This article was written by Amarie Fox.
At the beginning of every new year, while everyone is beginning to compile a list of novels that they would to read, I like discovering at least one book that is celebrating a rather significant anniversary.
This year, Jane Austen’s much beloved Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, is turning 200 years old. Initially, I wasn’t going to make note of it. I mean, I love Austen just as much as the next bookworm. I can proudly admit I have read every single one of her novels, all on my own (since not a single one of her works was assigned reading in school) and, in fact, have read many of them more than once.
Where did my hesitation stem from, then?
‘Popular for all of the wrong reasons.’
All of my friends, who I label as ‘dedicated’ readers, consider Austen to be a pivotal turning point in literature. For, in her, we see, for maybe the first time, a woman writing in a strong female voice. Last Christmas, I actually purchased for one of my dearest friends, a silhouette-type portrait of Austen, to hang over her writing desk. When I was picking it out, there were many other famous authors – like Twain and Hemmingway – but Austen stuck out like a sore thumb: she was the only authoress.
Her popularity and influence is clear, even in modern culture, but you must ask yourself why. Is it because she wrote so-called romances and according to old-fashioned, stereotypical thinking all women by default love romances? That may be a part of it.
Still, whenever I hear anyone mentions Austen, I immediately recall Fran Lebowitz and her brilliant opinion piece on why Jane Austen is still popular… for all of the wrong reasons. She point out that it is a misconception that Austen wrote girlish romances, meant only for the immature or adolescent reader. As Lebowitz reminds us, many important male figures, such as Kipling and Churchill praised Austen’s writing, so it wasn’t exclusively written for woman or girls.
One of my favorite critiques of Pride and Prejudice comes from another female author that I respect and love, perhaps just as much. In a 1848 letter to G.H. Lewis, Charlotte Bronte expresses her immense dissatisfaction with the novel, saying:
Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point… I had not seen Pride and Prejudice till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book. And what did I find? An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentleman, in their elegant but confined houses.
Like many other readers, Bronte misses the point of Austen’s work and applies her own contemporary, or Romantic, ideas of ‘openness’ to Austen’s work. Instead of immersing herself in the world of Austen, she expects to see a sort of reflection of her expectations shining back at her. Just as with any piece of literature, this is not any fault of the author, but of the reader.
Encapsulating Human Nature
Many titles don’t necessarily speak for a book, but Pride and Prejudice is such a fitting and important one, that works wonderfully with its internal content and subject matter. Originally, when Austen began the story in 1790, she titled the manuscript First Impressions. Now, this title would have worked, seeing as how many of the characters pre-judge and then go through a separate process of re-judging. However, pride and prejudice often get in the way of first impressions don’t they? Austen is getting to the core of it all. Reminding her audience that both pride and prejudice are perhaps the most negative traits of human nature, but something that we all share.
If Austen was anything, she was a supreme satirist and ironist. This is what many readers often miss. She could take a situation and put it in a comedic light, all in order to bring about some other sort of mental questioning and subsequent examination from the audience. If one scratches away at the seemingly shiny surface, underneath, all one will find is a critique of society and how it operates.
Pride and Prejudice was written not during the Victorian period, but during a political crisis – following the French Revolution – and also in a time of social mobility. The latter is of central importance, seeing as how marriage is of central importance to many of the characters. All social interactions throughout the novel seem to revolve around marriage. After all, it is through personal economy that one can advance their rank or ‘move up,’ so to speak. In Austen’s world, this is not just a female fault, but a male fault, as well. Both sexes are equally as guilty.
As ‘romantic’ as the story can seem, in my readings of Austen, I find that her extreme wit is overwhelming. There is so much she plays with, so that she doesn’t have to explain every single detail. She assumes her readers to be smart, she assumes that she doesn’t need to put up a flashing sign above her work that reads: “I am poking fun at all of you and how you act. Don’t you see?”
Most novels that are considered “classic” in the literary canon are happen to be so for a reason: they are critiquing something, almost always, the potentially dangerous or bad parts of human nature. All of those great authors shared the single knowledge that we will never change. Like great literary-prophets, though, they said what they needed to say anyway. Even if no one ever heeded the advice or turned a mirror to themselves and society, in order to examine the wrongs that are always so glaringly obvious.
One more time, it is…
My hesitation to add Pride and Prejudice to my 2013 reading list was only due in part to the fear of being grouped in with people who would also be reading the novel and completely missing the point. Or worse, scouring the pages for something relatable to their own life – that little mirror that would show them what they wished for.
That sort of fear is simple vanity, though, and so I added Austen to my reading list. Not only because she deserves another read, but because I am sure there is something I have missed and haven’t uncovered yet.
Extra Readings and Related Links:
Will you be adding Pride and Prejudice to your reading list for 2013? Why or why not?
Amarie Fox is a writer and artist. She is still getting comfortable with those titles. More information can be found on amariefox.tumblr.com.
Find more information about how to contribute to Read.Learn.Write.