In Celebration: The Bicentennial of Pride & Prejudice
by Amanda Grange
2013 marks the bicentennial of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, one of the most famous historical romances of all time. It seems incredible to think that it is two hundred years old because the characters and situations are still fresh and familiar to us today. Although we now drive around in cars instead of carriages, read by electric light instead of candlelight, and send each other emails instead of letters, we still suffer from the common cold, laugh at absurdities, and fall in love.
Pride and Prejudice wasn’t a historical novel when it was written, of course, but it gives readers today an insight into the lives of the gentry in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It shows us how they behaved in public, how they interacted in private, and it demonstrates their values, as well as the practical conditions of their lives.
But its importance isn’t just because it’s a brilliant novel in its own right, or because it gives us insight into the past, or because it advanced the form of the novel. The importance of Pride and Prejudice spreads beyond the book itself. With its memorable characters, its humour and its intricate plot, as well as its spirited heroine and arrogant hero, it gave birth to one of historical fiction’s best-loved sub-genres, the Regency romance. In writing Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen defined a whole new genre and set the pattern for the thousands of titles that were to follow. The genre has grown and changed to match the changes going on in the world around us – becoming darker or lighter according to the tastes of the time, and including more or less sex in keeping with current mores – but throughout all the changes, young ladies in long dresses spar with arrogant gentlemen in breeches and fall in love along the way.
I asked some of our best-loved Regency novelists about the ways in which Austen has influenced them. Lynne Connolly (the Richard and Rose series) says, “Although I leave the bedroom door open in my books and she doesn’t, Jane Austen taught me everything there is to know about sexual tension.”
Lynne is right. The tension between Lizzy and Darcy leaps off the page and crackles around their encounters like super-charged lightning.
Jo Beverley (the Malloren series) writes, “Jane Austen’s novels have enriched the mental database from which my fictional worlds grow, but I’m always aware that she was a contemporary writer addressing readers familiar with her world, whereas I am a historical one peering back through mists and sometimes confusion. At times I invent details that can’t be tracked down, whereas she often flits lightly over them in the assumption that everyone will know. Pride and Prejudice can easily be seen as the first romance novel, however, and I feel a strong connection because of that.”
Louise Allen (numerous Harlequin Regencies) finds that she has been influenced by Jane Austen’s letters – “the tone of her voice, the things which interest her, the small details of life at the time, her absorption in people. As she wrote, ‘…my preference for Men & Women, always inclines me to attend more to the company than the sight.’ An excellent reminder to novelists to focus on character!”
Fenella Miller (The Duke’s Reform, Bride for a Duke) agrees: “Jane Austen started it all.” These, and other, authors bring their own love for Jane, and their own experience of her, to their writing, and propel the genre forward for – we hope – another two hundred years.
But Pride and Prejudice wasn’t an instant sensation; in fact, it wasn’t called Pride and Prejudice at all when it first saw the light of day. It was first titled First Impressions, and Jane began writing it when she was in her twenties, although it didn’t see publication until she was almost forty. She wrote it for her own amusement and for the amusement of her circle, where it was a big hit. Her father was so impressed that he thought it ought to be published and so, on 1 November 1797, he wrote to Thomas Cadell, a London publisher who had published Fanny Burney’s Camilla, offering to send “the work” to Cadell if Cadell was interested in seeing it. (Although the name of “the work” is not mentioned, it is generally believed that “the work” in question was First Impressions.)
Then came the reply that every author dreads: no! In fact, Cadell declined by return of post.
Nothing daunted, Jane Austen continued to write. She had a glimpse of success when Susan (later called Northanger Abbey) was accepted for publication in 1803, but this glimpse quickly faded when the publisher, Crosby, neglected to publish it, despite having paid £10 for it – not an inconsiderable sum at the time.
It was not until eight years later, in 1811, that Sense and Sensibility broke Jane’s duck and she made it into print. Even then, she could not find a publisher prepared to bear the risk, and she entered into a kind of printing partnership with the publisher, Thomas Egerton. Egerton paid all costs and was entitled to take a 10 percent commission on sales, but Jane Austen was to be liable for any losses. Jane was cautious and set aside a sum of money from her income in order to meet the possible loss but, luckily, Sense and Sensibility was a success. It found its way into some very elevated households. The Prince Regent’s daughter, Princess Charlotte, adored it, saying that she identified with Marianne Dashwood.
The success of the novel didn’t provide instant fame for Jane Austen, since it was published anonymously under the name of “A Lady”. But Jane was on her way.
After the success of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice was finally published and the rest, as they say, is history. After a spell out of print following its initial success, Pride and Prejudice went on to become possibly the most famous and well-loved novel in the English language. Its first sentence – “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” – is quoted everywhere, with slight variations to make it fit an endless succession of situations. And it is often quoted in the flourishing sub-genre of Jane Austen fiction. So popular are Jane’s books that readers want more, and a host of modern authors – including myself – are happy to supply them.
The first Austenesque novel (as prequels, sequels and every other kind of Austen-based novels are generally called) was Old Friends and New Fancies. It was a sequel to Jane Austen’s novels and it was written by Sybil Brinton. It was published in 1914 and was joined over the next hundred years by numerous other novels including Stephanie Barron’s mystery series and my own series of heroes’ diaries (Mr Darcy’s Diary, et al.), which retell Jane Austen’s novels from the heroes’ points of view.
For those who want sequels to Pride and Prejudice, there are many to choose from, including Mr Darcy Presents his Bride by Helen Halstead and my own Pride and Pyramids, written with Jacqueline Webb. For readers who enjoy “what if” stories, there are the Variations by Abigail Reynolds. For those looking for something spicy, there is Mr Darcy Takes a Wife by Linda Berdoll or the series of novels by Sharon Lathan. There are time travel novels and paranormals, ghost stories and detective stories, spoofs and prequels. There are short stories, novels and series – in fact, everything anyone could want.
And novels are only the start of it. There are films and TV adaptations, now all available on DVD for those who want to watch them again and again. There are places to visit, such as the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton which provides a fascinating day out for anyone interested in Jane Austen or the Regency period. The house is easy to reach, being only an hour from Waterloo station in London and then a short taxi ride, and it’s amazing to walk through the rooms where Jane Austen lived her life and wrote many of her novels. There are unique pieces on display, including her writing table, and the staff are knowledgeable and passionate about Jane Austen. And if you need some sustenance, there is a pub across the road, together with a tea shop.
There is also the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, which celebrates Bath’s most famous resident, and of course Bath itself, which will be forever associated with her novels. The Centre organises the Jane Austen Festival, which takes place in Bath every September and includes a large variety of events ranging from talks to balls to a costume parade. Anyone interested in the Regency period will find much to interest them: they can learn to dance, buy authentically-styled bonnets, and attend period-accurate concerts. It attracts big names in the Austen world (for example, in 2012 the actor Adrian Lukis – best known for his role as Mr Wickham in the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice – gave a reading) and it brings together academics, writers, actors, costume makers, musicians and fans.
But it all started with Jane Austen writing her novels two hundred years ago, and in so doing, providing people who live in a world she could not have imagined – a world where people fly and walk on the moon – with characters and stories that still have resonances for us today.
And this, for me, is her genius. She crosses barriers of time and culture – and, in the future perhaps space! – bringing us all together as we laugh at Mr Collins, admire Elizabeth, and fall in love with Mr Darcy.
About the contributor: AMANDA GRANGE was born in Yorkshire and studied music at Nottingham University. She is the author of ten Regency romances and ten Austenesque novels, including her latest two novels, Pride and Pyramids and Dear Mr Darcy. For more information, please visit her website at www.amandagrange.com.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 63, February 2013