Facts about Pride and Prejudice
Full Title: Pride and Prejudice
Date Written: 1896/97
Date Published: 28 January 1813
Genre(s): Literary novel of manners
Setting(s): Set in rural Hertfordshire and Pemberley, and London (all in England) during the Napoleonic Wars (1797–1815)
Point of view: Third person omniscient
Jane Austen was an English writer who wrote during the last decade of the 17th Century and the first fifteen years of the 18th. She started work on Pride and Prejudice at the age of 21 and after several drafts and a title change from First Impression s to Pride and Prejudice the novel was published in 1813. That, however, was only after her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, was published in 1811. She went on to publish two more novels, Mansfield Park and Emma, in her lifetime.
Pride and Prejudice’s place in literary history
Pride and Prejudice is not only considered to be Jane Austen’s masterpiece but is frequently referred to as the greatest English novel.
There are several reasons for that. It is not to do with the story the novel tells, although that is gripping and makes the novel a page-turning read. It is more to do with how early in the history of the modern novel it was written – at the very beginning – and that it has never been surpassed in its quality as a work of literature by any of the hundreds of Victorian and modern novelists with the thousands of their novels that have followed Jane Austen’s.
She used storytelling to delve deeply into the lives of the people of her own class. She wrote only about people who lived in the same country environment as she did. Her novels were commentaries on the social and economic conditions, obsessions and concerns of that narrow slice of English society during the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries. That coupled with what is about the best prose – the best narration and dialogue – to be found among English novels, with unbeatable humour, places her novels at the very pinnacle of English prose texts. Pride and Prejudice, although closely rivalled by Jane Austen’s other novels, is the best example of the best English fiction.
Most remarkable about Pride and Prejudice is that it leaps from the gothic novel to what we can only call the modern novel, with rounded, life-like characters in realistic settings. That began the tradition of realism that has lasted for two hundred years.
What is Pride and Prejudice about?
Shortly after completing her early drafts of Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen wrote Northanger Abbey which was, in reality, her first completed novel, although it was published only in 1817, after her death. It is an hilarious parody of the gothic ‘horror’ novels Austen was raised on – novels full of villainous men who lived in castles and seduced heiresses. They were what young ladies read in secret. At the same time, as with all Jane Austen’s novels, in writing Northanger Abbey she explored the preoccupations that characterised all her novels, continuing that in Pride and Prejudice.
Those preoccupations – the themes of her novels – are substantially explored in Pride and Prejudice. They are mainly to do with marriage and the relationship between marriage and both love and money; and questions around social status, pertinent to money. Jane Austen was keenly aware of the role of money in her community and how it regulated absolutely everything.
The Bennet family of Longbourne, Hertfordshire, are a comfortably-off family, living off the rents paid by tenants working and living on the estate. Mr and Mrs Bennet have five daughters, all of marriageable age. Unfortunately, there are no sons. The estate is entailed, which means that by law, on the death of the master, it must pass to the nearest male relative. In this case, the nearest male relative is a stranger, Mr Collins, who is likely to throw the women out as soon as he is able to. As the women in the landed gentry class are dependent on men – a father, a husband or a brother – finding husbands is vital, and that’s the imperative that drives the plot. There are five daughters to be married off. It is within that context that Jane Austen explores marriage, love, and money in Pride and Prejudice.
Pride and Prejudice in context
A common criticism of Pride and Prejudice – and Jane Austen’s novels in general – is that it lacks historical context and that its events and characters exist in a bubble that sees nothing beyond its own self – the English landed gentry.
It’s often pointed out that at the time the novel was being written Britain was in turmoil. The country was at war with France, there was an economic depression, and life for many was changing as the industrial revolution, with its mass unemployment, took hold. There is no reference to any of that in Pride and Prejudice, even though two of Jane Austen’s brothers were in the British navy and served in the war.
It is an unreasonable criticism, however, because a novelist is not obliged to address anything she doesn’t wish to, and, further, the novel is not contextless – the context is the world of the landed gentry. Seemingly sedate and immutable, Jane Austen exposes the stresses that existed in their pursuit of survival – as closely witnessed in Pride and Prejudice. She does that with highly focused accuracy and satire.
All that is done in a gripping story of an extraordinarily well-conceived character – Elizabeth Bennet – who remains one of English literature’s favourite romantic heroines. Moreover, although Jane Austen is concerned with women and only with men in as far as a female character can only be explored in the context of a society where men are important, in Mr Darcy Jane Austen created the prototype of a romantic hero and an all-time favourite as such. The character has been borrowed by numerous novelists and inserted into their novels, even novels set in the 21st Century.
Pride and Prejudice in popular culture
Pride and Prejudice is greatly loved by the English, who always look forward to new film and television adaptations. There has even been a film Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which is fun. It roughly follows the story but is set in a world where the landed gentry are constantly on their guard against zombies who threaten to overwhelm their homes.
Some of the notable screen versions include the 1940 film starring Greer Garson and Lawrence Olivier and the 2005 version with an Oscar-nominated performance by Keira Knightley. One of the most notable television adaptations is the 1995 version starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth whose Mr Darcy put Firth on the map as a screen actor, largely because of the scene where he emerges from a lake in a wet shirt. That made Firth a media sex object for some time after.
That’s our overview of Pride and Prejudice. Make sense? Any questions? Let us know in the comments section below!