Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” has been a best-seller for 200 years. Published in 1813, the British novel about the shabby-genteel Bennet family saddled with five penniless daughters is a “classic” that appears near the top of virtually all “favorite reads of all time” lists. There are, by Wiki-count, some 20 million copies of the book in print, which can’t possibly reflect downloads, library usage or translations.
Few other novels have been more rehashed or ripped-off. “Pride and Prejudice” has inspired/spawned at least four stage adaptations (three of them musicals), six filmed versions on screens big and small (in English alone), comics, graphic novels, T-shirts, calendars, academic careers and “Bridget Jones Diary.” Clearly, it was Elizabeth Bennet and not the undead who accounted for the 15 minutes of fame accorded “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” (Film version in the works.)
There are so many reasons for the book’s enduring success. With crisp, limpid prose, dynamic characters and a brisk plot, it is the queen of the English literary canon. It is also, quite simply, a great read — as satisfying as “Little Women” but far less earnest, barely sentimental, and much, much funnier.
A friend recently suggested that it was the model for every romantic comedy that followed. You could also call it the precursor of “chick lit” for its tight focus on the lives of women and girls — not that Jane Austen deserves any blame for the drivel so many others have wrought.
Another reason for its popularity and staying power is its inherent, essential feminism. From the very first sentences, the economics of marriage are cheerfully skewered with references to possession and property:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings of views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
“Pride and Prejudice” is clear-eyed about the unfairness of an inheritance system that bypasses the Bennet offspring only because they are female. (Shades of Downton Abbey.) But Jane Austen’s feminism is not so much about economics as something more fundamental. Her “truth” is about the humanity of women — warts, halos and all.
The book is told from a female point of view and depicts female characters who are wholly alive. Even the ridiculous Mrs. Bennet, the shrillest ninny in literature (followed closely by her preening-idiot daughter, Lydia), is a three-dimensional creature precisely because she never experiences a moment of doubt or self-reflection. Jane Bennet is saintly but dull. Mary is preachy and priggish. And at the far end of the spectrum is our heroine, Miss Elizabeth Bennet; quick-witted, moody, too proud for her own good, and smart enough to learn from her own mistakes. Blessed with good and loyal friends, we spend the entire book laughing and suffering with her, and rooting for her happiness. Like so many of Jane Austen’s other heroines, Elizabeth Bennet is a complicated person.
There are no heavy-handed lectures about women’s rights. More powerful is the fact that Jane Austen takes it for granted that women are human beings — no more and no less than their male counterparts. Women responded to Jane Austen’s subtle brand of feminism long before the word was in common usage and became so badly misused. Feminism is, at its root, the simple assertion of women’s equality.
I don’t remember my reading life before “Pride and Prejudice,” and it is the novel I return to and reread every few years. When I was 19, I understood it as a simple romance (and even now my heart yearns and flutters for Mr. Darcy). But over the years, it has gotten sharper, wittier and sadder. As a writer, I learn something new from Jane every time I open her book. (I almost think she’d forgive me the familiarity of using her first name given the number of times we’ve walked down her country lanes, arm-in-arm.)
So happy birthday, Lizzie, and many returns of the day, Mr. Darcy.
And thank you, Jane, always and forever, for the past 200 years and, undoubtedly, for the next 200.