Birthday of ‘the world’s greatest love story’
Two hundred years ago next week, one of the greatest of all English novels was published. What is it about ‘Pride and Prejudice’ that still strikes so deep a chord today?
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’. The opening lines to Pride and Prejudice set the tone for the book to come. In parts romantic comedy, morality tale and biting social satire, Jane Austen’s novel has sold over 20 million copies and, as its January 28th anniversary approaches, it only seems to be growing in popularity.
Yet the book is set in a very different world to modern Britain. In 19th Century polite society 'universal truths' really could be about riches and marriage: for many women, the bid for a wealthy husband was an all-consuming saga played out in dances, visits and parlour-room scheming.
The book’s fiery and clever heroine Elizabeth Bennet is sharply aware of this claustrophobic environment. When a haughty and very rich bachelor called Mr. Darcy sweeps into her life she immediately dislikes him. But, in a tale complicated by undesirable suitors, meddling parents and eloping sisters, her prejudices are challenged and the pair marry.
What is the appeal of a tale set in such a different society? Many fans love the history itself – some 'Janeites' indulge in lavish recreations of Georgian balls. But others think differently: Austen's characters and stories, they say, are as relevant to the twenty-first century as the 19th.
The writer was certainly ahead of her time. Elizabeth is rare among heroines of her age not just for her wit and assertiveness, but because she is flawed: prone to rashness and holding grudges. The uncomfortable experience of facing her own faults, fans say, is universal. What’s more, the conflict between intelligent women and the expectations of a restricted society chime with debates in feminism today.
Indeed, scores of modern writers have been inspired by Austen's work. Bridget Jones's Diary takes its plot directly from Pride and Prejudice, while Emma inspired 90s teen drama Clueless. Writers like Salman Rushdie have even likened Austen's world to modern-day India – a comparison that inspired the Bollywood hit Bride and Prejudice.
Pride before a fall
Austen, however, is not without detractors. Some writers deem her work narrow: about ‘commonplace’ and ‘confined’ lives, in the words of Charlotte Bronte. Perhaps plots about gossip and dancing, which paint marriage as the highest possible achievement, should not be thought important by thoughtful readers.
No, others say: in small, careful observations everyone can recognise something. As one critic said of Emma, Austen’s work 'is universal because it is narrow'. Her everyday trivialities reveal more wisdom about humanity than any ambitious account of world-changing events.
- Are Jane Austen’s novels relevant to the contemporary world?
- In your opinion, what is more important in literature: recognising wisdom about yourself, or finding out about other societies and people?
- Write a suggestion for your own modern-day Austen adaptation. How can you make the dramas of Georgian England reflect the problems of modern life?
- Stage a talk show featuring the main characters fromPride and Prejudice.
Some People Say...
“All great art is universal.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Okay, I'm sold. Which Austen books are the best?
- Austen wrote six novels in all – she died tragically young at 41. Few argue that one novel is a standout, thoughPride and Prejudice is perhaps the most popular, and many critics particularly rate Persuasion, a later work. Because the copyright on the books have expired, too, they are easy to get hold of cheaply and are available for free online or through ereaders.
- Do these books effect social change?
- As a female writer in the 19th Century, Austen could be seen as something of a trailblazer, and her heroines inspiring examples and strong, independent women. Though she wasn't involved in politics, many of her characters challenged social mores: in this way, Austen's art may have tapped into her time's discussions about attitudes to women, and their role in society – and influenced later feminist movements.
- Growing in popularity
- Pride and Prejudice routinely tops polls of favourite books: in 2007, a Guardian poll listed Pride and Prejudice as the book Britain ‘can’t do without’, and in 2003 an expansive BBC poll on the nation’s favourite book ranked it second, after Lord of the Rings.
- An affectionate self-title for Jane Austen’s legions of devoted fans, many of whom take part in organised discussions, reading groups and meetings, as well as producing Austen magazines and websites.
- Salman Rushdie
- One of the world’s leading Anglo-Indian writers, Rushdie is best known for challenging novels such as The Satanic Verses and Midnight’s Children. He first read Pride and Prejudice as a young man in what was then Bombay, and was struck by the similarities between the two societies with regard to marriage and the importance of status.
- Charlotte Bronte
- English novelist and poet Charlotte Bronte wrote in the mid 19th Century, and adopted a much darker style than Austen, with lots of gothic imagery, personal struggle and suffering. Her most famous work, Jane Eyre, is considered a classic, as is her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights.