When Jane Austen published Pride and Prejudice in 1813, it was a big to-do for a woman to be so totally immodest and exhibitionist as to actually have strangers reading something she wrote for money. Oh, how shocking and taboo! Because of that, the novel came out anonymously (as had Sense and Sensibility only a year earlier). Yeah, it was kind of a different time back then. Imagine how those people would feel about sex bloggers.
Anyway, 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 lame and chic-lit – you know, not like man-novels, what with their deep thoughts and serious subjects. Austen knew this would happen to her, and made fun of the situation 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 Mr. Darcy proposing to Elizabeth Bennet, and all of a sudden the novel takes a break and cuts to a long, dry essay about history. That's not really anyone's idea of a good time. Sadly, though, enough people took her at face value that, for a long time, this became the go-to Austen description: pretty cute, but totally small-time.
In reality, the novel deals with plenty of its own deep thoughts and serious subjects – even history. For one thing, it's set at the turn of the 19th century, at a time when just across the English Channel all sorts of insanity had just gone down in France. We're talking about a little thing called the French Revolution and the whole guillotine-the-king situation. It was madness, baby. It set in motion all sort of chain reactions.
Historically, just as kings everywhere else in Europe were making sure their heads were still attached to their necks, up came Napoleon, rampaging through the continent and conquering stuff left and right. All those soldiers that are quartered in Meryton? They're waiting to maybe ship out to fight that guy. When Mr. Wickham switches from being in the militia to being the regular army at the end? Oh, he's definitely going to war ASAP.
Philosophically, 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 totally making sense of life in a super-scientific, man-centered, non-religious way. It was all going along swimmingly, when, suddenly, Enlightenment ideas about the right of men and the value of individuals were taken up by revolutionaries in British colonies in America, and then in France, and, before you know it, they're overthrowing monarchies and doing it up democracy-style across the Atlantic. Across the English Channel? Well, see the previous paragraph: chaos, mass murder, Napoleon. So, for every time in the novel the characters start debating if they're supposed to be making decisions based on reason and rationality or feelings and impressions – boy, oh boy, is there a lot at stake in those conversations.
Economically, this is the first time – because of the Enlightenment and whole rights-of-man thing we just mentioned – that there were a lot of intelligent, newly-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 and not think?" If you think Pride and Prejudice isn't very direct about all of these things, well, you've got to go back and read it again.
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.