a Regency ball — referencing the Netherfield ball in Pride and Prejudice — for broadcast in the spring. New editions of the book, which has been translated into dozens of languages, appear regularly.
Ordinary readers and great authors seem never to tire of Austen. An Oxford University Press edition has an introduction by the inimitable William Trevor. An anniversary budget Penguin edition has a forward by Margaret Drabble.
Pride and Prejudice has been made for film and television. The most famous is the 1995 BBC miniseries that catapulted Colin Firth to the gods for his simmering sexiness. It’s best captured in a scene when he returns to his estate, as Martin Amis writes, “unshaven, with the hot horse between his thighs.” There have been adaptations from Bridget Jones to a vampire series and sequels, including a P.D. James mystery.
Austen “obviously inspired” the chick-lit boom of the 1990s, Harman writes, adding that as women postponed marriage, the search for their own Mr. Darcy became more fraught.
But there’s no predicting who will read it.
British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli said he read the novel 17 times. Sir Walter Scott mentioned he was on a third reading. Rudyard Kipling wrote a comic short story about a secret society of soldiers who read Austen in the trenches. “There’s no one to touch Jane when you’re in a tight place,” said one. “Gawd bless ’er, whoever she was.”
Hardly anyone knew who she was during her lifetime. Her books were published anonymously — novel writing was considered a low-brow pastime — and there was no mention on her tombstone that she was an author.
In a preface to Persuasion, published after her death, her brother paints a mingy portrait: “A life of usefulness, literature and religion, was not by any means a life of event.” Another writer of her period said before the modest fame that came with Pride and Prejudice, Austen “was no more regarded in society than a poker or a fire-screen.” It’s in opposition to today’s ardent readers, who see an author who dazzled with her comedic insight and biting repartee.
Austen, who never married, was the youngest daughter of a country parson. He was so impressed with her writing that he offered a manuscript — believed to have been an early version entitled First Impressions — to a London publisher in 1797. The offer was declined, but 16 years later it appeared with a new title, Pride and Prejudice and earned good reviews. Austen perhaps playfully and with false deprecation, wrote the novel was “too light and bright and sparkling.”
It is that, but not too much. Pride and Prejudice has depths that still shatter modern readers. “Every time I enter an Austen novel I feel deep worry and fear for the women, because they don’t have much opportunity,” says Queen’s University Prof. Robert Morrison, author of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: A Sourcebook. Without marriage, a woman could face a life of destitution and social neglect.
Why do so many return to Pride and Prejudice? Austen knew her characters so deeply, they seemed real to her and therefore real to us, says Morrison.
Older readers may appreciate a story of economics, of the upper middle class striving for the status that comes with land ownership, and of the urgency for women to marry well.
Younger readers may be lured by the romance. The lovers’ path is strewn with obstacles — arrogance and appalling relatives — and Darcy, handsome, clever and owner of Pemberley, is a prize to be won. Even better if he’s won over by an intelligent and fearless woman.
Austen has gone a long way toward describing what has become our notion of how to fall in love, says Morrison. “To a great extent it means falling in love like Elizabeth and Darcy.
“And it is a marriage of equals in which each partner helps the other to be what he or she would not have been without the other.
“In this way, Austen shows us the modern world.”