The two hundredth anniversary of my favorite book was celebrated a couple of days ago. I re-read it at least once a year and then I get into the various spin-offs, the best of which are by Pamela Aiden and P.D. James. I haven’t read any of the zombie ones and don’t intend to read them. I will then watch Colin Firth go swimming.
In his happy birthday post for the New Yorker, William Deresiewicz wrote
Two hundred years. But there seemed little chance, two hundred years ago, that many people would remember either the novel or its author by now. The draft that she produced at twenty-one was rejected by a London publisher sight unseen. Other disappointments followed, and after a series of personal upheavals, she gave up writing altogether. But circumstances stabilized and hope returned, and by the time of her death, just four years after “Pride and Prejudice” came out (four years during which she finished “Mansfield Park,” and wrote “Emma” and “Persuasion” from scratch), her brother was willing to venture the claim that her novels were fit to be placed “on the same shelf as the works of a D’Arblay and an Edgeworth.”
How she got from there to here is a long story. The public soon forgot her, but her memory was kept alive, like Bach’s, among the cognoscenti. George Eliot reread all six of her novels aloud with her lover George Henry Lewes before setting sail on “Middlemarch.” Mark Twain and Charlotte Brontë hated her; Rudyard Kipling adored her; Henry James learned more from her than he was ever willing to admit. Virginia Woolf installed her at the head of the canon of English women novelists (“the most perfect artist among women, the writer whose books are immortal”). F. R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling certified her academic prestige. Then came the movies, and feminist criticism, and more movies, and Colin Firth, and the fan fiction, and now the ever-growing, ever-changing multi-platform media phenomenon and global icon.
One can re-read Pride and Prejudice again and again even knowing the story by heart. You want to tell Elizabeth to beware of Wickham and Jane not to worry Mr. Bingley will come though in the end. And Mrs. Bennet will always be insufferable. Back when I was teaching workshops on sexual harassment, I would name my scenario characters after those in Pride and Prejudice and once or twice one of the women would catch on.
Here are Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle as Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. Elinor Lipman watched all the film versions for us and the Huffington Post. “I announce that the head-and-shoulders winner of Best Mr. Darcy is Colin Firth (1995 Masterpiece Theatre, 300 minutes.)” I agree. But back to Mr. Deresiewicz
So why do we love the novel so much? Because while Austen sacrifices Elizabeth’s feelings, she lavishly indulges ours. Austen’s heroes usually aren’t the wealthiest men around, or the handsomest. In many of her novels, there is something troubling about the way that things work out. But not in “Pride and Prejudice.” Here she gives us everything we want: the wittiest lines, the silliest fools, the most lovable heroine, the handsomest estate. And a hero who is not only tall and good-looking, but the richest and most wellborn man in sight.
He’s also kind of an asshole, which makes it even better. Do women love assholes, the way that everybody says? Well, if the novel’s epic popularity is any proof, they seem to love to win them over, anyway. “Tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me”—Darcy’s famous insult, the first time he and Lizzy meet. That’s the real story, underneath the one about Wickham and Bingley and Jane, the misperceptions and coincidences. Darcy wounds Elizabeth’s sexual pride, and her victory comes—and with it, ours—when he’s made to recant and repent. Wish fulfillment doesn’t get much wishier than that. Austen tells us that our feelings aren’t necessarily right, but boy does she ever make the lesson feel good.
May Pride and Prejudice be read for another two hundred years. (And if you haven’t read the book, but just seen one of the movies, please read it – you don’t know what you are missing.) Time to start my annual reading!
- Happy Two-Hundredth Birthday, “Pride and Prejudice” (newyorker.com)
- Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: Darcy is still the ultimate sex symbol (telegraph.co.uk)
- Pride and Prejudice at 200: the best Jane Austen small-screen adaptations (guardian.co.uk)
- Pride and Prejudice at 200: looking afresh at Austen’s classic (guardian.co.uk)