It is the bicentennial of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and I could think of no better way of marking the occasion than by devoting my 100th post to Ms. Austen’s classic work. Over the last two centuries, this novel has received both praise and ridicule, and this anniversary has emboldened its detractors to wonder publicly, “Does [Austen’s] message actually translate into the 21st century world?,” with one journalist on the Huffington Post insinuating naively that the only person who could relate to Austen’s novels is “a girl who just wants a boyfriend.”
No book will appeal to everyone, but anyone who dismisses Pride and Prejudice as irrelevant and silly (and suggests that its fans are equally silly) either lacks reading comprehension skills or has never actually read the novel.
Yes, the novel is a love story at its core, but its historical context, multi-dimensional characters, and commentary on social hierarchy and human nature add weight to the “girl meets boy” plot.
The setting is late 18th/early 19th Century England, complete with pleasant countryside estates, balls with half-hour long dances, and courtship rituals based on family connections and social status. This world may feel long gone to some, but for those of us from cultures in which arranged marriages are common (often a relaxed form of it), it is easy to identify with Elizabeth and her sisters.
Pride and Prejudice features the Bennet sisters, who are on the fringe of the landed gentry and for whom marriage may be the only way to secure their economic futures. The novel assesses the merits of marriage, stating, “it was the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.” The star is Elizabeth Bennet, a witty young woman who has little interest in marrying (“If I were determined to get a rich husband, or any husband…”). Her preference is to follow her heart, rather than to seek “worldly advantage,” and so she refuses economically advantageous marriage proposals and rushes to judgment too soon on matters, a trait she learns to regret. She is an imperfect heroine whose wit, wisdom, missteps and subsequent personal growth endear her to readers. Many of us continue to identify with her, even after 200 years.
To say that this story is merely for “boy crazy” girls not only ignores the complexities of the novel, but also overlooks the many men who count themselves among Jane Austen’s fans. Two of Austen’s early fans included Chief Justice John Marshall (1755-1835) and Justice Joseph Story (1779-1845), two of the most highly esteemed figures in American legal history (Story was quoted by the United States Supreme Court in three separate cases last year). In a 1826 letter, Marshall congratulated Story on a speech before Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa society and offered a bit of criticism for the omission of Jane Austen:
‘I was a little mortified, however, to find that you had not admitted the name of Miss Austen into your list of favorites. I had just finished reading her novels when I received your discourse, and was so much pleased with them that I looked in it for her name, and was rather disappointed at not finding it.’ The chief justice then proceeded to defend his favorite: ‘Her flights are not lofty, she does not soar on eagle’s wings, but she is pleasing, interesting, equable, and yet amusing.’ (See Alison L. LaCroix’s The Lawyer’s Library in the Early American Republic).
Story’s response did not survive history, but he, too, was a fan of Austen. Story’s son confirmed his father’s love of Austen’s work, saying that his father “fully recognized the admirable genius of Miss Austen. Scarcely a year passed that he did not read more than one of them, and with an interest which never flagged.”
I, too, recognize “the admirable genius of Miss Austen,” and I recommend that anyone who doubts the significance of Pride and Prejudice give it another chance. First impressions are often misleading.