10 Things You Should Know About The Novel Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice is one of those books we have all heard of and many of us will have read it at school or seen one of the many television adaptations. Thought by many to be Jane Austen’s best novel, it is also one of her best known and most loved. It tells the story of the genteelly poor Bennet family whose 5 daughters are struggling to make their way in the world. We learn how pretty Jane and clever Lizzy find the men of their dreams only to lose them, and then win them again. We see the pride and prejudice of both Lizzy Bennet and Mr Darcy wax and wane through the course of the novel until finally true love triumphs against the forces of the title.
Against the backdrop of this love story we meet a host of supporting characters. In true Austen fashion although the main characters are fully fleshed out people with many shades of grey in their personalities the supporting cast are generally caricatures. The people we meet cover a whole range of identities. Some are delightful (Mr Bennet), some infuriating (Mrs Bennet), some idiotic (Lydia Bennet), some haughty (Lady Catherine De Bourgh) and some obsequious (Mr Collins). We also have the obligatory cad (Wickham) the steadfast gentleman (Mr Gardiner) and the snobbish woman (Caroline Bingley).
It is the sparkling nature of the story and the witty personality of the main heroine that have made this novel one of the most loved classics of all time.
We all know that the opening line (one of the most famous in all literature) tells us that ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’. But there is so much more to the novel than this one line. Here are our top 10 interesting facts that everyone should know about Pride and Prejudice.
10. Pride and Prejudice was first published in 1813
Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813 but it had been written many years before that. Austen was inspired to write the novel following a stay with her brother and his wife and wrote the first version of the book, which she entitled ‘First Impressions’ between 1796 and 97. When she finished the novel she sent it to a London publisher but, in a decision that ranks alongside the refusal to sign the Beatles in the analogues of missed opportunities, the publisher, Cadell, declined it by return of post.
Some years later, having made significant changes to the work, including the title, Austen was able to get the book published. The original manuscript is lost forever but, analysis of the final text and the large volume of correspondence between the characters suggests that it might have been an epistolary (told through letters) novel.
9. When the book was finally published, it was published anonymously
At the time that Jane Austen was writing and publishing her works there were very few female writers in the UK with Fanny Burney, Mary Wollenstonecroft and a few others being notable exceptions. Austen’s first novel, Sense & Sensibility was published by Thomas Egerton under the anonymous name of ‘A Lady’ even Austen’s family members were unaware of her authorship. When her niece saw the novel on sale she told Austen that it looked like rubbish!
When Pride and Prejudice was published two years later it was done so under the title ‘the author of Sense & Sensibility’. Austen’s subsequent novels were also published anonymously (by the author of…’) and were mostly overlooked by literary critics. They were, however, popular in the higher social circles with the Prince Regent (who Austen detested) owning a full set of the novels at each of his residences. Word of her identity leaked out and Austen was invited to visit the Prince and was persuaded (it would have been impossible to say no) to dedicate a novel to him. Her novel Emma was reluctantly dedicated to the Prince.
8. Jane Austen was paid hardly anything for the book
When Egerton had published Sense & Sensibility in 1811 Austen had made a reasonable profit on the publication. She had indemnified the publisher against any losses in return for payment of commission and costs and receipt of all profits. She made about £140 which was a reasonable sum at the time.
When Egerton agreed to publish Pride & Prejudice he bought the copyright from Austen, she asked for the sum of £150 which would have been a small uplift on her profits from Sense & Sensibility but received only £110. The book was a sell out success with two editions flying off the shelves in the first year making Egerton the tidy sum of £450. He published a third edition in 1817.
Austen learned her lesson from this episode. All her later novels were published, like Sense & Sensibility, on a commission basis meaning that it was at her own risk but also her own reward with much larger print runs than were common at the time. It seems a great pity that Austen’s most famous and best loved novel should have been the one that provided her with the least income.
7. Jane Austen got the title, Pride and Prejudice from another novel
Francis Burney was one of the very early female authors and as such her books were a great influence on Austen and her own novels. The novel Cecelia: Memoires of an Heiress was hugely influential on the themes and title of Pride and Prejudice.
Austen’s novel was originally entitled First Impressions but following its first submission to and then subsequent rejection by a publisher a number of other novels were published with the same title and therefore, by 1813 Austen knew that she needed to change the title. Having enjoyed Burney’s novel which is a similar satirical (although not as subtle) commentary on English life, Austen took the title for Pride and Prejudice from a quote towards the end of Cecelia which reads ‘ ‘the whole of this unfortunate business,’ said Dr Lyster, ‘has been the result of pride and prejudice’. Indeed, so important a theme was pride and prejudice in Burney’s novel that the phrase appears in two other quotes on the same page of the novel.
This phrase not only gave Austen the opportunity to pay homage to one of her great influences (readers of novels at the time would have recognized the connection) but also to play on the success of the title of Sense & Sensibility by repeating the alliterative formula of the first novel.
6. Pride and Prejudice is one of the most adapted novels of all time
The main themes of Pride and Prejudice; marriage, money, social standing, class tensions and, of course pride and prejudice are ones that still resonate across many cultures today. This makes Pride and Prejudice an extremely popular novel which lends itself to adaptations.
There have been numerous Hollywood adaptations including one in the 1940s staring Laurence Olivier and one in 2005 starring Kiera Knightley, both based on the original story. It has also been adapted for films in new settings including a version set in India and the US, Bride & Prejudice including Bollywood style songs and dances and the hit Bridget Jones’ Diary based on the British novel of the same name which unashamedly borrows from the plot, even going so far as to name the hero Mr. Darcy and cast the same actor who played Darcy in a famous 1995 television adaptation
The adaptations do not stop there, there have been musical adaptation and several literary homages to the great novel including a crime novel by PD James called Death Comes to Pemberley, set after Darcy’s marriage to Elizabeth, novels about the lives of Darcy and Elizabeth’s daughters, books written from Darcy’s perspective and, perhaps most unusually a comedic adaptation which casts Elizabeth as a zombie hunter in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies!
5. Both Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy exhibit pride and prejudice
It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the two main characters each exhibit one of the traits in the title much in the same way that Elinor is Sense and Marianne is Sensibility in the previous book.
In the early stages of the book it is very true that Elizabeth Bennet exhibits a significant amount of prejudice against Darcy and both his character and behavior which only escalates as the story progresses. The tales told by Wickham only serve to reinforce her prejudiced view of the man. Meanwhile Darcy exhibits pride in his station, his family and his wealth. His first proposal to Elizabeth is cast badly when he says he is willing to overlook her defects and marry her anyway
The truth is, however, that both characters exhibit both characteristics, and are prideful and prejudiced in equal measure. Indeed a close reading of the book shows that Elizabeth often exhibits extreme prejudice at any example of Darcy’s pride but she exhibits enough of her own at many points in the book. Early on, at the first ball, she claims that Darcy has mortified her own pride and that she therefore cannot forgive his own and his first proposal mortifies her pride so much that she (quite rightly) turns it down. That they are both able to set these traits aside is what makes them ideally suited for each other and what sets their marriage up for success.
4. The novel is a witty social commentary
On one level Pride and Prejudice is a romantic novel tracking the relationships of the main characters and their romantic permutations. Pride and Prejudice is, however, so much more than that.
Life for gentrified women in 19th century Britain was stultifying, boring and regimented. Women received a little education but there were no careers open to them as such. Even in the Middle Ages women from such families would have been able to forge a career as a nun in the Church but following the reformation very few of the families remained Catholic and this was not an option under the Church of England. For most women the only option available to them was to make a successful marriage. Success was judged not on whether or not there was love in the marriage but whether it allowed the woman to retain or advance her social status.
The character of Charlotte Lucas typifies this dilemma, unmarried at the age of 27 she runs the risk of being left an ‘old maid’ and being a burden on the rest of her family. As a result she accepts the marriage proposal of the obsequious and unpleasant Mr Collins. By doing this she sacrifices any chance of romantic love for economic security. We see the result of such an unhappy marriage in the relationship of the clever and kind Mr Bennet and the idiotic and annoying Mrs Bennet who are eminently unsuited to each other.
The novel studies the societal reactions to reputation and social class. We can laugh and even be slightly outraged when the Bennet sisters are looked down on for their country fashions and predilections for country pursuits such as walking. Austen’s narrative gently pokes fun at this snobbery and makes the reader realize quite how ridiculous it is. When, however, Lydia elopes with Wickham the writing makes us realize that this is an action which is beyond the pale (see below), much like the sections dealing with Marianne’s illness in Sense & Sensibility all the previous humor is gone from the text.
Equally we can laugh at Caroline Bingley and Catherine de Bourgh’s disdain for all people who are below them on the social hierarchy and shiver with disgust at the toadying attempts at social climbing that we see from Mr Collins but the central theme of the novel is the need for the Bennet girls to make a good enough marriage to prevent them falling into a genteel poverty or a loss of social class with an inferior marriage.
3. Jane Austen had similar experiences to the Bennet girls
Jane Austen was born into a very large family, her parents were members of the lower ranks of the landed gentry and had 6 sons and 2 daughters, Jane and her sister Cassandra. Her brother, Henry was, at first a banker and then a Clergyman and acted as Austen’s literary agent.
Jane Austen and her sister were sent to boarding school for a while but their time there had to be cut short because the family was short of funds. That was to be the last time she was ever to be away from her immediate family. Thereafter she was mostly self-educated at home with the help of her father and older brothers. Most of her leisure time was spent in many of the same pursuits as those of the heroines of her novels, country walks, evening balls and piano playing.
During her twenties Austen met and fell in love with Tom Lefroy, the nephew of some neighbors who was due to study law in London. Although they were in love neither party had sufficient money to make the marriage work and the couple were separated by their families. She did receive an offer of marriage a few years later and initially accepted before turning it down due to a complete lack of affection for her intended. The decision would have been difficult for her as the gentleman was extremely wealthy and would have ameliorated what was by then, some very precarious Austen family financial problems.
These problems only worsened with the death of Austen’s father in 1805 leaving her mother, Jane and her unmarried sister with no means of support other than from her brothers. Some years later one brother was able to provide the three women with a house in Hampshire where Jane was able to support them with the income from her writing.
The experiences of her family come up throughout the books, the plays she put on with her siblings appear in Mansfield Park and the Naval careers of two of her brothers are also referenced in Mansfield Park and Persuasion but Pride and Prejudice is perhaps the book that most accurately reflects the challenges Austen faced living with financial constraints and growing older in a society that expected women to settle down and be happy with their lot.
2. Lydia’s elopement threatened to ruin her entire family’s reputation
When we read the book today, Lydia Benent’s elopement with Wickham seems to be nothing very scandalous at all. After all, in our society little censure is placed on women or men who have sex before marriage.
In the 19th Century, however, and in the class in which the Bennets found themselves, a woman’s reputation, and that of her family could be damaged even by the suggestion of her being unaccompanied in the presence of a man, let alone being known to have slept with him. Lydia’s elopement was so scandalous that not only does it threaten her standing in society it threatens to prevent any of her sisters from making a decent marriage. The sad part of the ‘elopement’ is that Lydia was duped, despite believing that they were to be married and therefore willing to compromise her reputation for a short time, she was being used by Wickham who was happy to accept her ‘favors’ while looking for a wealthy woman to marry.
The society of the time showed incredible double standards and no one would be willing to ally their family with a woman whose sister had shown her morals to be so loose. There would have been very little compassion for a woman who had misread a situation so disastrously. When Elizabeth receives the news of the elopement she is only just beginning to rebuild her relationship with Darcy, the news lets her know that she will never be able to aspire to any decent marriage.
Darcy’s willingness to resolve the trouble by paying Wickham to marry Lydia and restore the family honor is evidence of his deep regard for Elizabeth. Although his previous proposal was rejected (and he intimated previously in the novel that he would never ask a question twice), he has enough regard for Elizabeth to rescue her family from infamy.
1. Mr Darcy is not just wealthy, he is extremely rich
Money is one of the central themes of the novel as well as in Jane Austen’s wider work. Even the opening of the novel refers to a man with a fortune. The man they reference is Mr Bingley with his fortune of £5,000 a year. In modern day terms this does not sound like much, it is equivalent to about $7-8,000 a year. In the society of its day, however, it was enough to render Mr Bingley extremely wealthy.
If Bingley was wealthy his friend Darcy is positively dripping with gold with an income of £10,000 a year derived as 4-5% interest from his capital investments which would be significantly larger than that. This annual income was equivalent to $333,000 in 1988 US Dollars and calculations adjusting for inflation in 2008 put Darcy’s fortune at over $650,000 a year. This income combined with the capital investment behind him would have placed him as one of the wealthiest men in Britain at that time.
So there you have it, our list of 10 interesting facts you may not have known about the novel Pride and Prejudice and the life of its author Jane Austen. We hope that you have enjoyed learning a little more about this much loved classic novel and its extraordinary author, Jane Austen. You will never read the novel in the same way again!