When Jane Austen published Pride and Prejudice in 1813, people were still getting used to the idea that women would do something so totally immodest and exhibitionist as to actually have strangers reading something she wrote for money. Oh, how shocking and taboo! Just one step away from prostitution! (We're not even joking about that.) Because of all that, the novel came out anonymously, as had her book Sense and Sensibility only a year earlier. (Imagine how those people would feel about sex bloggers.)
Not only was it a big deal for women to be authors, but it was also kind of a foregone conclusion that everyone would think that their novels were automatically kind of silly and chick-lit —you know, not like man-novels, what with their deep thoughts and serious subjects. Especially when your novel, like Austen's, was essentially about marrying off a bunch of sisters. Austen made fun of those expectations in a letter she wrote to her sister:
[Pride and Prejudice] is rather too light & bright & sparkling; —it wants shade; —it wants to be stretched out here & there with a long Chapter […] about something unconnected with the story; an Essay on Writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Bonaparte —or anything that would form a contrast & bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness & Epigrammatism of the general stile. (Letter to Cassandra Austen, February 4, 1813)
How do we know she's kidding around? Well, just imagine: you're flipping pages frantically during Mr. Darcy's proposal, trying to find out what Elizabeth Bennet says, and all of a sudden the narrator starts in on a long essay about contemporary literature. It kind of ruins the mood, right? But that's exactly what most people expected from books—a little non-fiction mixed in with your fiction, just enough so you can say, "Yeah, I know, it's a novel—but I'm reading it for the articles.
In reality, the novel deals with plenty of its own deep thoughts and serious subjects. At the turn of the century, the old debate between rationality and emotions was heating up again. The 18th century had been the Age of Enlightenment, with Voltaire and David Hume and Adam Smith making sense of life in a super-scientific, man-centered, non-religious way. These Enlightenment ideas about the rights of men and the value of individuals got a bunch of people fired up in the American colonies, and pretty soon they were doing it up democracy-style across the Atlantic. And just across the English Channel? The French Revolution led to an overthrow of the entire monarchy. Kings all over Europe were making sure their heads were still attached to their necks.
Austen was no dummy, and it's no coincidence that characters spend a lot of time debating whether they're supposed to be making decisions based on reason and rationality or feelings and impressions. These were high-stakes questions for individuals as well as nations—particularly educated women, who suddenly looked around and said, "Hey, how come we don't get to own property? How come earning our own money is somehow disreputable? How come we have no rights or political power? How come we're supposed to be all quiet and not talk or think, even though we have brains?"
Pride and Prejudice may not be a dissertation about political independence or the relative merits of passion and reason—but it's definitely a reflection on what those ideas might mean for women's lives.
Just think – without Austen in general and Pride and Prejudice in particular, the world we know today would be missing three totally awesome things.
Thing #1: Novels. Well, no novels about regular people living regular life, anyway. Now, you know what that means – no TV shows about regular people either, since the kind of storytelling that dramatic TV does so well is nothing more than novels being acted out.
Sure, before Austen came along, there was some prose fiction happening, but it was mostly all wild and crazy – people going on strange voyages, having lots of unbelievable and interminable adventures, and doing outrageous and totally impossible things (think adventures like Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels, and trashy Gothic novels, the 18th-century equivalent of Twilight). Austen was pretty much the first writer to say, hey, you know what else is interesting? Our actual, universal, live experiences, how people interact with one another, and how relationships happen or don't. In other words, pretty much everything that isn't about vampires or zombies or desert islands comes straight from her.
Thing #2: Real Estate Porn. Don't blush. You know what we're talking about – HGTV, MTV Cribs, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. It all started right here, with Pride and Prejudice. Think about it. When does Elizabeth really fall in love with Darcy? When she checks out his totally sweet pad, gets psyched about the great room makeover he put together for his sister, and starts imagining what it would like to live there and run the place. In the novel, Darcy's Pemberley estate is such a deeply important place that we could get really crazy and argue that actually it's the house and grounds that has all the personality and beauty that woos and courts Elizabeth – basically doing all the romantic things that Darcy has so much trouble doing.
Thing #3: Romantic Comedy (sort of). Well, we'd really like to say that Austen made up the genre of romantic comedy, but, surprisingly enough, that's actually a long shot. It's more like romantic comedy likes to think that it comes from Austen's witty women and men. There are some crucial differences though. In all of Austen's novels, the reason the hero and heroine don't get together right from the beginning is that they don't necessarily belong together, and they both have some serious growing up to do. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, Darcy has to give up some of his presumptions about the lower classes and Elizabeth has to learn to give people the benefit of the doubt. The reader isn't all that convinced meanwhile that they even belong together.
In modern romantic comedies, on the other hand, the hero and heroine are already obviously perfect people who are perfect for each other. It's the outside world that is keeping them apart through all sorts of wacky contrivance, and when they do finally get together, it's not because they learned to be better, more suitable people, but just because they jumped through whatever hoops were standing in their way. So, yeah, maybe not quite so deep or realistic as Austen.