Becoming Jane

NPG 3630; Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
Jane Austen

Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.


This must have been a bittersweet day for Jane. On January 28th, 1813 her finest novel, Pride and Prejudice was finally published. At 38 she was still a young woman, but the novel had been written since she was 22. “At last!” she must have thought, and perhaps it seemed to her that she was finally on her way.  Little did she know, she would be dead just a few years later at the tender age of 41.

It is instructive that on this, the bicentennial year of her death, as so much renewed attention is lavished on her work, we remember that she passed through life almost anonymously. Fittingly, the only authenticated portrait of her is a partially complete watercolor by her sister.  She could not have dreamt that Pride and Prejudice would sell over 20 million copies and that she would achieve such a lofty status in English literature.

Her life has much to teach us about the context of our existence. A proverb from ancient Greece says ““Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” Fittingly, its author is anonymous.  Great achievements are only rarely quickly understood.

IMG_01811 John 3:2

Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.

 

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Art: Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen, circa 1810

The only authenticated picture of Austen is a small pencil and watercolor sketch made by her sister, Cassandra, on display in the National Portrait Gallery in London.  Even so, Jane’s relatives were not entirely convinced by it: ‘there is a look which I recognize as hers’, her niece wrote, ‘though the general resemblance is not strong, yet as it represents a pleasing countenance it is so far a truth.’ It is the basis for a late nineteenth-century engraving, commissioned by Austen’s nephew.

Literature and Liturgy: Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen was born at Steventon on December 16, 1775, the youngest of seven children. She received her education—scanty enough, by modern standards—at home. Besides the usual elementary subjects, she learned French and some Italian, sang a little, and became an expert needle-woman. Her reading extended little beyond the literature of the eighteenth century, and within that period she seems to have cared most for the novels of Richardson and Miss Burney, and the poems of Cowper and Crabbe. Dr. Johnson, too, she admired, and later was delighted with both the poetry and prose of Scott. The first twenty-five years of her life she spent at Steventon; in 1801 she moved with her family to Bath, then a great center of fashion; after the death of her father in 1805, she lived with her mother and sister, first at Southampton and then at Chawton; finally she took lodgings at Winchester to be near a doctor, and there she died on July 18, 1817, and was buried in the cathedral. Apart from a few visits to friends in London and elsewhere, and the vague report of a love affair with a gentleman who died suddenly, there is little else to chronicle in this quiet and uneventful life.

But quiet and uneventful though her life was, it yet supplied her with material for half a dozen novels as perfect of their kind as any in the language. While still a young girl she had experimented with various styles of writing, and when she completed “Pride and Prejudice” at the age of twenty-two, it was clear that she had found her appropriate form. This novel, which in many respects she never surpassed, was followed a year later by “Northanger Abbey,” a satire on the “Gothic” romances then in vogue; and in 1809 she finished “Sense and Sensibility,” begun a dozen years before. So far she had not succeeded in having any of her works printed; but in 1811 “Sense and Sensibility” appeared in London and won enough recognition to make easy the publication of the others. Success gave stimulus, and between 1811 and 1816, she completed “Mansfield Park,” “Emma,” and “Persuasion.” The last of these and “Northanger Abbey” were published posthumously.

The most remarkable characteristic of Jane Austen as a novelist is her recognition of the limits of her knowledge of life and her determination never to go beyond these limits in her books. She describes her own class, in the part of the country with which she was acquainted; and both the types of character and the events are such as she knew from first-hand observation and experience. But to the portrayal of these she brought an extraordinary power of delicate and subtle delineation, a gift of lively dialogue, and a peculiar detachment. She abounds in humor, but it is always quiet and controlled; and though one feels that she sees through the affectations and petty hypocrisies of her circle, she seldom becomes openly satirical. The fineness of her workmanship, unexcelled in the English novel, makes possible the discrimination of characters who have outwardly little or nothing to distinguish them; and the analysis of the states of mind and feeling of ordinary people is done so faithfully and vividly as to compensate for the lack of passion and adventure. She herself speaks of the “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work,” and, in contrast with the broad canvases of Fielding or Scott, her stories have the exquisiteness of a fine miniature.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE was published anonymously in three volumes in 1813. The narrative, which Austen initially titled “First Impressions,” describes the clash between Elizabeth Bennet, the daughter of a country gentleman, and Fitzwilliam Darcy, a rich and aristocratic landowner. Although Austen shows them intrigued by each other, she reverses the convention of first impressions: “pride” of rank and fortune and “prejudice” against Elizabeth’s inferiority of family hold Darcy aloof, while Elizabeth is equally fired both by the pride of self-respect and by prejudice against Darcy’s snobbery. Ultimately, they come together in love and self-understanding.

The 2005 film with Keira Knightly was nominated for four Academy Awards

Bibliography

Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago, IL: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2016).

Barbour Publishing Inc, Book Lover’s Devotional (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour, 2011).

Jane Austen, Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction 3: Laurence Stern, Jane Austen, ed. William Allan Neilson (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1917), 145–147.

John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011).

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