Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Guild Publishing, 1979, 286 p. First published in 1813.

Pride and Prejudice cover

Again, as with Sense and Sensibility, it is difficult to assess this novel without being influenced by prior knowledge, the number of TV and film adaptations which make the plot familiar.

The novel’s register requires easing into, its famous opening line “It is a truth universally acknweledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” designed to draw the reader in, but undoubtedly more pithy than many of the following sentences. But you don’t approach a two hundred year-old novel expecting brevity.

Austen has a reputation for dialogue and indeed her touch is sharp here but it is striking how often speech is reported (some of Mr Colllins’s meanderings for example) rather than being direct. There are wonderful characterisations – the skewering of hypocritical, sycophantic clergy in Mr Collins, Lydia’s air-headedness, the lack of awareness and tact of Mrs Bennet, Mr Bennet’s resignation to, but irritation with, “silly” female company, Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s sense of entitlement. Yet Mr Bingley is almost a cipher, his sisters hardly more than plot devices, and Jane Bennet’s reserved nature scarcely makes her leap off the page. But that is the fate of relatively minor characters in any book.

The heart of the book is of course pride and prejudice, the “First Impressions” that was Austen’s working title for the book; Lizzie Bennet’s on Darcy’s first disparaging her, his seeming aloofness and regard for his station in life, her initial credulity of Mr Wickham due to his appearance and ease of manner. Warnings still.

Lizzie’s statement, whether a joke or not, that her affection for Darcy arose, “‘from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley,’” coloured by Darcy’s letter of angry rebuttal of her accusations against him regarding his treatment of Wickham, is grounded in her reflections as she toured the estate with her aunt and uncle. A single young man in possession of a good fortune indeed has certain advantages.

There is only one direct mention of the Napoleonic Wars – raging at the time Austen was writing – and it is on the penultimate page, “even when the restoration of peace dismissed them,” but then her concern was not with world affairs but rather with human nature and interactions (which are timelessly recognisable) and with the habits and mores of the time.

Pedant’s corner:- many archaic or Austenian spellings [develope, exstacy, ancle, synonimously, skreens, stopt, stile (style,) recal, staid (stayed,) mantlepiece (mantelpiece,) unfrequently, sprung (sprang,) dependant, “all had ate” (eaten,) chaperon (chaperone,) uncontrouled, Kenelworth (Kenilworth,) East Bourne (Eastbourne,) laught, intreaty, expences, the same flip-flopping between ‘chuse’ and ‘choose’ as was evident in Sense and Sensibility.]
Otherwise; “the Miss Lucases”, “the Miss Bennets”, “the Miss Webbs” (the names here are in effect adjectives. The noun is Miss, whose plural is Misses, hence we ought to have ‘the Misses Lucas’, ‘the Misses Bennet’, ‘the Misses Webb’. After all, the plural of ‘Bennet sister’ is not ‘Bennets sister’,)
A closing quotation mark without an opening one anywhere in the paragraph preceding it, “the whole party were still standing” (the whole party was ..,) Mrs Philips’ (Philips’s, two lines earlier there was Philips’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “the whole party have left” (has left,) Grosvenor street (Street,) “the whole family were indebted” (the whole .. was indebted,) “to stay supper” (to stay to supper.)

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