No one who saw Jane Austen in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a literary giant, one of those rare artistic luminaries whose global brand is booming almost two centuries after her passing. The seventh child of an Anglican rector—a member of the lower ranks of the landed gentry, whose death threw the family into dire financial straits—Austen spent the majority of her life in the rural hamlets of Hampshire and the Somerset spa town of Bath, penning a handful of novels under the pseudonym “A Lady” and dying from a mysterious illness at the age of 41. Her books, though admired by a few prominent contemporaries (Sir Walter Scott praised her “finely written” works and lamented, “What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!”) generated a scant dozen reviews in her lifetime.
And yet, this year, on the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen is everywhere. The true achievement of Austen’s genius, then, surely lies in the way she created characters so nuanced and vivid that they live on in her readers’ hearts and minds. Austen owes much to the Bard in terms of plot devices and tricks to keep two would-be lovers apart—yet where Shakespeare’s comedic creations often seem like flat shades compared with his tragic giants. Austen’s characters flourish as they careen toward the inevitable weddings that await to soothe all the broken hearts, smooth the misunderstandings, and exult in the triumph of a match well made. Her world is one that, 200 years later, legions of fans want to spend hours—if not lifetimes—inhabiting because it crackles with humor and overflows with heart. In other words, because is so purely enjoyable.
This is not a lofty history of the Regency, however, or an analysis of obscure references in Austen’s work that might belie her knowledge and opinions of the massive changes convulsing her country. Instead, the book sticks to what Jane knew—the stuff of daily life, a sociological history of what it was like to grow up in England, and particularly the countryside, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It examines the ins and outs of marriage ceremonies, childbirth practices, schooling, household rituals, clothing fashions, church life, modes of transportation, pastimes and amusements, crime in the era, medicine in the era, and burial rituals.
Austen was a painstakingly accurate chronicler of a particular time and place, and yet in her very specificity, she created characters who will live as long as readers fret over heartbreaks and exult in social satire.
Pride and Prejudice is one of a kind. You can read it as a romantic Cinderella story, a comedy or as a social commentary on the problems facing women of Austen’s own social strata. It’s expressed with some biting, often very subtle irony, so you don’t need to be an academic to get something out of it. One of the things I personally like about Austen is that she doesn’t lay it out for you. She demands that you read between the lines. She’s an author who says, ‘I think my readers are intelligent.’
Shraddha Iyer, Student Representative, Pierian Spring