Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice


Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, published in 1948 and in 2003


“Pride and Prejudice” is, as some critics say, perhaps not Jane Austen’s best, but definitely her most popular novel by far. Already in her lifetime it receives extremely positive reviews. The famous Scottish author of historical novels like “Ivanhoe” or “Rob Roy”, Sir Walter Scott, writes in his diary: “Also read again, and for the third time at least, Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of ‘Pride and Prejudice’. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me.”


That the novel turns to the inner life of its characters, their feelings and secret passions, is an invention of the 18th century. Jane Austen’s novels are written in a time that is influenced by the novel of manners as well as by the sentimental novel and yet “sentimental” must not be misunderstood as soppy or tearful. Unlike the epistolary novel, which was still very prominent in the literary scene of the time, Austen employs an omniscient narrator who is able to watch the characters from a distance, ironically comment on their behaviour, and alert the reader to their flaws like vanity, stupidity, or greed. Interestingly enough, the novel was not feminine enough to many Victorians, who found that Austen relied on cool irony too much. 


Perhaps that explains why the novel, even though it is referred to as the “mother of chick lit” and regarded as a women’s only book in the 21st century, was read by an impressive number of important men over the years. Among them other writers like R.L. Stevenson, Alfred Tennyson, W.H. Auden or Vladimir Nabokov, but also politicians. Churchill is said to have read “Pride and Prejudice” whenever he needed a break from all the stress of World War II.


Countless prequels and sequels testify to the enduring popularity of the novel, as well as adaptations on page and on film, Jane Austen societies around the world, theme parties with matching costumes, and all sorts of mugs, t-shirts, or pillowcases with Jane Austen quotes. The BBC mini-series from 1995, for instance, is its most successful period drama of all time. Retellings often tell the story from a different perspective, e.g. that of the servants (“Longbourn”). There is even Jane Austen crime fiction like “The Phantom of Pemberley” or “Murder at Longbourn”. But the most spectacular literary experiment to date comes in the shape of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombie”, a mash-up which parodies romance and horror fiction. The book was so successful that not only a film adaptation but also a prequel to the film has already been made. So you have a novel from 1813, which is crossbred with a zombie story to make a parody, which is then turned into a movie, which, in turn, is successful enough to yield another movie to go the first one. The more than 200 years-old story of “Pride and Prejudice” seems like a virtually infinite gold mine – and not just for Hollywood: A first edition of the novel was recently sold by auction at £ 140.000.


by Teresa Teklić

Signet Sunflower Foundation