Updated: Jun 26, 2019
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Who hasn't heard of the great love of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy? (Yes, his name is Fitzwilliam… maybe that’s why he’s usually called simply ‘Mr Darcy’!)
Elizabeth Bennet is the daughter of a quiet, country gentleman of limited means, with an embarrassing mother and three younger sisters of varying degrees of silliness. Her elder sister and best friend, Jane, is seen as the angel of the group: the prettiest, the sweetest, the most genteel. The Bennet family is thrown into uproar when a single gentleman of large fortune moves into the neighbourhood.
Mr George Bingley is kind, generous and immediately enamoured with Jane, while Elizabeth meets Mr Darcy of Pemberley, friend to Mr Bingley and worth a rumoured £10,000 a year. Neither relationship is straightforward, and all involved must make a journey of self-discovery in order to better understand themselves and what they truly desire in a partner.
Like so many modern Janeites, I was introduced to the world of Regency conventions, swirling Empire line dresses, men in tight breeches and witty social niceties through the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The restrained drama, emotional subtext and complex relationships (and Colin Firth…you know why) hooked me. I was enamoured with Lizzy’s quick wit and willingness to both keep and break conventions as much as with Mr Darcy’s brooding ways and ultimate goodness. I love the romance, the drama and the costumes, yet the screen adaptations are thin imitations of the original.
The story has commonly been seen as one of the original romantic comedies; boy meets girl, boy offends girl, sees the error of his ways, makes a ‘big gesture’ and they marry, all told from the woman’s point of view. But the books are so much more than the romanticised 2007 adaptation starring Keira Knightley. From the first, famous sentence, we can see that this book will point out some obvious uncomfortable truths about society and human nature, cleverly hidden in irony and witticisms.
The novel is not just about the main characters’ improper pride or their beliefs which prejudice them against each other; the narrator makes sure to point out everybody’s flaws and enjoys relishing in their misconceptions. The portrayals of the comedic characters, which could so easily be caricatures, are nuanced and ridiculous, while being disturbingly realistic.
Jane Austen is a master of observation. Even if her works have been described as literary ‘drawing room dramas’, her characters are flawed, realistic and relatable and her tone witty, full of cynicism and subtle satire.
There’s a reason why the novels of Jane Austen are consistently included in lists of the greatest works in English Literature. Pride and Prejudice is not just academically and critically acclaimed, it has been consistently one of the most popular novels in the English Language ever since its publication in 1813.
And it remains one of my favourite Austen novels. If you enjoy charged looks across the drawing room, satirical social commentary and want to finally begin to understand the greatness of Jane Austen, I highly recommend starting with this one.