Jane Austen: “Pride and Prejudice”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

For my mother, Bonnie Burrows, in honor of her birthday

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

There are few opening lines to novels as famous as this one.

The novel in question is, of course, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Published in 1813, the novel spins out from this opening line. Indeed, Pride and Prejudice is a classic – maybe the classic – example of a “marriage plot” novel. This type of novel drives forward to marriage, a wedding (or two!) by novel’s end. It will seem in a marriage plot novel (or marriage plot film) that the star-crossed lovers will never find, meet, and/or reconcile with each other – but inevitably they do, and by definition, they marry. (For a thoughtful take on the marriage plot, see Adelle Waldman’s New Yorker article, “Why the Marriage Plot Need Never Get Old.”)

While Austen didn’t invent the marriage plot, she is perhaps the greatest creator of novels in this genre. The fun of Jane Austen is in seeing the challenges she subjects her characters to, what twists and turns they’ll confront as they make their way to the altar. In this case, will Elizabeth marry Collins, or will she fall for that haughty, opinionated Darcy? And if you cast your vote for Darcy, how on earth will Austen ever get these two headstrong characters together at the same time?

Though Austen’s novels were first published anonymously and though they did not bring her fame in her lifetime, she is practically a cottage industry now. More than a cottage industry – more like an industry giant. She is an institution, and a money-making one at that. One of the most beloved novels in the English language, Pride and Prejudice has sold over 20 million copies, and Austen’s five other major novels are still read and enjoyed by many as well.

There have been too many film and television adaptations to count (though Colin Firth’s portrayal of Darcy is so good that we may as well stop, don’t you think?). There have been inventive rewrites, such as Helen Fielding’s 1996 novel, Bridget Jones’s Diary (my favorite of the modern takes on Pride and Prejudice), and even the 2009 parody, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

What are your favorite scenes from Pride and Prejudice? What moments stand out to you? Of course, the scene where Elizabeth reads Darcy’s letter is at the heart of the novel, as Elizabeth realizes she must confront both her pride and her prejudice. Below, I read one of my other favorite moments, this one near the novel’s opening as Elizabeth races across fields that are wet and dirty after a downpour, determined to tend to her ailing sister. It is the perfect introduction to this delightfully spirited heroine. She’s been with us for over two hundred years, but she still leaps off the page and seems every bit as bold, new, and fresh as she must have seemed when Austen created her.

Ready to meet or reacquaint yourself with Elizabeth Bennet? You can read the novel for free online – but of course, this is one book you’ll just want to curl up with in hard copy with a cup of tea at your side. If you need help keeping track of the novel’s many characters and their intricate relationships with each other, you might consult a diagram of their relationships or a family tree.

If you want to delve a little deeper into all things Austen, visit Jane Austen’s House Museum, which bills itself as the “heart of Hampshire,” or the Jane Austen Centre in Bath. And if you’re really a devoted fan, you might want to travel to Bath for the annual ten-day Jane Austen Festival held each September. The festival features Regency reenactors, “theatre, music, food, a ball, workshops, readings, dances and the famous Regency Promenade.” You’ll also find Austen resources at the Jane Austen Society of North America and the Jane Austen Society of the United Kingdom.

Listen:Listen as I read Chapter Seven from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Here Elizabeth Bennet comes fully to life with “weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.”


Image Credit: Portrait of Jane Austen, public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jane_Austen_coloured_version.jpg.