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Pride and Prejudice (1813)



Yesterday was the 201st anniversary of the first publication of Pride and Prejudice. But, it was in fact written seventeen years before that, when Austen was still as young and spirited as Lizzy. She carried the book with her for almost half her life before it was finally published, only to depart from it and this world four years later. In those seventeen years, she had experienced a tumultuous life that was to change who she was and the course of women all over the world for all time.

When she first wrote the book, her father made an earnest attempt to get it published, but it was to wait almost two decades before Thomas Egerton agreed to publish it, albeit at Austen’s expense. Curiously, Egerton specialized in military and political works until then, and Austen was his first woman novelist. He was also her publisher for Sense and Sensibility the year before. Pride and Prejudice was so popular that it caught on with readers more quickly through word-of-mouth than printed advertisements, so that a second edition had to be printed within nine months of the first edition coming out.

At that time, Austen was only the second generation of novelists. Novels were a fairly new form of literature. They became popular in the mid-18th century when the middle class expanded and there was a demand for secular stories driven not by plot, but by individuals. But, most of them were written by men, and were adventures centered around larger-than-life male heroes, usually in imaginary worlds, with women playing insignificant roles in the stories. Even the novels centered around women were mostly written by men and portrayed them as being modest and meek, or as they were meant to be.

Austen is the first novelist in history to capture ordinary life in the Regency era. Her men and women are rooted in reality and come in every imaginable shade of character. Compared to her contemporaries, her characters are bold and the flirtations are akin to today's Fifty Shades of Grey, only more eloquent and reflective. I particularly savor the way she captures the constant negotiation of expectations and impressions between the commodities in the story, that is the “eligible” suitors in the marriage market. The conversations between them are crisp, witty and full of revealing gestures, but more importantly, intentional, and often driven through indirect discourses. Every conversation, every situation and every letter arrives with perfect timing, so that the plot always moves along in unexpected ways. We are forever reappraising characters and becoming aware of their lack of self-knowledge. Everyone’s foibles and the ironies of their life are so relatable, that you delight in them because it is your reality.

Her stories are primarily human and about the pursuit of truths through sharp satire. She once criticized her niece’s draft novel for portraying people in Dawlish gossiping about news from Lyme, which is forty miles away and would not be talked of there. That is the level of adherence to fact and societal accuracy that she aimed for, which makes her works important historic documents. Her truths are loaded and “universally acknowledged”, and lay all the societal pretensions bare and impossible to dispute!

What also sets her apart from novelists during her times is her lack of indulgence in prose about material things and the description of settings. Her characters are almost entirely preoccupied with calibrating delicate feelings and abstract nouns to take notice of their surroundings. They display a desire to understand what shapes people’s consciousness and their character and morality, and what dictates their choices.

And because abstract nouns have a universal appeal, she inspires every kind of intellectual dialogue imaginable. Her work speaks different things to different generations and cultures and academicians (and also to Orangutans). It has been superimposed by so many adaptations that the mind attempts to summon Darcy only to be distracted by Olivier or Firth or whoever else made a bold attempt at being devastatingly handsome (or devastatingly conceited)!

Along with the adaptations, there are a whole sleuth of biographies attempting to construct a woman who seems almost mythical in her attainments. When Austen first wrote Pride and Prejudice, she was a teenager with little formal education, gaining knowledge solely from the books in her father’s library. And it is that tiny world that inspired novels of such depth and beauty, and insight into society and politics. One wonders how!

When I read Pride and Prejudice today, I imagine my grandmom as a young teenager, holding the very same book, and swooning over Darcy, or admiring a clever Elizabeth Bennet and marveling at the society in England back in the days! Along with the book, my grandmom also passed on hope and that love comes from pursuing the truth of one’s own character. I find Austen's persistence as a writer, through all the hardships particularly inspiring! I also take comfort in reading the bits of her unfinished novels in Juvenilia because nothing about what I do is every complete. I can’t tell if I love her more or her works, because they, and their journey are also a reflection of who she is. Jane Austen and her Pride and Prejudice came close to being in extremis, only to become immortal.

Last year, BBC recreated the Netherfield Ball for the 200th anniversary celebration of Pride and Prejudice, and shared a 90-minute Making-of documentary called Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball! Also, there is an online exhibition called What Jane Saw, which attempted to reconstruct the art exhibit of Sir Joshua Reynolds paintings at the British Institution in Pall Mall that Austen talks about in Pride and Prejudice. Back then, the exhibition was the first commemorative museum show dedicated to a single artist, and something of a pop-culture phenomenon! Austen was something of a Rob Fleming of High Fidelity of her times, and kept up with all the who’s-whos and so-and-sos of her time and wove them into her stories. Many of the character descriptions in Pride and Prejudice were said to have been inspired by Sir Joshua Reynolds portraits. Finally, here is Pride and Prejudice cartoon by Jen Sorenson.


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