14 reasons for celebrating 200 years of Pride and Prejudice (1813)

Here are fourteen reasons for the celebration of this work of genius, beginning with seven celebrating what Pride and Prejudice might be said to have gained from its own historical moment, before moving to the 'feel good factor' of our times. A Valentine's card, originally published on February 14, 2014.

Rosemary Bechler
14 February 2015

Last year I thought we should celebrate 200 years of Pride and Prejudice on St.Valentine’s Day. Alas, other priorities took over and my chance to contribute was lost. But I had an idea.

Surely you couldn’t fully celebrate the novel’s extraordinary longevity without what might be called a ‘double translation’, not so much in language, though it is that as well, but in time?

A celebration that leaves out a return to 1813 to see what riches were available to a novelist in her prime, and quite why they worked so well for her and her readers, could only possibly be half a celebration. Shouldn’t we try to gather some clues as to how something so nearly perfect – hardly a word could be other than it is without ruining its dazzling symmetry - should suddenly have sprung from the very uneven terrain of the sentimental and Gothic novels of preceding decades, and above all, the eighteenth century novel of manners.

Title page from the first edition of the first volume of Pride and Prejudice, 1813.

Title page from the first edition of the first volume of Pride and Prejudice, 1813. Lilly Library, Indiana University/Public domain.

The ingredients Austen had to work with in the Samuel Richardson-Fanny Burney tradition were tantalising enough, including tropes that were somewhat hackneyed by her day. But the alchemy that now took place in her treatment of this palimpsest of earlier literary moments was to launch them into – well, what?

I think one could say, into modernity – that completely different stratosphere to which we still belong. I’d argue that it was Jane’s simultaneous invention of psychological and social realism for the novel - a little layer cake of personal and societal self-reflection - which has helped her to last and indeed outlast successive generations of her readers and would-be emulators until today.

At which point of course, we could embark on an even more ambitious translation through time and consider this masterpiece from the other direction. How could a book so firmly rooted in the eighteenth century novel of manners persist in offering us a meditation on virtue and pleasure, social duty and individual romance whose wisdoms have made successive generations so very happy - no other word will do - for two hundred years?

That was as far as I had got when events shoved the project aside. And now, having apologised for being one year late, I would like to finish the job, even if I can’t get beyond some rapid notes. Still, it is February 14, 2014, and so I think at the very least what I could do is to offer seven reasons for celebration going in each direction, beginning with what Pride and Prejudice might be said to have gained from its own historical moment:


"Lizzy, my dear, I want to speak to you" - Mrs. Bennet trying to get Mr. Bingley and Jane alone. London: George Allen, 1894.

1. Mrs.Bennet (and by definition her creator) are only the first of millions who have thrilled to the infinite promise of the novel’s first sentence: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. But this is the promise at the heart not only of the novel of manners, a genre dedicated to securing the safe transit of ‘A YOUNG LADY’S ENTRANCE INTO THE WORLD’, but also of the popular conduct- or courtesy-book for women that coincided with its rise. The whole of this literature has been said to deal with the self-definition of an emerging class: ‘the rising middle classes at their entrance to the drawing rooms’. This is the promise implicit in the opening words to all these texts: a silent contract, drawn up between writer, reader and heroine that between us, and if we have anything to do with it, the truly ‘Accomplished’ woman will be delivered safely to her destination, worthy of her happy ending.

2. What should interest us in such a long bygone literary enterprise? Well lots, since social mobility is always a challenge. Especially in these log-jammed times. But one particularly interesting feature is the peculiar way that this literature straddles fiction and reality. At the time, this took its most familiar form in a deluge of complaint against the distorting impact of even the most shining examples of the genre on the youth of the day. Here is the Critical Review on Fanny Burney’s Evelina (1778):

“The title of Sir Charles Grandison, the fortune of Miss Byron, are the least with which our young novel readers are determined to sit down satisfied. What is the consequence? Their fates have perhaps destined them to be a petty attorney or a silversmith’s daughter, a grocer’s son or a clergyman’s heiress; fortune positively refuses to realize any of their romantic dreams; and a quarter of an hour’s perusal of an unnatural novel has embittered all their lives.
We have heard of an advertisement for a house with a N.B. that it must not be within a mile of a lord: we wish, to see one novel in which there is no lord.

The eighteenth century conduct-book was packed full of such warnings to aspiring parents and authors and not only them. Turn over a few more of these pages and you will soon find that this is not just a very early version of tutting at the superficial unreality of the temptations dangled over the heads of the vast multitude of contemporary youngsters by celebrity culture and the X-factor. Something rather more fundamental was then at stake. For these authors were locked in a battle with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an Enlightenment battle over the perfectability of man. And what particularly exercised them was that it could prove fatal to the entire enterprise, the promise of an era, if there was any whiff of an underestimation of the need to control the passions, due to the inherent corruption of man.

From Fenelon to Fordyce, these authors were up for a happy ending, but only on condition that our heroine was truly worthy, otherwise she would be letting down an entire class, exposing them as mired in hubris and original sin for all to see.

So along these lines, another prevailing confusion between fiction and reality occurred at the time which looks distinctly odd in retrospect, but which at the very least afforded a certain degree of gravitas to the novel of manners project. Listen to the Reverend James Fordyce, famous writer of sermons, and a model for Austen’s figure of Mr.Collins, on the popular subject of orphaned or unattached young women:

“I have often thought that, in some respects, there is not any creature so forlorn or so exposed, as a young woman, beautiful, inexperienced, single, almost wholly friendless, left in dependence, perhaps in an indigence of which some wretch curst with wealth is willing to avail himself for the vilest ends.”

As he warms to his theme, Fordyce’s projected audience appears to consist largely of Richardsonian heroines, particularly Clarissas:

“Even now, I doubt not, some of you perceive that all beside is uncertain and unsatisfactory. Your father and mother have forsaken you by death; or, which is far worse, by unnatural cruelty, or horrible selfishness. You have not perhaps in the world a friend to supply their place: … There is but one immutable friend….”

It was in this rich terrain where fiction tests itself and us, in the very tension between a reality principle and a wish-fulfilment at least as essential to that reality, that Jane Austen chose to ply her craft.


C. E. Brock illustration for the 1895 edition of Pride and Prejudice (Chapter 6).

3. This mattered both to men and to women readers. An aspiring heroine like Elizabeth Bennet is a literary symbol, spelling out the prospects for the earthly fulfilment of the individual will. She, or rather her destiny, really does ‘universally’ matter. So it’s rather pleasing that after many decades of being treated as girly fiction, this Xmas it was possible again to imagine mixed audiences sitting down to Death comes to Pemberley even if the females in the room inevitably experienced a certain frisson of proprietorship.

Of course, two centuries ago as well, there was a particularly intimate relationship between women writers and the all-important aspiring heroine, as you might expect of a period that invented novelistic suspense and the sympathetic identification with the internal journey of its leading characters which was its delivery mechanism.

Indeed as a result, Fordyce cheerfully warned that the "general run of Novels" endowed the female reader with the soul of “a prostitute, let her reputation in life be what it will.” So it is hardly surprising that Fanny Burney suffered agonies of apprehension when she published her first novel about Evelina’s ‘entrance into the world’.

Her sense of exposure when her identity as author is uncovered is directly comparable to that of her heroine:

”I have an exceeding odd sensation, when I consider that… a work which was so lately lodged, in all privacy in my bureau, may now be seen by every butcher and baker, cobbler and tinker, through the three Kingdoms, for the small tribute of three pence… I would a thousand times rather forfeit my character as a writer than risk ridicule or censure, as a female… I had always dreaded as a real evil my name’s getting into print… So now the murder’s out!”

But apart from the obvious fact that men such as Francois Fenelon and Samuel Richardson were founding fathers of these genres, it is important to register the all-human anxiety embodied in symbolic identification with the heroine and her search for a good name. In Fordyce’s Sermons as in the novel of manners, feminine chastity is the testing-ground for all virtue, so that the Reverend Villars tells Evelina, ‘nothing is so delicate as the reputation of a woman: it is at once, the most beautiful and most brittle of all human things.’

Now, of course, this is not only a matter of celebration. There is a dark side to any culture where the whole of morality is being fought out over the terrain of a woman’s body, as we can see only too clearly in so many places in the world today. Indeed a proper appreciation of the collective fantasy undertow in Pride and Prejudice should remind many of us that our own cultures were steeped in the same tradition not so long ago and are not free to this day of the grip of this useful tyranny. But equally, this might help us glimpse the import of a Bollywood comedy, Bride and Prejudice, hitting our screens in 2004, its particularly unapologetic Elizabeth (Aishwarya Rai as Lalita Bakshi) boasting the memorable line, ‘Anyone who’s got big bucks is shopping for a wife.’

C. E. Brock illustration for the 1895 edition of Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice (Chapter 31).

C. E. Brock's illustration for the 1895 edition of Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice (Chapter 31).

4. So what exactly did Jane Austen bring to this tradition? Look at one of her favourite novels, Fanny Burney’s Evelina – and you will find a standard formula, a structure lurking barely under the surface. As in Fordyce’s Sermons, two contrasting fates await our heroine, ‘Honourable love!’ and, ‘that false and vicious gallantry, which gains ground amongst us every day to the disgrace of our country’, presided over by the rake or the Gothic villain. The heroine has to be rescued by the patrician or the Gothic hero from the latter tragic world of original sin, overweening desire and necessity, into a comedic world of light and love where virtue and pleasure are one, and anything possible. She falls ill in recognition of the force of the first world, but learns her lesson and recovers, an enlightenment which simultaneously chastens and endorses the aspiring will, cleansing the heroine of all previous follies and discovering her for the true heroine she has always been.

From references to waiting girls in taverns and a lot of toing and froing to France, we soon gather that Evelina comes from a dubious background. To denote her illegitimacy and orphanhood until she discovers her true surname, she is given the nomenclature, Evelina Anville, evoking Adam&Eve. Two markedly contrasting destinies await her. Luckily, in what this name shares with that of her faithful and wise guardian, the Rev. Mr. Villars, there is a good portent of merits and rewards to come, and indeed she is ultimately bestowed upon one Lord Orville, who translates all of the reverend’s admirable qualities into a secular happy ending in this world.

The major barriers to this are her vulgar relations and the encroachments of the rake, Sir Clement Willoughby, who for all his admiration, ultimately sees Evelina as "a girl of obscure birth, whose only dowry is her beauty", problems which start the minute the heroine grows eager to visit London.

Evelina receives her considerable education in the ways of the world chiefly at the hands of a great spectrum of men. One crisis in Vauxhall Gardens (symbol of the dangers of social fluidity) finds her almost at the mercy of the duplicitous rake; another, the object of that fatal trap for the unwary, the clandestine address. By contrast, when Lord Orville encounters Evelina at a firework display, separated from her party and pinned between the arms of two prostitutes, it is only with the briefest demur, ‘surprise and concern’ that he offers her his protection and returns her to her friends. Indeed, the hero’s greatest virtue is his capacity to detect the heroine (free-floating orphan on a sea of possible identities) for what she truly is against all the odds. Here is Evelina’s happy ending:

“ We have had, this afternoon, a most interesting conversation, in which we have traced our sentiments of each other from our first acquaintance… when I expressed my amazement that he could honour with his choice a girl who seemed so infinitely, in every respect, beneath his alliance, he frankly owned, that he had fully intended making more minute enquiries into my family and connections, and particularly concerning those people he saw me with at Marybone,… but… the uncertainty of seeing me again, put him quite off his guard, and divesting him of prudence, left him nothing but love…."

How delicious that casting off of caution to the four winds must have seemed to the readers of this very cautionary tale! But Pride and Prejudice fans will immediately recognise the moment in Chapter LX, as Jane Austen rewrites it, when the hero and heroine take a leisurely walk throughout the novel as they might round Pemberley, discussing their own imprudence in a similarly triumphant progress:

“To be sure you know no actual good of me – but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love.”

Was there no good in your affectionate behaviour to Jane, while she was ill at Netherfield?”

“Dearest Jane! Who could have done less for her? But make a virtue of it by all means. My good qualities are under your protection, and you are to exaggerate them as much as possible…”

So much of this is the standard formula. Once again, the patrician hero has recognised the heroine’s worth despite all appearances to the contrary; and by the way, do notice the neat transfer to sister Jane of the rites of passage involved in the requirement that heroines fall ill – a trope so central to this formula that Elizabeth can only be congratulated for immediately recognising how novelistically grave her sister’s condition might turn out to be.

And yet everything is different. Above all, we sense nothing superficial in the wish-fulfilment imperative because the heroine is now so self-aware. Here everything confirms that her education is complete. And Elizabeth’s consciousness of the function of gratification in any happy ending worthy of the name, comments irresistibly on the dubious corresponding effect in Evelina.

5. Jane Austen loved these novels, (Sir Charles Grandison and Evelina were two of her favourites). In particular, what she loved was the elaborate defence and ultimate reward of female optimism, ambition and desire. This was a genre, after all, gaining in self-love and confidence in literal leaps and bounds. Think only of the difference between Richardson’s Harriet Byron who has to be ‘over-persuaded’ to go to London and Evelina, or Catherine Morland positively desperate to investigate her Gothic castle in Northanger Abbey, or Elizabeth, unescorted and unasked, who sets out ‘with impatient activity’ across the fields to Netherfield, acquiring mud on her petticoats and the ‘brightened eyes’ which first draw the attention of Darcy. Jane’s heroines are active on their own behalf and can think for themselves… and there was the rub!

Just like her peerless heroine, Elizabeth, (though not at all like her other delightful heroine, Catherine) - Jane Austen loved these novels, but saw right through them. In particular she saw the sleight of hand or conjuring trick by which an Evelina was not so much engaged in a process of self-discovery as she was consecutively discovered by two contradictory, essentialist, ethical idealist world views, one which damns her for her false hubris and overweening desire, and the other which at the last minute reprieves her, while the girl herself hardly changes at all.

Two things simply would not do. The sermonising, conduct-book anxiety visited on the heroine by the world of original sin would not do: that same ‘vile.. oozy… hypocritical.. praise-mad, canting, envious, concupiscent’ anxiety that Coleridge was to attribute to Samuel Richardson, and that is immortally embodied by Austen in the ultimately ridiculous Mr.Collins.

But neither would the special dispensation that meets the heroine more than half way do - “To be sure you know no actual good of me…”. Here all too often in letting our heroine off the hook, a flawed wish-fulfilment undermined a truly satisfactory happy ending. And that wouldn’t do at all.

So what was to be done? What Jane Austen did in her prime as a writer, with a glee inseparable from her marvellously precise satire, was to replace the older novelistic discourse with a more complete, alternative explanation, using the emerging tools of psychological and social realism. In particular, the radical split between subject and object which psychological realism implies is engaged to cut through the middle of the two older world views where the heroine is trapped in mutual definition with her male nemeses, granting her newly-independent characters on both sides the existential freedom to unravel the resulting contradiction between themselves.

6. The result, not least for the novel form, is astonishing. You can see this at work in miniature in this delectable description of the effect on Catherine Morland of her first meeting with Henry:

“ Whether she thought of him so much, while she drank her warm wine and water, and prepared herself for bed, as to dream of him while there, cannot be ascertained; but I hope it was no more than in a slight slumber, or a morning doze, at most; for if it be true, as a celebrated writer has maintained, that no young lady can be justified in falling in love before the gentleman’s love is declared, it must be very improper that a young lady should dream of a gentleman before the gentleman is first known to have dreamt of her.”

The writer in question is Samuel Richardson, whose comment appeared in The Rambler (1751). And the joke is on him, in Austen’s pitch perfect shift from loving to dreaming which hints at the intimate relationship of both to desire, nods at the heroine’s lack of conscious control over either, while wryly waving away his mawkish concerns about unreciprocated, unleashed female desire.

But this is a celebration of Pride and Prejudice, so let’s return to the matter in hand. I think we must say that Pride and Prejudice constitutes the least defensive moment in her career, when the critical insights of Austen’s method are released in all their fecundity, protected by a genuine optimism. Here, the new method yields a veritable riot of exposure, not least of Richardsonian literary tropes.

Austen replaces the array of gentlemen whom Evelina encounters with a very different enlightenment structure: namely Team Darcy versus Team Elizabeth Bennet, each team containing a similar range of gradations between those capable of change and those least capable. Then with her marvellously precise satire, she proceeds to allot each insufficiency or excess detected in her predecessors’ novels to a team member on one side or the other. No character remains untouched in this process of discrimination and revision.

Some small examples: Clarissa’s forced flight from her family with a rake goes to the eager Lydia, carrying with it its Richardsonian warning; Miss Bingley doting on Darcy’s handwriting comments mercilessly on the underlying impulse to adore one’s social superiors which makes so much of Charles Grandison difficult to stomach; while the runaway tongue of Mrs.Bennet on the rampage demolishes in one hilarious blow the emphasis on condescension and lack of reserve in the same tradition: ”What an agreeable man Sir William is, Mr.Bingley – is not he? So much the man of fashion! So genteel and so easy! – He has always something to say to everybody. - That is my idea of good breeding; and those persons who fancy themselves very important, and never open their mouths, quite mistake the matter."

But on the larger scale too in this rich conflict between inherited rank and personal achievement, you may notice that there are very few situations which are not profoundly double-edged. This is particularly the case in her treatment of hero and heroine. Perhaps the most ground-breaking advance that Austen makes in this novel, situating herself squarely in the area of the conflict between wish-fulfilment and reality, is to provide herself with a hero who will genuinely challenge and chasten her heroine’s aspirations, while being rather genuinely challenged and chastened himself.

Darcy, who begins by villainously insulting the heroine and ends by being her hero and lover, merges the roles of villain and hero, while fellow team-member, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, represents the most extreme version of that aspect of Darcy’s character which is culpable; his excess of pride.

Thus Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth draws both on Harriet Byron’s refusal of her near-nemesis, Sir Hargrave Pollexfen, and Mr.B’s reluctant avowal of love to Pamela, while aspects of Lady Davers’ treatment of Pamela are weeded out and transferred in Pride and Prejudice to Elizabeth’s visit from Lady Catherine de Bourgh. The satisfaction to be derived from the decisive victory of the ‘low’ heroine over the arrogant aristocrat is thus preserved, but carefully allotted to a more appropriate target. In cutting off his connection with Lady Catherine, Darcy rejects that part of his nature. And for our part, we too have learned to discriminate, and to say with Elizabeth by the end of the novel, ‘Indeed he has no improper pride.’ Meanwhile, in the best traditional manner, Darcy the lover is to be treasured for his ability to recognise the heroine’s worth despite appearances, and indeed, in Pride and Prejudice, every encouragement to the contrary.

So what of our heroine? The passive heroine of yore is not expunged but somewhat retired in sister Jane, while hero and unblushingly active heroine are set the task of achieving a new settlement between them. So the ballroom scene that begins her mortifications rewrites similar scenes in Evelina. The difference in Jane Austen’s treatment consists of a certain measure of class-pride in her contempt for Evelina’s desire to impress a ‘nobleman’. But again the treatment is double-edged, and Jane Austen rescues her heroine from a humiliating class betrayal quite as much as she raises her above it. Elizabeth’s fear of being thought to admire Darcy, ‘Indeed Sir, I have not the least intention of dancing. – I entreat you not to suppose that I moved this way in order to beg for a partner’, is more than justified by Darcy’s wholly premature assumption that he is irresistible, ‘He wisely resolved to be particularly careful that no sign of admiration should now escape him, nothing that could elevate her with the hope of influencing his felicity.’ But we gradually learn that Elizabeth is nevertheless caught in a muddle between a dread of Darcy’s disapproval of her family and a denial of his right to judge. As a result, as she later acknowledges, she wishes to think ill of him.

This aspiring heroine does not change with a new suit of clothes, but by working through a complex set of problems which cast a much more searching gaze on the effect of ‘inferior connections’ upon her character and aspirations. Elizabeth’s lively wit, a sense of humour she shares with both her creator and her father can be a form of reconciliation to things being less than noble. It is counterposed to Darcy’s gravity, which is at once an arrogant over-censoriousness and a genuine societal effectivity in the timely intervention he makes which saves the day. If Lady Catherine de Bourgh dramatizes Darcy’s excess of pride in extremis, the unpleasant truth is that the philosophical but ineffective Mr.Bennet, and that glorious combination of defensiveness with total lack of humility, his wife, rather do the same for our heroine.

7. When Jane Austen frees up her characters to make their own mistakes and win their own rewards in their quest for a happy ending, we enter the realm of modernity. Viewed in retrospect, previous heroines and heroes of the genre appear as ciphers waiting to be wound up and set in motion. For in the world of Pride and Prejudice, people have to teach each other how to become the best lovers, and it is their mutual vulnerability to change and to each other that constitutes their strength. This insight, please note, is one that Mills and Boon continue to exploit to pleasure millions of women to this day, albeit in the Grub street of the genre.

Think only how far we have come from Richardson’s Clarissa, the longest novel in the English language, an epistolary novel in which Lovelace and Clarissa scarcely exchange more than a couple of letters. In Pride and Prejudice, together with interior monologue, the personal meditation of crisis, it is dialogue, especially between hero and heroine – another glorious technical innovation here – that is the main form of the novel’s action. The niceness of Jane Austen’s discrimination shapes the language of self-awareness that Darcy and Elizabeth can be supposed to share and to celebrate by the delicious end of the novel, where virtue and pleasure meet, and all is transformed into light, love and infinite possibility.

The title dares us to divide its terms between her two protagonists, only for the novelist to proliferate the nuances in both and scatter them liberally around the entire cast. Truth emerges between people in community, not from some higher authority. No magic tricks here: but the lovers’ achievement and theirs alone, within a world still full of error that remains to be ordered by their individual and combined talents.

Contrast this with Richardson’s aspiring heroine and the horizontal and vertical axes of Pamela’s triumph, ‘in the happiest place I was ever blest with, between two of the dearest men in the world to me, each holding one of my hands’, her eyes cast heavenwards.

In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen plunges us into a fallen time that is also an open-ended history, a world to be remade if at all, in our own image.

Yet for all its modernity and this-worldliness, a perfect moment of romantic equilibrium between mutual deserving and mutual pleasure has again been sought and very nearly achieved by the novel’s characters. Hope, in this simultaneous equation of a novel, is nearly unalloyed. No wonder that we return again, and again, to its promise.


"I have not an instant to lose" - Elizabeth, having just discovered that Lydia eloped with Wickham, dismisses Darcy. London: George Allen, 1894, page 339.

So, now we come to our second set of reasons for celebration: the legacy of the novel, and how it has lasted for at least two hundred years. But what exactly is it that has lasted?

Advertisement on London bus for the film Pride and Prejudice, featuring Kiera Knightley

London bus carrying advertising for Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightley. Wikimedia/Arne Koehler. Some rights reserved.

1. Take 1995, the year in which the BBC screened its latest TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, alongside Roger Michell’s excellent adaptation of Austen’s Persuasion which featured on 20 US film critics’ top ten lists, with Time magazine and the New York Post both placing it at number one, while in the cinema, Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility netted £50 million in box office receipts. In January 1996, 11 million households in the US watched Pride and Prejudice, and an LA agent was rumoured to have barked, "Let’s get this Jane Austen woman on the phone.” Penguin, having sold 148,000 copies of the novel with Firth and Ehle on the cover were ‘absolutely astonished’ to sell a further 112,000 copies of their account of the making of the series. Literary critics were beginning to notice, with Barbara Everett in her Hilda Hulme Memoral Lecture speculating, “We appear to be in the middle of a second Janeite movement.”

At the time, romantic novels were raising £70 million a year in the UK, more than half from Mills and Boon, who had 4 million regular British readers and were selling one book every two seconds. Terry Eagleton, shaking his head over this ‘diseased impulse to transcendence’ had to concede the ‘depressing truth’ that modern romantic fiction ‘in however monstrously debased a form’, did ‘express an implicit dissatisfaction with current social conditions’.

Nor in its many different forms, has there been much let-up since, with Wright’s Pride and Prejudice in 2005 another ‘commercial success’, grossing $121 million. So maybe this is a question we have to take seriously?

2. The FT had a serious stab at explaining the second Janeite movement to its readers:

“ Romantic fiction allows the female imagination, with its emphasis on feelings, to triumph as it never does in life – the strong worldly hero at last admits the supremacy of the private, emotional sphere, and is brought to his knees by love.”

One has to ask whether anything at all has been learnt since the late eighteenth century critique of Evelina with which we began. In fact, you could say we have regressed. At least the Critical Review’s attack on wish-fulfilment took the effect seriously. With so many people around the world really wishing it were all true, doesn’t romance in general, high or lowbrow, deserve a little more respect from the hooray Henrys than this pat on the head for the fantasising little dears?

On this matter, as in so many others, Jane Austen has long ago formulated a killer riposte, and given it to a heroine. Here is Catherine Morland, just about to be humiliatingly reprimanded for confusing fiction with reality, nevertheless defending her preference for romantic novels over history:

“I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all – it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.”

Luckily, her Henry Tilney is wise enough to confess to having enjoyed ‘hundreds and hundreds’ of novels. Because we have to admit - don’t we ? - that at the most subversive level of this fiction, she has a point - not about fiction at all, but about a reality that should be different.

Isn’t it interesting, the underlying warning that these nay-sayers have in common across the ages, designed to shore up the TINA effect: “Don’t imagine for one moment that you can escape your destiny as a petty attorney,” “Let’s face it, such feelings never triumph in real life.”

But if there is one central lesson of Jane Austen’s romance, one that her readers rejoice in to this day – perhaps more today than ever before (since what is the era of Slumdog Millionaire if not ‘the rise of all the rest’?) – it is a warning nay-sayers should take on board in all its roaring historical inexorability, that in the larger scheme of things no-one can really hope to stop ‘social rise’ in its tracks.

Again, Austen’s formulation has something delicious about it: “But when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of forty surrounding families cannot prevent her. Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way” - all the more so because in this novel as in Pride and Prejudice, ‘something’ does.

C. E. Brock illustration for the 1895 edition of Pride and Prejudice (Chapter 6).

C. E. Brock illustration for the 1895 edition of Pride and Prejudice (Chapter 6). Some rights reserved.

3. However, as we have seen, quite the reverse of ‘escapism’ is what Jane brought to the novel form. On one score, she would have wholeheartedly applauded the Samuel Richardson who said, “Now Madam, if that passion is not little and selfish that makes two vehement souls prefer the gratification of each other, often to a sense of duty, and always to the whole world without them, be pleased to tell me what is…”

True, no romance coming after Pride and Prejudice was ever quite so hopeful again, either in the author’s own work or those works which were modelled on hers and in some way or other strive to repeat the effect. The reason for this troubled future is to be found lurking in embryo in this very novel - a direct result of her unflinching commitment to giving wish-fulfilment substance and placing her faith in social change.

It is a tiny, telling flaw in the perfect symmetry which is a clear harbinger of stormy weather ahead. This is Elizabeth’s shocked disapproval at her friend’s marriage, no love match, to the Reverend Mr.Collins. There is something foreshortened and inadequate here. Charlotte Lucas’ position is unambiguously one of social and economic necessity, and it seems that in this case, necessity cannot be worked through like all the other terms of the novel which are so generously reframed. Elizabeth simply puts it behind her and so do we: we are in denial.

But Jane Austen, great writer that she was, was never capable of leaving a loose end unexamined for long. Throughout her later writing career we can trace in her ‘realistic’ assessment of her heroines’ chances, a sapping of her confidence in the possibility of reconciling the individual quest for fulfilment with society. This is clearest in the fragment, The Watsons, where Emma’s attempts to cling to the ‘promise’ of romance and avoid Charlotte’s fate, ‘I would rather be a teacher at a school (and I can think of nothing worse) than marry a man I did not like’, are swiftly ambushed by her sister’s reply, as it happens, another Elizabeth:

“I would rather do anything than be a teacher at a school… I should not like marrying a disagreeable man any more than yourself, - but I do not think there are very many disagreeable men; …”

Already, Jane Austen’s disillusionment is paving the way for the recurrent theme of most of the major novelists of the nineteenth century, the struggle between the claims of the rebellious ego and those of the world. Here almost fully formed are the terms to be worked on and worked out in the next reiteration of romance, by all those governess heroines of the Brontës, who may have despised the scale of her novels, but who nevertheless worked assiduously on her problems.

True, no romance after Pride and Prejudice was quite so hopeful again. Exactly this may well explain why generations of writers have made such frequent returns to that shrine to reinvigorate themselves with its hopes and joys.

4. After Pride and Prejudice, really great, unblinking, romantic literature in Austen herself, Scott, the Brontës, Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, not to venture further afield than the English novel, has a whole world outside the lovers to order, and so often ends in tragedy. The very greatest works that came after, modelled on Austen’s novel of social rise - Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles, Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman – are very great tragedies indeed. They are all unimagineable without Pride and Prejudice, in the sense that there is no tragedy without hope, and it was Jane Austen who lit that beacon.

Meanwhile, the legion of Jane Austen fans are particularly loyal to the near tragedies of the genre with which (mostly very happily) they have had to make do, to Jane Eyre, or Daphne du Maurier/Hitchcock’s Rebecca. (My favourite of these is Dickens’ treatment of Lizzie Hexam and her rake, Eugene Wrayburn, in Our Mutual Friend.) Thanks to this gold standard of romance, all of these artists and so many more, pursue a happy ending for their lovers as the reconciliation of virtue and pleasure, or social justice if you prefer, as one of the highest disciplines of their craft.

5. To pick up the TINA thought and push it a little further, since it bears thinking about in these years of austerity and self-denial. Why is it that wherever you find the authentic ring of Pride and Prejudice joy – this decisive victory over the forces of darkness and self-doubt – you will find loyal readers and viewers in their millions?

Maybe it is because in this story, original sin and social necessity (almost) are not just put behind us, but are decisively taken out into the daylight world to have a good look at them, and as decisively trounced.

It takes a long time for Elizabeth Bennet to admit that the vulgarity of her mother and sisters is not merely amusing, but a weakness that threatens the best potential of the family. When the crisis comes, erstwhile comic characters like Collins become positively sinister. Collins writes to say, “The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this ”, while studious Mary decides to draw an unsisterly if ‘useful lesson’ from Lydia’s fate before it is quite decided, “that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable – that one false step involves her in endless ruin – that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful, - and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex.”

But in Pride and Prejudice, we are only vulnerable to such sentiments for long enough to mobilise a better way forward. Rescue comes, both these characters are returned safely to comic caricature while everybody else relaxes into place in all their mixtures of virtues, frailties and relatively minor vices.

Compare this with the near-universal pessimism which characterises so many versions of ourselves on offer today, from the theories of the imminence of the Hobbesian ‘state of war’ in this BBC commentary on the UK riots, to an endless diet of murder and horror fiction, not to mention the greed, selfishness, bullying and degradation of reality tv, of course alongside tabloid scandal and sleaze – a veritable torrent of self-loathing. As if there is abroad in our culture today, a rather unholy terror that we might think well of ourselves for one moment, let alone plucking up the courage to suspect that we might deserve better than our dispensation in life hitherto.

Yet in the midst of what I can only describe as this unrelenting diet of ‘hate literature’, far from accepting the message that we will never amount to anything good, many people, consumers both of high and low versions of romance or not very much romance at all, do choose to live and work as hopefully and romantically as they can.

This is a force for change, if we could only count it up, maybe more important than religion in the world today, and more transformative than revolution. It is a heady thought. Indeed, while we are at it, it may be worth asking just how revolutionary such ‘promise’ is in these our times, after the ‘war on terror’ and the financial crisis... I’m glad to say, we have the perfect place for such a discussion - on openDemocracy - in Transformation.

6. Of course, I’m not going to pretend that a measure of decadence and rampant commercialism hasn’t set in in latterday adaptations of Pride and Prejudice. This has been going on for some time, and my colleague Niki Seth Smith is surely right to groan at a “nadir... where love meets twenty-first century hyper-capitalism”, its “competitive consumerism” and “self-worship”. A certain amount of ‘debased transcendence’, in fact, has been going on for ever. You could say it was part of the territory.

But there are two points to celebrate in this connection that bring my celebrations to a close. And the first is the resilience of what I have called this novel’s simultaneous equation. Any lover of Pride and Prejudice will have fun if they set themselves the task of spotting what also has to change if one element is altered in its nearly perfectly symmetrical structure.

There are serious versions of this quest: for example, read Great Expectations and amongst everything else, you might also discover what happens, at least in the 1860’s, when the novel of social rise switches the gender of its main protagonist. You can do the same for the 1870’s with Anna Karenina, to see the result of replacing social rise with social fall. So fecund and well thought through is the foundation stone of the genre, that none of its elements can be casually discarded in subsequent rewritings or considerably overhauled without everything else in the equation changing too.

My favourite example is a matinee performance of a stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that I attended in the Arts Theatre, Cambridge decades ago. The theatre was packed with old aged pensioners, mostly women, and I soon realised that I was involved in a thoroughly scandalous desecration of the original. Mrs.Bennet was quite simply the star of the show. Not only raucous laughter but wolf whistling and a hearty round of applause (culminating in a standing ovation) occurred every time she married off one of her daughters (I’m fairly sure more were married in this version). It’s a long time ago, but I distinctly remember what followed from this assault on the symmetry, as night follows day: and this was the fact that Darcy and Bingley became, in one fell swoop, rather silly post-post-sub-sub-Oscar Wilde dandies with nothing at all to recommend them except their fortunes. Not that the girls had the presence of mind to deserve much better.

At a less dramatic level, there is a certain loosening of the elastic around the perfect symmetry, which is inevitable if, for commercial reasons for example, you have to produce enough plot to stretch through the entire Bridget Jones franchise of three novels, two films and a musical. Under this heading, we could explore the fall-out from the contemporary attachment for the ‘All you need is love and Pemberley’ formula. I once met a highly successful Mills and Boon author on a flight to Italy, and spent the journey trying to persuade her that when Elizabeth answers her sister’s question about how long she has loved Darcy, both she and Jane Austen are rather relying on us to look for that inimitable double edge:

“It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.”

I don’t think I succeeded, and indeed, if you glance at the cover of Mills and Boons today you will see hero or heroine or both, sharing it with some exotic palatial location tourists can only dream of.

7. But I do feel vindicated in the attempt, having watched Death comes to Pemberley, shot in the grand estates of Chatsworth House and Castle Howard this Xmas. It was an enjoyable evening with many nice touches, but on a quite exhausting scale, watching the miles that had to be walked, paced or ridden through drafty colonnades, corridors, tree-filled avenues, forest walks and other vistas, for these characters to take full advantage of the set. Inevitably, if you have to walk up quite such an impressive staircase to apologise to your wife, even if you are Darcy, you run the danger of coming second to the staircase.

Now only compare this effect with the very different treatment of the same theme in DuMaurier/Hitchcock’s Rebecca, another favourite on tv again last Xmas. ‘Death comes to Manderley ’ would in fact be a rather good alternative title, since together with the heroine we spend our entire time working out that this is what ‘Rebecca’ really means. And when we do work it out, in the best Jane Austen fashion, death is not only discovered for what it is, but bundled up with evil and original sin and banished into the past, trounced by the raging fire which reduces Manderley to a Gothic ruin overnight, in quite the best manner of the very first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto leaving the lovers with each other and their open-ended future, together. All you need is love.

So my last point is simply this. If it is true that decadence and commercialism has set in, isn’t it all the more wonderful that more and more people across the world, maybe more than ever before, find themselves going back to the original or as close to the original, to its warmths and its joys, as they can possibly get? In all the assaults on the citadel in two hundred years, nothing and no-one has quite managed to expunge that flame!

On this St.Valentine’s Day, I want to apologise to Jane Austen for being a year late in raising a glass of something sparkling to her genius – but now at least I can confidently, expectantly, invite you to toast a magic that has been with us for over two hundred years. Long may it thrive.

Elizabeth and Darcy in the C.E Brock illustration for 1895 edition of Pride and Prejudice

Elizabeth and Darcy in C. E. Brock's illustration for the 1895 edition of Pride and Prejudice.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData