2013 marks the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice. I’ve arrived a little late to the party, but I decided to re-read Austen’s most famous novel a few weeks ago in order to try and figure out what, exactly, is so engaging about it.
Many people find it strange that a two-hundred-year-old novelist, who wrote primarily about the process of courtship in the early nineteenth century, should still be so popular in the twenty-first. Jane Austen is often dismissed as ‘girly fiction’, as the precursor to ‘chick-lit’ and the modern romantic comedy.
But the idea that the plots of her novels merely appeal to the ‘romantic’ reading tastes of women (the notion that men and women exclusively enjoy certain types of fiction is in itself laughable) is, to me, insufficient to explain why Austen is so popular today. Why does she continue to be read by critics and ordinary readers alike? And why does she, despite all the criticism aimed at her, hold such an important place in the Western canon?
I’ve always felt the need, when speaking about books, to defend my love of Austen’s novels. To say someone is a fan of Austen these days seems shorthand for suggesting that they are romantic, fanciful, and unrealistic. And if you’re involved in any kind of literary studies, admitting to liking Jane Austen often singles you out as an imposter; as someone who likes reading ‘easy’ books for enjoyment rather than ‘hard’ books for deep intellectual examination.
So I admit to liking Jane Austen with a hint of embarrassment, and always accompany the admission with a hurried explanation: “I don’t like her because of her plots, you know, I like her because she’s a brilliant writer technically,” or “People don’t realise how nuanced and intelligent her writing is until they start to dig deeper.” No matter what I say, I inevitably end up sounding either unconvincing or pretentious.
Despite these setbacks, however, I will persist in defending Austen. And in honour of two hundred years’ worth of reading, I’ve compiled a short list of Austen’s achievements in Pride and Prejudice. Most of them, I hope you’ll agree, could just as easily apply to her other novels. Continue reading