205 Years on, Books considers why Pride and Prejudice is still relevant…
With translations in forty languages and more adaptations than any other classic author, Jane Austen scarcely needs advocacy.
If she did, look no further than the frst line of Pride and Prejudice. Famously telling us, of a “truth universally acknowledged”, Austen’s narrative genius, sparkling wit, and satirical dexterity unequivocally impress themselves on each and every reader. We are brilliantly plunged into her novel by the acute irony of a statement both morally questionable and logically unsound – a universally acknowledged truth, after all, need not be declared.
And, as to the exact nature of this universe? It is, without exception, a specifc one; Austen has been criticised for rarely straying far beyond the romantic comfort of a rural, genteel setting like that of Longbourn, nor engaging with contemporary political issues of the early nineteenth century. The portraits of some characters – such as the ridiculously materialistic Mrs Bennet – in conjunction with Austen’s predictable reversion to a neat ‘happy’ ending, and a general endorsement of social convention have not always produced a favourable critical response. Mark Twain’s urge “to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shinbone” may be one of the most visceral.
Rather than endorsing the limitations of her environment, Austen’s satirical tone provides some scathing criticisms – as Lady Catherine despairs, for example, at the prospect of whether “the shades of Pemberley are to be thus polluted”, we cannot but laugh. And, although the novel’s patriarchal undertones prove uncomfortable for the modern reader, Austen’s very authorship – as a defance of contemporary gender limitations – is remarkable in itself.
When Elizabeth declares that her “courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate”, it is Austen’s own proto-feminist voice which reverberates.
Pride and Prejudice matters today.
By Helena Chung
Whether you are a English literature student, a book lover, or even just a fan of Colin Firth’s performance as Mr. Darcy in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, there is no denying that Jane Austen’s beloved novel is probably one of the most well-known love stories around the world.
So exactly what’s the reason behind all this fascination with this boy-meets-girl happy end story that happens in rural England over 200 hundred years ago? And to be more specific, out of the six novels Austen completed in her lifetime, what makes Pride and Prejudice stands out among her works which all share similar plots and settings?
Is it because of Mr. Darcy, who kind of becomes the prototype for the perfect hero in most of the romance fiction that follows? Or maybe the credit belongs more to Elizabeth Bennet, whose sharp wit and determination to follow her own heart ends up being rewarded with her true love who also happens to be an ideal husband strikes a note of resonance among female readers?
Nevertheless, all Austen’s novels end in satisfying marriages (and financial security) for the heroines, then why Pride and Prejudice? Rather than just focusing on the novel itself though, it would be more refreshing to take a look at other lesser renowned works from the same writer. The posthumously published Northanger Abbey and Persuasion will not be addressed here, as the former belongs to her immature juvenile works, while the latter was written during a failing race against declining health.
Similar to Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility also has a popular screen adaptation praised for its excellent casting (Yes, Kate Winslet’s breakthrough starts with Marianne, not Titanic). The contrast between the Dashwood sisters, who each embodies the virtues and defaults of the opposing characters in the title, provides the drama for plot development.
However, while I know this is another favourite for many Austen fans and probably a lot of people would disagree with me, I have always found it a bit odd that the mature, prudent Colonel Brandon ends up with the youthful, spontaneous Marianne, with Elinor being stuck with the gentle (but rather passive) Edward Ferrars.
Maybe Austen is focusing her energy on the bond between sisters rather than romance between opposite sexes, thus the most convincing part of the novel belongs to her portrayal of female companionship rather than courtship. This may explains why though sisterly love is touching, it is obviously not quite as popular among the public as romance.
Moving on to Mansfield Park and Emma, Austen’s two mature works produced at the height of her career, which literature students are very familiar with (thanks to the university reading list) but less well-known among mass readers due to their relatively unlikeable characters. As Austen admitted in a letter, Emma is a heroine that no one but herself will much like. Indeed, the rich and spoilt Miss Woodhouse whose only problem originates from naive attempts in matchmaking for her followers in the claustrophobic town where she reigns, can hardly be viewed as a figure that draws admiration from readers.
Similarly, Fanny Price, the Cinderella of Mansfield Park who spent a large part of the novel repressing her emotions and suffering silently from her unrequited love for her cousin Edmund, definitely lacks the charisma of the strong-willed and outspoken Elizabeth Bennet.
However, I must do justice to these two novels, for the superior craft demonstrated by Austen in her control over the intricate relationships between several characters, and her ability in capturing the undercurrents of jealousy and passion beneath the surface is superior to all her previous novels.
In fact, the marriages at the end of both novels have a slightly sarcastic undertone, for rather than the pure happiness between Elizabeth and Darcy, the marriages of Fanny and Emma indicate the shallowness and limitations of the standard imposed on women in the world where her characters live in and Austen wrote about.
Irony, great for literature analysis, but not so welcoming to readers who want to close the book feeling satisfied.
In conclusion, the reason why Pride and Prejudice remains the all-time favourite among Austen’s novels for the mass is because of the pitch-perfect chemistry between Darcy and Elizabeth, crafted by Austen with her supreme writing skills, but at the same time omitting the darker, more sarcastic tone of her later works. Realistic, but romantic at the same time. What more could one ask for really?
Jane Austen is one of the most successful and celebrated female authors in British literature. With her face on our bank notes and a devoted fan base of ‘Austenites’, it’s safe to say that she isn’t simply a beloved author, but a cultural icon. But why does she have such a lasting and enduring presence in modernity?
Austen’s success and esteem are weighted by equal attitudes of contempt and disdain by many. There’s a tendency to see Austen as the lonely spinster penning romantic fantasies of chivalrous and wealthy men adoring, and to an extent rescuing the charming but poor heroines with their fortunes. Her ability to explore serious injustices through the perspectives of young girls celebrates women in a period in which they had to strive to gain worth and respect by becoming ‘accomplished’ as opposed to receiving this naturally.
She’s fundamentally moral, and it is the very escapist and fantastical element of her novels which may often be criticised as ‘too neat’ or predictable, that is her strength. In Pride and Prejudice, the decent Charlotte Lucas must marry Mr Collins in a loveless match for fnancial security. Austen doesn’t depict love as magical, for even poverty can turn it into bitterness or hopelessness.
Instead she uses the love story to empower individuality and emphasise the pain in learning diffcult lessons. At the very heart of her novels, Austen’s protagonists grow up, and strive to leave socially constructed prejudices behind them.
Illustration: Katie Butler