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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.
(Click the infographic to download.)
Ugh, parents are so embarrassing, right? (Not to mention your little sisters.)
Well, yeah. And they have been for at least two hundred years. Pride and Prejudice matters because, unlike a lot (okay, most) of novels published around the turn of the nineteenth century, it's about everyday people doing everyday things in everyday places. Like being humiliated by their parents, or having a hard time telling their crush how they feel, or finding themselves attracted to someone who's kind of embarrassing. Sound familiar?
Elizabeth Bennet thinks so, too.
Sure, Pride and Prejudice is full of $10 words and long sentences. But it's about real people living lives just (okay, almost) like yours—because Jane Austen just about invented English-language novels.
Sure, there was prose fiction before Austen, but it was mostly 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, lived 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. And that's worth caring about.
Need More Links?
Here's an extensive collection of Austen-related links, in case you need more leads.
No Foreign Currency Accepted
A Jane Austen informational page by a website called "The Republic of Pemberley." This site is packed with cool info. We're linking you to the Pride and Prejudice page. Be sure to check out the "Notes on random topics, including the society of Jane Austen's day." Awesome.
Pride and Pinafores
This is the homepage for the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.
We know, we know—Austen was pre-Victorian, but the good folks at the Victorian Web also provide great resources on some of the most famous pre-Victorian writers, including Austen. Check out this website for solid historical context, scholarly articles, and more.
The BBC Historic Figures profile for Jane Austen.
Writer At Work
This page includes a virtual tour of one of Jane Austen's houses.
In the nineteenth century, people went to Bath to drink the mineral-rich waters. Like Brighton, it was a resort town that served as the setting of some portions of Austen's novels. Includes info and videos.
Pride and Prejudice reimagined as a Facebook newsfeed. This is so brilliant that Shmoop wishes we'd written it.
Pride and Prejudice (2003)
A modernized version of Pride and Prejudice set on a college campus.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
This 2016 action film takes a different twist...zombies!
Black and White
A 1940 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice written by Aldous Huxley and starring Laurence Olivier as Mr. Darcy. You'll have to get over the anachronism of the women wearing dresses that look more suited to the 1840s.
This 1980 version is super faithful to the book. It doesn't have the lavish budget of the 1995 version, but Shmoop admits to liking it best.
A BBC miniseries featuring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth. This much-loved version of Pride and Prejudice faithfully follows the novel and even throws in a few sexy scenes like Lydia and Wickham in bed together and Colin Firth in a wet shirt. (Don't worry; it's totally PG.)
Bridget Jones's Diary (2001) is a sort of highly modernized spin-off on Pride and Prejudice, with Renée Zellweger as the Elizabeth Bennet equivalent and Colin Firth reprising his 1995 role as Mark Darcy. Hilarity ensues.
From Hollywood to Bollywood
Bollywood. Bride and Prejudice (2004). Aishwarya Rai. Need we say more? Why aren't you watching it already?
This 2005 movie stars Keira Knightley as Elizabeth and Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy. It takes some liberties with the novel, but we like its gritty realism.
A selection of Austen's letters. Check out a preview from Google Books.
Read the complete text of Pride and Prejudice online. It comes in many formats (html, pdf, Kindle) and is searchable.
Here's a shot of Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet in the 2005 movie.
Matthew MacFayden as Mr. Darcy in the 2005 movie
Mr. Bennet's Favorite Daughter
Here's Lizzy talking to her dad in an 1830s edition of Pride and Prejudice.
She, a Beauty?
Jane Austen was supposedly super pretty. What do you think?
Hate Pride and Prejudice?
Mark Twain agrees with you, as do several other famous authors.
Love or Money
An article from The Atlantic about the income inequality between Elizabeth and Darcy.
This is a conservative website with a variety of feature articles hosts this "investigation" into gentleman-like behavior, as [ironically] exhibited by Austen's Fitzwilliam Darcy. Warning: some of the sentiments in this article will likely incense some readers. It's a great debate starter.
Jane Austen's World
A blog that claims to bring "Jane Austen, her novels, and the Regency Period alive through food, dress, social customs, and other 19th C. historical details related to this topic."
This blog all things Austen—the "novels, movies, sequels and the pop culture she has inspired."
Jane Austen lives! Frequently updated news and snark from a devoted Janeite.
The Write Stuff
This website has lots of manuscripts for Austen's novels. It doesn't include Pride and Prejudice but it's still really cool to see Austen's handwriting and scratch marks.
They Loved It! They Really Love It!
Here's an 1813 review of Pride and Prejudice. Like a lot of reviews of the time, it includes really long excerpts from the book—since you couldn't exactly surf on over to check out a preview on Amazon.
Dear Sir or Madam
Letters are super important in all of Austen's novels, so it's not surprising she wrote a lot of them. Here's a sneak peak.
Was Your Father a Thief?
Here's the Australian group The Chaser trying to see if they can pick up women while dressed as Mr. Darcy, and using only Mr. Darcy's lines from the novel.
Jane Austen's Fight Club
A faux movie trailer. If only it were real.
Plug in the iPhone
Listen to the full book, from LearnOutLoud.com. Watch out, though. The chapters don't display in order.
Days of Yore
David Shapard, editor of The Annotated Pride and Prejudice, talks about historical context on NPR's Talk of the Nation.