The Magazine

Miss Bennet’s Anniversary

How to celebrate the bicentennial of ‘Pride and Prejudice.’

Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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Some years later, she accepted the impulsive proposal of a rich but very young and timid neighbor, a Mr. Bigg-Withers, whom she had known from childhood. There was much rejoicing. But when she thought it over during a sleepless night—she and her sister Cassandra were houseguests of the fiancé’s family—she reneged at dawn and hastily departed. 

This background clearly throws revealing, if debatable, light on Pride and Prejudice and the effort of young women to win those men of means who, according to its famous first sentence, must be (note the “must”) “in want” of wives. And the difficulty is complicated by a social code of stifling reticence and formality that forbade explicit flirtation. Well-bred young women must take their chances at family dinners and assembly dances.

The axis on which the novel turns lies in two passages. The first, citing a “truth universally acknowledged,” may be the most famous opening sentence in novelistic history. The second, and complementary, one follows well into the story, when the characters define themselves and their fates remain uncertain: Marriage is “the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservation from want.” Whether or not the veiled narrator speaks for Jane Austen (the proffered rationale is a justification of Elizabeth’s close friend Charlotte Lucas’s decision, at the late age of 27, to marry the pompous and toadying Collins), the point is the necessity of money or “fortune.”

The era was marked by turbulent public events: the French Revolution and the reactions and wars it spawned, the rise of Napoleon, the supposed “madness” of King George III, and the regency of his frivolous son (who was ultimately, at his own suggestion, the royal dedicatee of Austen’s later novel Emma). That hardly a whisper of this external turbulence intrudes upon the personal drama of Austen’s novels is not the least remarkable of the novel’s qualities. And to think that two of Jane Austen’s brothers rose to high rank in the Royal Navy, and another became a militia captain during the Napoleonic emergency!

We are indebted for the lasting excellence of Pride and Prejudice to a forgotten London publisher to whom Jane’s father sent the first version of the novel (entitled First Impressions) in 1797. He returned the manuscript unread. And while no manuscript survives, that early draft was almost certainly narrated in exchanges of letters, in the manner of her influential model Samuel Richardson. Had the earlier version seen print, it would doubtless have won readers and admirers, for her talent was apparent even in juvenilia. But the near two decades of aging—the vintage wine comparison seems irresistible—was surely crucial to the development of a plain third-person narrative mode and the comic realism of the Pride and Prejudice we celebrate two centuries later. 

As for those “first impressions” of the earlier title, the novel is replete with them, and they are often dead wrong—notably Elizabeth’s of Darcy, who strikes her at first as insufferably arrogant and unprincipled, and of Mr. Wickham, a secret wastrel who seems the soul of sweetness but later abducts her silly younger sister Lydia. Even the precocious have misimpressions to correct. Pride, of the later and better title, can be tolerable, even admirable, if it is based on personal integrity and candor. And prejudice, though by no means in that day an evil, can be hazardous when it encourages false standards of social judgment.

The reticence regarding Jane Austen’s craft on her memorial tablet at Winchester suggests that, in polite society, there was something a bit disreputable in that day about lady storytellers—at least when their creations ventured beyond the family hearth. Austen’s London-banker brother, who was ultimately successful at getting his sister published, offered her novels as the work of an anonymous “lady,” and none of the original published editions included her name. It speaks well of the Regency upper crust, however frivolous they were, that Austen’s anonymity was short-lived.

Sir Walter Scott, no mean judge, spoke for the ages: 

That young lady has a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I have ever met with. The big bow-wow strain I can do myself .  .  . but the exquisite touch which renders .  .  . commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me. 

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