Visitors guided to Jane Austen’s handsome burial marker in Winchester Cathedral, as I was one June day some years ago, may gaze with surprise, as I did, at the elaborate inscription. It pays tribute to “the goodness of her heart . . . [and] the extraordinary endowments of her mind,” but makes no mention of the accomplishments that draw pilgrims to her resting place: that she wrote six immortal tales, among which stands Pride and Prejudice (1813), the masterpiece whose bicentennial we celebrate this year.
Great storytellers use, but transmute, their personal experience. One needn’t look far into Jane Austen’s brief life (she died at 41, of a still-unidentified illness) to guess that the preoccupation of Pride and Prejudice with the threat of poverty and de-pendency to well-born young women was central to her own experience.
Her father and his favorite sister were orphaned at an early age. He won an Oxford scholarship and gained a competence as an Anglican parson and the keeper of a boys’ school. But his maiden sister was shipped off thousands of miles to India, a favored hunting ground of husbands for penniless girls of good family. There she married a Mr. Hancock, who was twice her age; and while their marriage seems to have been amiable, it is thought that her real love was the famous Warren Hastings, ruler of British India, who not only fostered her husband’s fortune, but probably fathered her daughter, Eliza.
Eliza’s friend and first cousin Jane Austen, growing up in a rowdy household with one sister and five brothers (and, in term time, an attic full of schoolboys), would have missed nothing of her father’s dicey background. The anxieties confronting the five maiden Bennet sisters of Pride and Prejudice (including the witty, spirited Elizabeth) are no mystery. However disguised by art, they surely refract Austen’s sense of the forces of destiny; they don’t emerge from a vacuum.
Mr. Bingley, the moneyed young blade in Pride and Prejudice who leases the neighborhood manor of Netherfield, and his friend Mr. Darcy possess fortunes, respectively, of £5,000 and £10,000 a year. The young women who set their eyes on them must rely on beauty, wit, guile, and charm to surmount the handicap of (relative) poverty. (The Bennets are hardly beggars, and live on a scale that most readers would not consider straitened: Their father is a leisured country gentleman who is served by butler, cook, and housemaids and keeps his own carriage, a mark of substance in the Jane Austen universe.)
Mrs. Bennet, the antiheroine of the tale, is easy to censure. She is giddy and gauche and given to fits of hysteria; her social ineptitude nearly wrecks her daughters’ matrimonial chances. Mr. Bennet is a bit remote and given to amusing cynicism. He seeks refuge from his silly wife and sillier younger daughters in his library, and seems to care only for the brilliant Elizabeth, clearly his soulmate and favorite, and the amiable family beauty, Jane, his eldest daughter.
Yet another complication is that Longbourn, the family estate, is “entailed” away from female inheritance, much like Downton Abbey in the popular BBC/PBS drama. In the absence of a male heir, Longbourn is destined, when Mr. Bennet dies, to pass to their oily cousin William Collins, an upstart clergyman and obsequious protégé of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Collins is painted with a broad brush. In the fine BBC dramatization starring Colin Firth as Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth, Collins’s absurd pomposity (enacted with panache by David Bamber) nearly steals the show.
In the upper reaches of the country gentry of the Regency period, with whom Jane Austen was most familiar, money had to be accessible in one or both of two forms: heritable “portions” or dowries. The extent to which Pride and Prejudice projects the personal anxieties of Jane Austen’s own marriageable years is hard to gauge—as are the personal influences that furnish the sensibility of any great artist. But we may speculate: Historical circumstance is back in style in literary criticism these days, after a long absence.
Jane Austen never married, but she enjoyed her innings of male gallantry. She frolicked delightedly one evening with a young Irish visitor—a connection of the neighboring Lefroy family—who was in England to study law. This may have been her closest approach to being deeply smitten. But young Lefroy did not propose, and couldn’t have afforded a wife if he had. He eventually became chief justice of Ireland and the father of more than a dozen children. Jane’s marriage to him would have been a gain for Ireland but a tragic loss to English letters.