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.
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.
It was not denied to Jane Austen. Sir Walter’s generosity and perception were too rare in her time, and some contemporary readers refused to believe that so brilliant a tale could have been written by a lady, young or old. We know better now, after two centuries of praise and pleasure.
Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure.