Would Pride and Prejudice have lasted quite so long had Jane Austen, as she suggested to her sister, Cassandra, after its completion, inserted amidst its witty dialogue and sparkling tableaux an essay on writing, or Walter Scott, or Napoleon Bonaparte, to offset what she described as “the playfulness and general epigrammatism of the general style”?
She was being comically rueful when she called the novel her “own darling child” although the remark probably also reflected a degree of writerly anxiety over the tricky business of balancing light and shade.
She needn’t have worried. Pride and Prejudice, which celebrates its bicentenary this month, shows no signs of disappearing and would likely have survived the inclusion of a dry chapter or two (flicking ahead is virtually undetectable). Its well-documented popularity is not difficult to understand. That playful style weaves itself around a cast of characters so various and engaging that if Darcy and Elizabeth’s spiky love story flags for a moment, you can entertain yourself with the egregiously snobbish Mrs Bennet or the unbearably smarmy Mr Collins.
The environmental details and historical context might have changed, but the novel’s themes, the snares our own preconceptions lay for us, the entanglement of personal and economic fortunes, the false lure of social advancement, have hardly become anachronistic.
Austen’s triumph here, as elsewhere, was to tell a compelling story while simultaneously dissecting and complicating cliche and stereotype. That kind of thing doesn’t date.
Parade of sequels
Hence the parade of homages and sequels, from Bridget Jones to P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley to Gurinder Chadha’s film Bride and Prejudice to Seth Grahame-Smith’s unlikely sounding Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. That list only a few of the multitude of PP-inspired productions is evidence of the range of interpretations and settings that the story itself permits, but it also implies a degree of cultural fetishisation, and the existence of not merely a literary canon, but a super-canon. It’s a contemporary phenomenon and one in which the book becomes more meme than piece of literature, gathering strength through diversification and reiteration, going through endless tumbles of the marketing spin-cycle.
That’s not to say that we should wish Pride and Prejudice to be less well thought of than it is; simply that we should separate our regard for a book from all the white noise that surrounds it. That way lies the creation of a healthy literary culture, as well as one that recognises the part fashion and circumstance have to play in whether a book flourishes or not.
This month might mark 200 years since Pride and Prejudice was published, but not since it was written; that occurred more than a decade previously, when Austen’s manuscript of First Impressions, as it was then called, was rejected out of hand. The reworked and retitled version was finally taken on by Thomas Egerton, a publisher of military and political titles who had little experience of fiction; he paid Austen a flat fee of £110, which she accepted, not realising how well her previous novel, Sense and Sensibility, was doing.
Egerton himself made £450 from the first two editions alone. Even the most sketchy of contemporary spin-offs surely made more money and, indeed, brought their authors more immediate notice; for Austen, in dramatic contrast to modern mores, insisted on being published anonymously.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd