In 1813, her thirty-eighth year, Jane Austen published her second novel Pride and Prejudice. She had begun this work in 1796, when she was twenty-one years old, calling it “First Impressions.” It had so delighted her family that her father had tried, without success, to have it published. Eventually, Austen put it aside, probably not to return to it until her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, appeared in 1811. “First Impressions” is no longer extant, but it was presumably radically rewritten, because Pride and Prejudice is in no way an apprenticeship novel but a completely mature work. Pride and Prejudice continues to be the author’s most popular novel, perhaps because readers share Darcy’s admiration for the “liveliness” of Elizabeth Bennet’s mind.
The original title, “First Impressions,” focuses on the initial errors of judgment out of which the story develops, whereas the title Pride and Prejudice, besides suggesting the kind of antithetical topic that delighted rationalistic eighteenth century readers, indicates the central conflicts that characterized the relationships between Elizabeth and Darcy, and between Jane Bennet and Bingley.
As in all of Austen’s novels, individual conflicts are defined and resolved within a rigidly delimited social context, in which relationships are determined by wealth and rank. The oft-quoted opening sentence establishes the societal values that underlie the main conflict: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s opening dialogue concerning the eligible Bingley explores this truth. Devoid of individuality, Mrs. Bennet is nevertheless well attuned to society’s edicts. Mr. Bennet, an individualist to the point of eccentricity, represents neither personal conviction nor social conviction, and he views with equal indifference Bingley’s right to his own reason for settling there and society’s right to see him primarily as a potential husband. Having repudiated society, Mr. Bennet cannot take seriously either the claims of the individual or the social order.
As the central character, Elizabeth, her father’s favorite and her mother’s least favorite child, must come to terms with the conflicting values implicit in her parents’ antithetical characters. She is like her father in her scorn of society’s conventional judgments, but she champions the concept of individual merit independent of money and rank. She is, indeed, prejudiced against the prejudices of society. From this premise, she attacks Darcy’s pride, assuming that it derives from the causes that Charlotte Lucas identifies: “with family, fortune, everything in his favour . . . he has a right to be proud.”
Flaunting her contempt for money, Elizabeth indignantly spurns Charlotte’s advice that Jane ought to make a calculated play for Bingley’s affections. She loftily argues, while under the spell of Wickham’s charm, that young people who are truly in love should be unconcerned about financial standing. As a champion of the individual, Elizabeth prides herself on her discriminating judgment and boasts that she is a student of character. Significantly, it is Darcy who warns her against prejudiced conclusions, reminding her that her experience is quite limited. Darcy is not simply the representative of a society that primarily values wealth and consequence—as Elizabeth initially views him—but also a citizen of a larger society than the village to which Elizabeth has been confined by circumstance. Consequently, it is only when she begins to move into Darcy’s world that she can judge with true discrimination both individual merit and the dictates of the society that she has rejected. Fundamentally honest, she revises her conclusions as new experiences warrant, and in the case of Darcy and Wickham she ends up radically altering her opinion.
More significant than the obviously ironic reversals, however, is the growing revelation of Elizabeth’s unconscious commitment to society. Her original condemnation of Darcy’s pride coincides with the verdict of Meryton society. Moreover, she shares society’s regard for wealth. Even while denying the importance of Wickham’s poverty, she countenances his pursuit of the ugly Miss King’s fortune, discerning her own inconsistency only after she learns of his bad character. Most revealing, when Lydia Bennet runs off with Wickham, Elizabeth instinctively understands the judgment of society when she laments that Wickham would never marry a woman without money.
Almost unconsciously, Elizabeth acknowledges a connection between wealth and human values at the crucial moment when she first looks upon Pemberley, the Darcy estate. She is not entirely joking when she tells Jane that her love for Darcy began when she first saw his beautiful estate. Elizabeth’s experiences, especially her discoveries of the well-ordered Pemberley and Darcy’s tactful generosity to Lydia and Wickham, lead her to differentiate between Charlotte’s theory that family and fortune bestow a “right to be proud” and Darcy’s position that the intelligent person does not indulge in false pride. Darcy’s pride is real, but it is regulated by responsibility. Unlike his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who relishes the distinction of rank, he disapproves less of the Bennets’ undistinguished family and fortune than of the lack of propriety displayed by most of the family. Therefore, Elizabeth scarcely overstates her case when, at the end, she assures her father that Darcy has no improper pride.
Elizabeth begins by rejecting the values and restraints of society as they are represented by such people as her mother, the Lucases, Miss Bingley, and Lady Catherine. Instead, she initially upholds the claims of the individual, which are elsewhere represented only by her whimsical father. By the end of the novel, the heart of her conflict appears in the contrast between her father and Darcy. She loves her father and has tried to overlook his lack of decorum in conjugal matters, but she has been forced to see that his freedom is really irresponsibility, the essential cause of Jane’s misery as well as Lydia’s amorality. The implicit comparison between Mr. Bennet’s and Darcy’s approach to matrimony illustrates their different methods of dealing with society’s restraints. Unrestrained by society, having been captivated by the inferior Mrs. Bennet’s youth and beauty, Mr. Bennet consulted only his personal desires and made a disastrous marriage. Darcy, in contrast, defies society only when he has made certain that Elizabeth is a woman worthy of his love and lifetime devotion.
When Elizabeth confronts Lady Catherine, her words are declarative not of absolute defiance of society but of the selective freedom that is her compromise and very similar to Darcy’s: “I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me.” Austen does not falsify the compromise. If Elizabeth dares with impunity to defy the society of Rosings, Longbourne, and Meryton, she does so only because Darcy is exactly the man for her and, further, because she can anticipate “with delight . . . the time when they should be removed from society so little pleasing to either, to all the comfort and elegance . . . at Pemberley.” In a sense, her marriage to Darcy is a triumph of the individual over society; but, paradoxically, Elizabeth achieves her most genuine conquest of pride and prejudice only after she accepts the full social value of her judgment that “to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!”
Granting the full force of the snobbery, the exploitation, the inhumanity of all the evils that diminish the human spirit and are inherent in a materialistic society, the novel clearly confirms the cynical “truth” of the opening sentence. At the same time, without evading the degree of Elizabeth’s capitulation to society, it affirms the vitality and the independent life that is possible, at least to an Elizabeth Bennet. Pride and Prejudice, like its title, offers deceptively simple antitheses that yield up the complexity of life itself.
JANUARY 27, 2013
IN THE FINAL WEEK of January, 200 years ago, the not-yet-famous 37-year-old author Jane Austen was at Chawton Cottage, awaiting the publication of Pride and Prejudice, her second novel to appear in print. “I have got my own darling Child from London,” she announced with obvious joy in a letter she wrote to her sister Cassandra at week’s end. The novel was anonymously published on January 28, 1813, and Austen received her copy on the 27th. That same day, she and her mother read half of the first volume out loud to a guest — without revealing the identity of the author, which was still pretty much a family secret. Austen, who loved to record people’s opinions of her writing, enthusiastically reported that this first post-publication reviewer “was amused” and “really does seem to admire Elizabeth.” For her own part, Austen could not have been more proud of her heroine. “I must confess,” she wrote, “that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, & how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.” In a later missive, Austen says of her niece Fanny’s response to the novel, “Her liking Darcy & Elizabeth is enough. She might hate all the others, if she would.”
Little could Jane Austen have imagined how much her future audience’s reaction would exceed this modest wish. For the past two centuries, readers have not simply liked Darcy and Elizabeth. They have fallen in love with them and with this very funny novel, which is now probably the most treasured romantic comedy of our time. It is also one of the most prolific commercial products. Today, Pride and Prejudice is more than a mere book. Elizabeth and Darcy have gone viral in multimodal forms of representation; their story has been adapted and retold in virtually every media — from children’s books and cartoons to erotica and musicals to movies and YouTube videos.
This week and throughout all of the bicentennial year, Austen’s “Darling Child” will be enthusiastically celebrated by the literary universe in grand style. For months, the media has been bursting with anticipatory articles. On January 28, birthday events – like the 12-hour outdoor readathons planned for Chicago and Bath — will be widespread and international. In February, the British Royal Mail will issue six commemorative stamps in honor of the novel (the Royal Mail last paid tribute to Austen in 1975, on the bicentennial of her birth). The BBC World Book Club kicked off the anniversary festivities on January 5th with live encomiums from P. D. James and the Anglo-Pakistani writer Moni Mohsin, as well as recorded remarksfrom other authors around the former British colonies (Colm Tóibín, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Kamila Shamsie). Their adulation joins the long history of authorial praise for Austen and the novel that began with Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Sir Walter Scott, and includes (among an incredibly long list of writers): W. H. Auden; Elizabeth Bowen; Samuel Taylor Coleridge; E. M. Forster; Rudyard Kipling; Harper Lee; George Henry Lewes; W. Somerset Maugham; Katherine Mansfield; A. A. Milne; Vladimir Nabokov; Beatrix Potter; Ezra Pound; Robert Louis Stevenson; Alfred, Lord Tennyson; Rebecca West; Oscar Wilde; and, of course, Virginia Woolf.
As English professors who teach classes and write about Jane Austen’s works, we have each enjoyed our own love affair with Pride and Prejudice. Even though we are employed at schools on opposite sides of North America, we’ve seen our students fall in love with the book and its protagonists in ways that transcend geography and institutional differences and that are in keeping with responses to the novel over its 200 years. We’ve watched students blush or well up with tears when discussing passages in class and have heard them declare their passion for the heroine or hero or both. Many of us can probably remember our first encounter with the book, typically at a young age, and those like us, who have read it multiple times over several decades, know that we feel different emotions each time we encounter this brilliant work of fiction, depending on our life experiences and where we are as people. Pride and Prejudice seduces us and makes us fall in love, over and over again. Of course, there are doubters and some notable detractors, such as Charlotte Bronte and Mark Twain, who famously said, “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig [Austen] up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone!” Among those who adore this novel, however — and the numbers are legion — the book and its story have helped shape how we think about romantic love, not just in literature, but also in life.
In keeping with the great love it inspires, two celebratory monographs have been published in time for the novel’s birthday. Celebrating Pride and Prejudice: 200 Years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece, by Susannah Fullerton, president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia for the past 15 years, is a breezy, plentifully illustrated survey of the novel’s history. The first half consists of an informative and historically contextualized summary of the novel. The especially valuable second half offers an inventory of the Pride and Prejudice industry. In separate chapters on translations, illustrations, literary adaptations, film and theatrical versions, and souvenirs, Fullerton entertainingly describes, lists, and consolidates the novel’s seemingly infinite descendants. The typical suspects are here (the 1940 MGM Feature Film and the wildly popular 1995 BBC series), as well as the best-known spin-offs (Bridget Jones’s Diary, Pride and Prejudice and the Zombies, Murder at Pemberley, Bride and Prejudice, and Becoming Jane). But the compendium includes 80 or so (“far from […] comprehensive,” as Fullerton notes) pages of additional Pride and Prejudice products, so many that the catalog becomes vaguely obscene. This is not just because of all the pornography, such as Pride and Promiscuity and Mr. Darcy Vibrates. Rather, the novel itself starts to seem monstrously fertile, like roaches or bedbugs, and the only wonder is that plastic Elizabeth and Darcy figurines are not yet included with every McDonald’s Happy Meal.
The second commemorative book, Celebrating Pride and Prejudice: 200 Years of Jane Austen’s Darling Child, by Austen critics Hazel Jones and Maggie Lane, cofounders of the South West Branch of the Jane Austen Society of the UK, boasts a cover photo of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the BBC adaptation. Both Jones and Lane have published many readable books and essays on Austen, and the book has the friendly, intimate tone of a women’s magazine (the back inner cover contains an advertisement for Jane Austen’s Regency World, which is, as the publication’s website tells us, “the only full-colour, quality magazine for lovers of Jane Austen and the Georgian and Regency era”). Less capacious than Fullerton’s appreciation (it is a mere 64 pages) the book is laid out like the sort of guide one might pick up at a sightseeing attraction. Jones and Lane tour the novel’s plot and then the numerous editions and renditions of Elizabeth and Darcy’s story in film, TV, and popular culture. Brimming with colorful photos and images on virtually every page, this book is a spirited Cliff’s Notes introduction to the history of the novel across the ages.
Because the novel is in the public domain, anyone can publish an edition of Pride and Prejudice, and dozens of them exist at various price points, ranging from free downloadable ebooks and online versions to deluxe printings. Capitalizing on the bicentennial, Penguin has put together a 200th-anniversary edition of the novel (with an introduction by Margaret Drabble and an afterword by the romance novelist Eloisa James), and HarperCollins has slapped together an ebook version that includes a randomly selected group of supplementary texts. The best anniversary present for Austen lovers and newbies alike would be the sumptuous hardback Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition, published in 2010 and edited by renowned 18th century specialist Patricia Meyer Spacks. This edition contains expansive notes, presented in wide margins alongside the main text, that range more into interpretive territory than do typical annotations, and that offer the reader something akin to an intensive seminar on the novel with an accessible teacher who both explains historical references and gives a sense of what a passage or sentence means to the book as a whole. Even if you’re someone who doesn’t regularly read each and every note in an annotated edition, you’ll want to read these.
So widely admired is Pride and Prejudice today that it’s impossible to imagine our literary landscape without it.And yet, nothing about the novel’s genesis pointed to such a remarkable future. Its early publishing history was in fact downright unpromising. According to the records of Cassandra, Austen at age 20 began drafting the book in October 1796, possibly in epistolary form, under the original title First Impressions. She finished it in August 1797. In November 1797, Austen’s father, always one of his daughter’s greatest fans, wrote a letter inviting the prominent London publisher Thomas Cadell to look at a “Manuscript Novel,” probably First Impressions. Cadell declined the offer, and a few years later the title “First Impressions” appeared on a novel by Margaret Holford. More than 15 years later Thomas Egerton, the publisher of Sense and Sensibility, published Austen’s revised version of Pride and Prejudice, “lop’t and crop’t” as she put it in a letter to Cassandra, and sporting the new title, most likely borrowed from a passage in Cecilia by Frances Burney, the most famous female novelist of the late 18th century. As a market-savvy author, Austen no doubt also favored the alliterative cadence of “pride and prejudice,” something she had employed to good effect in the title of her first published book. Egerton bought the rights to Pride and Prejudice (the only time Austen allowed this) and paid Austen £110 for her labors, £40 short of what she had asked. Details about Pride and Prejudice’s early print runs are imprecise — the scholar Jan Fergus estimates that there were roughly 1,000 first editions and 750 second editions before the end of the year; a third edition was published in 1817.
Austen died in 1817 from a progressively worsening illness (biographers have speculated, but none have convincingly identified the cause). She was only 41. “I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed,” Cassandra wrote her niece Fanny Knight. Walter Scott was more mindful of literary history: “What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!” In the immediate years after Austen’s death, her books seemed destined for obscurity. For more than a decade they were mostly out of print. The situation improved in 1832 when Richard Bentley bought the rights to all six novels (paying £40 to Egerton for Pride and Prejudice and £210 to Austen’s heirs for the other novels). Bentley issued small runs of inexpensive books between 1833 and 1854. These, along with modest editions by other publishers (including Routledge’s Railway Library series, cheaply produced books designed, as the title suggests, to be read by train travelers), kept Austen in print but did not make her famous.
Austen’s posthumous fate took a dramatic turn for the better after her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, published his idealistic A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1869, which emphasized Austen’s feminine contentment and propriety, her modesty about her writing, and her prioritization of domestic duties. Austen-Leigh’s book was a smashing success and ignited the first wave of what we would now call Austen mania. Claire Harmon, in Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, has argued that the memoir provided potential fans with a story they could believe about a gentle spinster author for whom they could feel affection and tenderness; without it, Austen might have remained a niche favorite cherished by those who knew her work, but she would not have become what she is today: an “infinitely exploitable global brand.” Austen-Leigh received letters from adoring readers around the world, and a rash of new biographies and editions of the novels followed. The commercialization was so intense that in 1905 a disgusted Henry James (whom many would designate Austen’s literary descendant) lambasted “the special bookselling spirit” and the “body of publishers, editors, illustrators, producers of the pleasant twaddle of magazines; who have found their ‘dear’, our dear, everybody’s dear, Jane so infinitely to their material purpose.” (If only he knew what was to come!)
Notwithstanding James’s complaint, Austen’s celebrity grew with both popular readers and with the intelligentsia, and Pride and Prejudice’s fame often outstripped that of the other novels. Benjamin Disraeli declared that he loved the novel and had read it 17 times, and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “Elizabeth Bennet has but to speak, and I am at her knees.” In 1890, the American writer W. D. Howells coined the term “the divine Jane” to characterize the growing Austen hagiography, and he also described the “constantly, almost rapidly, increasing cult” surrounding “the story of ‘Pride and Prejudice.’” In 1894 George Allen issued an instantly best-selling illustrated edition of Pride and Prejudice with 160 drawings by Hugh Thompson. It sold 11,600 copies in the first year alone – more than the total number of every Austen book sold while the author was still alive. The edition included a legendary preface by George Saintsbury, who became Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature at Edinburgh the following year and was the first author to use the term “Janeite” to describe Austen’s groupies. As Saintsbury’s pedigree indicates, Austen’s cult status had spilled over to the British academy. A. C. Bradley, the Shakespearean and Oxford Professor, also described himself as a “faithful” Austen follower and called Pride and Prejudice Austen’s best novel. Like Robert Louis Stevenson, both professors declared their undying love for the heroine: “[T]o live with and to marry’” Elizabeth Bennet was Saintsbury’s desire, and Bradley said, “I was meant to fall in love with her, and I do.”
Austen’s academic appeal escalated in 1912 with the publication of a scholarly edition of Pride and Prejudice, the first English novel in history to receive this kind of treatment. The editor was Katharine Metcalfe. She married Robert William Chapman, whose 1923 Clarendon Press editions of Austen’s novels included an exact (though unacknowledged) replication of Metcalfe’s work and remained the authoritative source of Austen’s works for the rest of the century. Chapman’s collection was displaced in 2009 by the complete Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen (the set is priced for libraries more than individuals; Pat Roger’s 622-page, fully annotated edition of Pride and Prejudice costs $173.00).
The avalanche of literary criticism that followed Chapman’s editions (and that accelerates to this day) tended to divide professors from populists and to eschew the romanticization that characterized an earlier generation of scholars. This division was profoundly shaped by a 1940 essay by D. W. Harding called “Regulated Hatred,” a scholarly call to arms against Austen’s adoring minions. Justifying the need for literary critical analysis of an author the average reader could never possibly understand, Harding declared that Austen is “read and enjoyed by precisely the sort of people whom she disliked.” Harding’s position was extreme (as he himself admitted), and many current scholars, ourselves included, would reject it. Nevertheless, a division between populist and scholarly readings can be traced at least as far back as his article. Some excellent recent studies have made Austen’s fame and fandom an object of scholarly history. Claudia L. Johnson’s Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, which is reviewed by Devoney Looser here, is exemplary. But more often, the same novels celebrated for their universal accessibility and timeless appeal outside the academy are, within it, mined for everything from their rhetorical complexity to their historical specificity to their sexual imagery. Scholars emphasize the novels’ political density, and scholarly battles about Austen’s ideological sympathies — as well as everything else — are intense, at times even bleeding beyond the academy and into the public sphere, as was the case in the early 1990s after the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick made headlines over a paper provocatively titled “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” which she had delivered at a Modern Language Association conference; or when the August 1995 London Review of Books published Terry Castle’s suggestion that Austen’s relationship with Cassandra had “unconscious homoerotic dimensions.”
Meanwhile, the populist love affair with Austen and Pride and Prejudice has continued unabated. As Johnson’s recent book brilliantly details, Austen went to the trenches with British soldiers in World War I; in Rudyard Kipling’s short story “The Janeites,” one of her military fans writes the names “Lady Catherine de Bourgh” and “Reverend Collins” on the guns. During World War II, Johnson writes, the novels served as a symbol of “English identity” on the “civilian home front.” The MGM Pride and Prejudice appeared early in World War II and, like the war (though on an infinitely smaller scale), the film involved collaborative British and American efforts; Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier starred, Robert Z. Leonard directed, and Aldous Huxley and Jane Murfin cowrote the screenplay. When suffering from pneumonia towards the war’s end, Winston Churchill, like countless people before and after him, sought recuperative power in Pride and Prejudice, which he asked his daughter to read him from the foot of his sickbed.
The novel’s popularity spiked again at the end of the century when the BBC’s historically respectful and intensely romantic 1995 miniseries began the process of turning Austen into a movie star. After 40 percent of the UK’s viewing audience tuned in for Elizabeth and Darcy’s denouement, the series became famous the world over. The initial run of 12,000 videos sold out in just two hours and by the week’s end 58,000 more had been purchased (a few years ago there was a 10th anniversary edition). The production starred Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth and, of course, the heart-throbbing Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. Firth became an international sex-god for a scene that never even appears in the novel in which Darcy strips down for a lake swim before, on his way back to the manse, running into Elizabeth and conversing with her in a revealingly transparent shirt.
Jones and Lane, in Celebrating Pride and Prejudice, include both a close-up picture of the wet-shirted actor and an image from the series 2008 Lost in Austen in which Elliot Cowan’s Darcy is clad in a soaking white shirt, hip-deep in a lake, and calls it a “postmodern moment” – paying homage as it does, not to the novel but to the previous adaptation. In Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, the protagonist and a group of friends seek out the famous Colin-as-Darcy scene on the video, and Bridget shares their collective response in her diary: “We all fell silent then, watching Colin Firth emerging from the lake dripping wet, in the see-through white shirt. Mmm. Mmmm.” To top it off, Colin Firth plays Mark Darcy in the Bridget Jones movies.
Andrew Davies, the screenwriter who penned the BBC adaptation, told the Sunday Times in a 2007 interview, quoted in Harmon’s Jane’s Fame, that he had intended for Firth to remove the shirt, but the actor demurred. “I never thought a wet-shirt scene would be such a turn-on,” Davies declared. Harmon says that the scene is “now considered one of the most unforgettable moments in British TV history.” So popular was Firth’s coy sexuality in the scene that, Davies recounts, “There was a period, which went on for a long time, when you would go to parties and whenever you went into the kitchen there would be a picture of Mr. Darcy and his wet shirt, tacked up over the dishwasher. […] I’m very proud of that.”
Perhaps nothing has influenced the late 20th and early 21st century reception of Pride and Prejudice so much as Firth’s rendition of Darcy. Indeed we might divide the popular reaction to the novel into two eras: Before Colin Firth and After Colin Firth. Whereas in the BCF age, distinguished men like Robert Louis Stevenson, George Saintsbury, and A. C. Bradley publically declared their love for Elizabeth Bennet, once we entered the ACF era (and we’re still in it), Darcy became the property of swooning female — and no doubt many male — viewers. Moreover, according to Rachel Brownstein’s recent book Why Jane Austen?, “most of the fan fiction published since 1995 has been about Darcy.” Darcy’s rise to prominence occurred in spite of the fact that the hero is largely absent from most of the action in the novel’s second half. Between his first and second proposal, Darcy is practically a minor character. After rejecting his hand in March, Elizabeth next sees Mr. Darcy in July, when they unexpectedly meet at Pemberley. They see each other the next day for “above half an hour,” and the day after that for a visit “that did not continue long.” The following day Darcy visits Elizabeth just when she has discovered Lydia’s elopement with Wickham; he leaves promptly. She does not see him again until September, at which point Elizabeth is already sure of her affection for him. By a generous estimate they have, since the first proposal, seen each other for maybe three hours.
In our most recent classes, our students talk about being introduced to the novel via the BBC adaptation by mothers who lovingly screen it in homes as required viewing. Many young women (and a few young men) — some who have not even read the books — come to us with a passion for Pride and Prejudice practically hard-wired into their DNA. Their skewed familiarity is less a pedagogical liability than a challenge. We draw on their enthusiasm to lead them to consider Austen’s experimental techniques and virtuoso skill set. Though it is easy to denounce the popularization of Austen in the media and the movies, we think the adaptations are excellent teaching tools. Showing a snippet of a film can spark lively discussions of the books themselves. Bringing in film scenes that aren’t even in the novels can generate fruitful explorations of contemporary desires and expectations in popular culture. For instance, the swim scene the BBC invented for Colin Firth substitutes for the moment in the novel when Elizabeth radically alters her perception of Darcy while standing before his portrait. Having seen Pemberley and heard a good report from Darcy’s housekeeper, Elizabeth projects her new ideas onto the canvas and mentally repaints him. She imagines Darcy’s eyes “fixed […] upon herself,” thinks of his “regard with a deeper sentiment of gratitude than it had ever raised before,” and softens his “impropriety of expression.” In the midst of this exquisite thought process, the real — or what the novel calls the “original” — Mr. Darcy becomes practically irrelevant. Paradoxically, falling in love becomes a solitary experience between an individual and an idea. The BBC pictures Elizabeth before the portrait, but it is unable to capture her intimate interiority. Instead the film replaces her thoughts with the hero’s striptease and swim.
The most recent 2005 film adaptation, with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth and Matthew Macfayden as what can best be described as “emo Darcy,” ups the ante for viewers who favor conventionally torrid love scenes. How else to account for the rain-drenched proposal scene? Our teenage and twentysomething students tend to like this version even more than the 1995 one, even though they still appreciate the virtues of a wet shirt. Our students are also fond of the still-in-progress web series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which updates the plot of Pride and Prejudice by casting the protagonist as a graduate student in mass communications whose mother, like Austen’s Mrs. Bennet, is obsessed with marrying off her daughters. The story emerges in installments as part of a vlog the heroine is putting together as a class project. Part of the fun of this series, like the Clueless adaptation of Emma, is seeing how it brings the storyline into the modern world of internships, job offers, startup companies, and financiers.
The downside to the post-Colin world and concomitant explosion of Austen’s fame is that costume productions and steamy heroes are so thoroughly perceived to be the province of women (and gay men) that more traditionally oriented men tend to shy away from the novels. Like Twain, who hated them so much that, as he said, “I have to stop every time I begin,” male readers often dismiss Austen’s novels as “chick lit” without ever cracking a spine. In A Jane Austen Education, William Deresiewicz subverts the stereotype by crediting his own personal growth to his gradual willingness to read all six novels. He starts out as a graduate student who thought that Austen was the author of “silly romantic fairy tales,” and ends up thanking her for making him an empathetic, compassionate person, deserving of his own happily-ever-after.
Our students are seduced by the romantic satisfaction Austen supplies, and we ourselves derive pleasure from it. But the greater pedagogical pleasure comes from asking students to slow down and to think critically and skeptically about Austen’s resolutions. With Pride and Prejudice, we have to disabuse pretty much every new group of the idea that Darcy “represents” pride and Elizabeth “represents” prejudice and that the point of the novel is to mix the two together like vinegar and oil into an ideal blend. Instead, Austen encourages us to read people the way we ought to read books: wary of our first impressions, ready to search for the good in others, willing to recognize our own lack of self-knowledge.
We also devote class time to the political and socioeconomic implications of Elizabeth and Darcy’s initial polarization. In opposing the characters, Austen raises one of the central questions of her time, a question that informed the American and French Revolutions and that remains palpable to this day: how should different people be treated and identified? Elizabeth represents the importance of individual rights and independence. Darcy represents the power of birth and inheritance (replicated in our own culture’s obsession with genetic predetermination). When Darcy overlooks Elizabeth’s birth status and falls in love with her intelligence and unconventionality, he shifts to the ideological left; when Elizabeth learns that “to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” she shifts to the right. The novel’s romantic resolution is actually a model of political moderation (cynics call it a copout).
Despite Darcy’s importance in the novel and his recent pinup status, Elizabeth is clearly central to the book’s immortality. Many of our students adore the heroine, praising her wit, intelligence, and nonconformity. They admire Elizabeth’s left-leaning individualism, her anti-snobbery, her freedom to run in the mud. They love Elizabeth because she says, “I dearly love a laugh.” That’s why Darcy loves her, too. After the couple becomes engaged and — in their most extended dialogue — talk about how they got together, Darcy lets Elizabeth know that she made him love her and that loving her has made him a better man. “You taught me a lesson,” he confides, “hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled.” And then he says something far more romantic than those three little words: “You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.”
Contrary to what those who have not read her may surmise, Austen avoids giving her characters mushy dialogue. She leaves readers room to imagine what loving words her couples say to one another. In fact, one of the most romantic things Darcy tells Elizabeth (and we’re not just saying this because we’re professors) is that he admired her for the “liveliness” of her mind. What’s more, we know that the pair will continue to banter in their wedded life (like Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, to whom the couple has long been compared). If Elizabeth is lucky, Darcy may join in her love of laughter, and their shared sense of humor will be yet another benefit of their union. At the novel’s end, we get a glimpse of their married life when we are told that Darcy’s sister Georgiana listened at first “with an astonishment bordering on alarm, at [Elizabeth’s] lively, sportive, manner of talking to her brother.” The younger woman learns from her new sister-in-law “that a woman may take liberties with her husband, which a brother will not always allow in a sister more than ten years younger than himself.” Austen’s laughing readers already know what Georgiana must discover. Humor is not just entertaining — it makes life tolerable.
Two centuries ago, Austen cut open the pages of her newly published “Child” and wondered what the world would make of it. Across the ages, millions of fans of the book could have set her mind at ease. As readers around the globe participate in this year’s revelry, we can raise a glass to the long life and success of Pride and Prejudice. Then go back and read it again and again.