Happy 200th birthday to Pride and prejudice

Pride and prejudice book covers

Just a few editions of Pride and Prejudice

It is a truth … no, I can’t go there but, just in case you haven’t caught up with the news, I’m here to tell you that today, January 28, is the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s most popular novel, Pride and prejudice.  And so I’ve decided to give Monday Musings a break this week and talk a little about this book. But where to start? What can I say that hasn’t already been said?

How about what the book means to me. It is the book that turned me from being a book reader to a literature lover. I hope that doesn’t sound snooty but what I mean is that Pride and prejudice is the first book to teach me that there can be more to reading books than quick page-turning to find out what happens in the story. There’s nothing wrong with page-turners – they serve a very important purpose in helping us to escape the daily grind – but books can offer a lot more if we want something else from the time we spend reading. They help us better understand the human condition, they can challenge our intellect, and they can appeal aesthetically.

Pride and prejudice, like all of Jane Austen’s novels, satisfies the first of these in spades. Through her characters, Austen demonstrates an in-depth knowledge of human nature. She shows us kindness, compassion, envy, selfishness, stupidity, thoughtlessness, integrity, anger, pride, prejudice and more, including, though Charlotte Bronte (who once wrote that “she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement”) would not agree, passion. Mr Darcy’s ghastly “in vain have I struggled” proposal is nothing if not passionate. I for one don’t need ripped bodices to feel the passion!

Regarding challenging our intellect, one of the delights of reading Austen is the mind games she plays with us – the irony, the wit, keep us on our toes, encouraging us to see the meanings beneath the surface. And, if you read for plot, try reading an Austen novel a second time and you will see how perfectly she plots. Rereading books like Pride and prejudice brings so many pleasures. It’s like meeting an old friend and learning new things about her that enrich your relationship and remind you why she became your friend in the first place.

The aesthetic pleasures are something else – and I fear I’m on thin ground here because I’m probably using the term quite differently to the way philosophers and literary theorists might use it, but it’s the best I can come up with. What I mean is appreciating the novel as a work of art, regardless of its content. Readers from the 20th and 21st centuries can, I think, find Austen’s “art” a little quaint, if not downright dated, but in fact she was innovative. Susannah Fullerton in her latest book, Happily ever after: Celebrating Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and prejudice’, spends a few pages on this. Austen’s main innovation lies in her use of “free indirect discourse” (FID) or “free indirect speech”. She was not the first writer to use it, but was, says Fullerton, “the first English novelist to use FID consistently and extensively”. It is used in third person narratives and involves “hearing” what a character feels or thinks without the use of dialog and not via authorial interaction or the omnipotent narrator. We feel, in other words, that we are in the character’s head rather than being “told” what s/he feels. Austen slips between third-person and this interior mode regularly in her novels. It allows us, in Pride and prejudice, for example, to feel right along with Elizabeth – but the advantage of this technique is that it can shift from character to character in between omnipotent third-person narration. These and the rest of Jane Austen’s grab bag of literary techniques are another reason why she’s such a pleasure to read – and why her books are just plain beautiful.

In other words, Pride and prejudice is the real deal – great story and characters, along with food for the mind, the intellect and the heart. No wonder it has never been out of print.

21 thoughts on “Happy 200th birthday to Pride and prejudice

    • Oh thanks for reminding me John – I’ll go read it now. Someone told me about it but I had a busy weekend and forgot. Helen (I can call her that I reckon!) both like Austen and Jolley. I think that says something except I wish I could write like Garner (or Jolley or Austen!)

  1. Perhaps this means that a re-reading is due this year. I wish the old BBC adaptation from 1967 would make it to DVD.

    It’s strange that Jane Austen is denigrated by many as tea-cup drama. I don’t see her that way at all, but the recent plethora of Jane Austen fixated books (follow up, latch-on and Zombie) hasn’t helped her rep.

    • Is that the Elizabeth McGovern version, Guy? I think it is … And yes, I’d like to see it again too … It’s one I don’t have in my collection. I guess those books have increased her fame but not necessarily her reputation!?

  2. Thank you for this reminder to read Austen’s novels again asap. It is difficult to write about books nearly everyone (who reads) knows and you managed that difficulty beautifully.

    • Why thank you buchpost. It was a challenge, particularly as I knew others out there would be, were, writing too. And yet, I had to do it! Hope you enjoy your rereads. Which will you start with?

  3. Like you, I have started re-reading Pride and Prejudice, in the copy I got as a school prize in 1955! I was given the whole set, but sadly, lent one of them (Mansfield Park, I think) to someone years ago and never got it back.

    I love her mastery of point of view too, and I believe she was an innovator in the use of free indirect discourse. By the way, did Fullerton really say ‘free indirect intercourse’? If so, an interesting Freudian slip. The mind boggles. Perhaps an early version of cybersex?

    Anyway, after being very impressed by Henry Handel Richardson’s mastery of this technique in The Fortunes of Richard Mahony and Maurice Guest, I’m enjoying Austen’s more sparing use of it. She uses dialogue a great deal too, and masterfully. And gives some wonderful, acid summaries of her characters; for example, of Mr Collins: ‘Mr Collins was not a sensible man, and the deficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education or society…’. She is the master of understated satire.

    • Oh dear, LOL, Christina. I can see why you’re the editor! It was *my* Freudian slip … I even wrote FID after it! Intercourse does have more than one meaning, I hasten to defend myself – I’m sure Jane would have liked the slip!

      I totally agree re her “acid summaries” (the are wonderful and you never tire of them) and “understated satire”. I’m currently reading Moorhouse’s Cold light and I could do with something more sparing too!

      • Yes, my editor’s eye can be a pain to me and others at times, but it’s a gift as well. I’m sure Jane would have enjoyed it too.

        I haven’t read Moorhouse, knew him when I was on the fringes of the Balmain Push, and found him …. well, let’s not go there. I did enjoy The Americans Baby.

        • It is a gift. My mum has it too. I have it to some degree — but less so for my own work!

          You’ve said enough about Moorhouse to confirm some thoughts! I’ve only read, until this, the first of the Edith Trilogy, which I thoroughly enjoyed – this one, a little less so.

  4. Pingback: Books I want to read this year | Suddenly they all died. The end.

  5. I think it’s time for a reread for me too. I think her influence is very clear with Patrick White’s colonial characters in Voss. Hilarious, hideous, masterful.

  6. Yay for P&P! I enjoyed reading your musings on the book and Austen. P&P was the first Austen I ever read and I read it my senior year of high school. Absolutely fell in love.

  7. The fact that this has become so widely known and been the subject of so many cineman and tv adaptations says it all really. It seems to be an amazingly resonant book to so many people.

    • You’re right, it does. No other book comes close … Though there have been a few adaptations of Jane Eyre, and did you see there’s a new version of Great expectations coming out?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s