200 years of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ – A reflection, or, why I love Jane Austen’s work

I’m reliably informed that ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was first published on 28th January 1813.

It was a novel long in composition. ‘First Impressions’ – the original title – made its first appearance in late 1796, when Miss Austen was 21 and living at Steventon, Hampshire. In 1812 it was radically altered and finally saw publication in 1813. Much had changed between 1796 and 1813 – the war against Napoleon was practically over, for a start. Jane herself was thirty-eight and had already had ‘Sense and Sensibility’ published. She was living at Chawton, Hampshire, with her mother and sister Cassandra. They had moved there in 1807 when her brother Edward offered them the former stewards cottage as a permanent home. It was here that she revised the novels of her youth and wrote the novels of her maturity.

‘Pride and Prejudice’, her second published work, is probably the most well known. I first came across in when I was 12, at secondary school. Every year we were given book tokens to spend in the library. There would be a book sale, once a year, for a fortnight, not of school library books, but of new books provided by a book club, I think. I went one evening with my sisters and was immediately attracted to two hard back, leather bound books; one was green and one blue. The pages were very thin, almost like bible pages, and the printing reminded me of eighteenth century books I’d seen in museums. If it’s possible to fall in love with books, I did. Those books were ‘Lorna Doone’ by R.D. Blackmore, first published in 1869 and set in Exmoor, and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen, first publish 1813. It was then that I first learnt to love books in and of themselves, as well as reading.

I liked ‘Lorna Doone’, it was a great adventure; but I loved ‘Pride and Prejudice’. I was young enough that it made an indelible impression on my mind. I have read and re-read it so often that it has fallen apart. (I had to get myself a new copy on Friday. I was looking for ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and found them both in lovely hardback editions in ‘The Works’ in Grimsby. That shop is lethal.)

I remember the first time I read it, enjoying the words and the story; the characters were fascinating, and I hoped that all would resolve itself, and angry at the unfairness of the world that kept people from being happy.

I remember the excitement in 1996 when the BBC produced their, now famous, adaptation and the frenzy surrounding it – including the brief fashion for stick-on sideburns. On a Saturday night my sisters, our mother and I would gather in the sitting room to watch the latest instalment, comparing it with the book and then discussing it for days after. We compared ourselves to the different characters and how their world was different from our own. It made us grateful for the freedom we, as women, had. We had choices and an education that eighteenth and nineteenth century women didn’t, although we would have liked to learn to dance and play and sing. Over the years I have watched many film adaptations including ‘Bride and Prejudice’, which I love. It’s very funny. The story might have been adapted but the spirit is still there. I wasn’t too sure about the film starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet from 2005. In comparison the BBC series it missed so much of the story out, but they are different formats and as a film it works well enough. I just have to be careful not to have it on when my sister visits. She really disapproves of it.

I studied ‘Pride and Prejudice’ for my GCSE English Literature. And studying it didn’t make me enjoy it less, if anything because I gained a better understanding of the times in  which it had been written and of the author, as well as finding new ways to read the book, I received greater pleasure from it. Even writing an essay about pride and prejudice in the book was fun, in spite of having to write it out three times because my hand-writing was terrible. I got an A+ for it. My English teacher was very proud of me; she was a bit disappointed when I studied the sciences for my ‘A’ levels (but then so was my History teacher). I think previous knowledge and love for the book helped; I enjoyed English whereas my peers endured it.

For my ‘A’ level maths coursework I compared the word length in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and subjected them to statistical analysis. I can’t actually remember what I concluded, but I think I might have got point for originality. I was the only one in the class to think that applying statistics to literature might be interesting.

I carried my copy of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, along with my copy of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (another favourite and one of the few other books of which I have multiple copies), to university, and in times of stress and distress they were always there for me, constant companions. I can get lost in them, transported to another world or another time.

‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ have probably had the greatest effect on my own writing since I read the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ and ‘Famous Five’ books as a child. I can either write epics, with convoluted language and obscure references reminiscent of the sagas or I write Georgian novels. I’m working on finding my own style, hopefully somewhere in between that doesn’t grate so much on other people.

The book itself did have a material affect on my world-view. It encouraged a young mind to realise how lucky we actually are. It encouraged my interest in the early nineteenth century – I wanted to know why there were militia in the first place, which lead me to learn about the Napoleonic wars, and in women’s history – why were they dependant on their father, why wouldn’t they inherit? I wanted to know everything, to find a context for this magnificent book that I had had the luck to find so early in life. I went on to read many other classics, although I had already read a few while still in primary schools (I doubt there are many primary schools left where it is thought perfectly appropriate for a 10 year old to read ‘Call of the Wild’ but mine let me. I had some good teachers.) My ideas of the world were formed by books, and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was one of the greatest teachers.

As I have grown older I have returned time and again to Austen and Tolkein for strength, inspiration and escape. When I put down the books I am better able to cope with the world, its pain and disappointments, and also its joys. My interpretation of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is not that of an innocent 12 year old with romantic notions and little knowledge of the world. I have grown up and in the process my understanding of the book has changed. I’m older, and far more cynical for a start. It has much to teach us still, about the world, about people, about ourselves; we should look beyond the surface to a persons true nature, we should never allow our own prejudices to lead us astray, and we should never allow those in a social position more respected than our own to tell us what to do.

In a few years I will buy my niece a copy of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and I will hope that she finds as much pleasure in it as I do.

Here endeth my love letter to literature.

Rose

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