This essay also ran 29 January 2015 in The Houston Chronicle:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
As the evening wanes, I cannot help but note that today was the anniversary of Jane Austen’s beloved novel Pride and Prejudice (hey, students, that’s right, I said beloved), which was published in 1813 by Thomas Egerton of London. The novel did not even have Austen’s name on it: it was remarked to be “By the Author of ‘Sense and Sensibility.'”
I feel superlucky in that not only did I love that book when I was growing up, but I still love it when I teach it now, astonished at Austen’s incisive wit and powers of observation, all carried out in delightful settings and in delicious style–the British really are the masters of the understatement, and Jane Austen continues to remind readers how language clothes emotions in a variety of ways…..her novels force us to infer the inferno of feelings that can hide behind the most restrained of statements. It is so exciting I can hardly stand it. That is why people read this book even 200 years after its initial publication.
It isn’t just because she could conjure up the best of parties and dances on the page: I offer five reasons to celebrate Jane Austen because she is simply the gift that keeps on giving, no matter how many novels, no matter how many times they are read.
1. Pride and Prejudice gives us hope that we can all overcome our worst moments. Darcy is a snob, and Elizabeth Bennett is blind, but not forever. Who represents Pride and who represents Prejudice? Uh, we can make a good case for both having both, but could you please turn up the volume, because I am hanging on every word that is coming out of Colin Firth’s mouth in that A and E miniseries that I have watched seventeen times. After Colin Firth, no other Darcys matter to me. Thank. You. Jane.
2. Pride and Prejudice reminds us that sometimes it takes awhile for a good novel to come together. Scholars think that the book was written between 1796 and 1797, but it was originally rejected by a publisher, and Austen did not begin the revisions that would bring it to its final incarnation until 1809, with it finally coming out in 1813. I like the fact that this novel demonstrates that you do not have to be the first horse out on the hunt in order to finally revel in victory. Austen originally called the novel First Impressions, but broadened its scope and depth with the change to Pride and Prejudice (with a little help from Fanny Burney’s Cecilia).
3. Pride and Prejudice is a great introduction to the novel of manners, in that a long time ago, there were manners, and Jane Austen wrote about them. When her characters transgress, we can figure out what was normative. Even Austen herself could have a wild side: in a letter to her sister, Jane confesses: “I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.” Jane: Do tell! I think she might have been doing research for Lydia’s character, who couldn’t see the merits of a rule even if it came with an explanation. In any case, if you see a cad in a uniform, do not run off with him in the middle of the night and elope: it is very poor form. But if you have already done that, it helps to be the silliest girl in England so that you are not sharp enough to be too mortified, and therefore it does not seem all that bad. See the silver lining? Ahem.
4. Pride and Prejudice offers wisdom from the most unlikely places. As that underrated Mrs. Bennett reminds us, “Those who do not complain are never pitied.” And the next time you are at a party and someone is singing or playing for a little too long, take a cue from Mr. Bennett who tells his daughter, Mary, who is torturing the family at the piano: “Mary, you have entertained us quite enough.” It’s the “you are not going to Hollywood” moment of the domestic sphere.
5. I still, deep down, do not believe that men and women have figured each other out. Jane is here to help. As Mr. Darcy explains: “A lady’s imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.” Uh, duh, thanks for sharing. And Elizabeth Bennett tries to extract from Darcy, now that they have come to their senses and become engaged, at what moment did he realize that he was in love with her. His answer is basically that he did not realize it until it was too late. I had a male friend read this book just for me so that I could ask him about this, and he just looked at me, asked if he had to talk too much more about the importance of dancing in the Romantic era or the importance of Bath, England, and after I said “no,” he said, “Look, Doni. Men are simple creatures, and even if we have a big estate and a title, we don’t know what we are doing, but once we are hooked, we are hooked.” Then I accused him of reading the Sparks notes for Pride and Prejudice, threw my hard copy of Bridget Jones’ Diary at him, and I have locked him in my garage until he finishes the novel for real and can come up with a better answer. He better hurry up. I mean, that Jane Austen knows some things about the human character! Surely he can figure some of those things out.
And if those are not enough for you, you can celebrate Pride and Prejudice in the works it has inspired, including Stephanie Barron’s Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor: Being the First Jane Austen Mystery, William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter, Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club (although is it way more club and too little Jane), Helen Fielding’s book (and movie) Bridget Jones’s Diary, Shannon Hale’s Austenland, and Laurie Viera Rigler’s Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict. And don’t forget Anne Hathaway in the excellent film Becoming Jane.
And for those who are perfectly okay with Jane Austen spinning in her grave, there are those zombie books by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, but I am pretty sure if she were alive and knew about that, it would kill her.
Jane Austen lets us know in every novel that the largest dramas going on for us are in our heads. As she wrote in Mansfield Park: “There will be little rubs and disappointments everywhere, and we are all apt to expect too much; but then, if one scheme of happiness fails, human nature turns to another; if the first calculation is wrong, we make a second better: we find comfort somewhere.”
In a world full of such rubs, Jane Austen never disappoints.