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A Week to Remember: Pride and Prejudice

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Collage of Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice was first published on January 28, 1813. The story of the turbulent romance between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy is one of the most beloved of English novels.

In the novel, Elizabeth is the second of five sisters, and their parents are worried about their marriage prospects. Mr. Bennet has a small estate, but it can legally only be passed to a male heir. Since the Bennets have only daughters, it is important that at least one of the daughters marry a financially well-off husband so that she will be able to support her parents in their old age (as well as any of her sisters who do not marry).

The initial meeting between Elizabeth and Darcy does not go well. He is somewhat reserved, which she takes as arrogance and lack of interest; her assertiveness and strong opinions strike him as inappropriate and mildly scandalous. They must overcome their initial reactions—and of course, they do—to realize that they truly love another.

In the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy, Austen creates many of the tropes that are still familiar in romance novels—the tension between marrying for love and marrying for financial or social gain, the couple whose initial dislike eventually transforms into love, the complicated web of shifting romantic relationships before the central couple finally realizes they belong together.

cover of Pride and Prejudice

Austen wrote the first version of Pride and Prejudice (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), initially called First Impressions, in 1796 and 1797. That original manuscript does not survive, but evidence suggests that it may have been an epistolary novel. She offered the manuscript to a London publisher for his consideration, but he was not interested in seeing it.

She made major revisions to the novel in 1811 and 1812, including a change of title. That may have been to avoid confusion; in the fifteen years since she’d written the first version, another author had published a novel called First Impresssions.

The standard publishing model in England in the early 19th century was that novelists published their work “on commission,” meaning that the author takes the financial risk, and is paid only after the publisher’s costs have been recouped. All of the other novels Austen published during her lifetime were published on commission. But at the time she was trying to find a publisher for Pride and Prejudice, she didn’t yet know how successful her first novel, Sense and Sensibility (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), would be, and so she agreed to sell Pride and Prejudice for a flat fee of 110 pounds (about $9,000 in today’s currency). That proved a costly decision; had she published the novel on commission, she would have made a profit of about 475 pounds (almost $40,000).

As were all of Austen’s novels, Pride and Prejudice was published anonymously, though Austen did at least attempt to build on her own success. Sense and Sensibility had been published as “by a Lady;” Pride and Prejudice was credited to “the author of Sense and Sensibility.” The book was a great success and went into a second printing within a few months.

The critics, and most of Austen’s fellow authors, praised the book. Walter Scott thought it was “very finely written” and noted in his journal that he had read it several times. Charlotte Brontë’s response was more mixed; she described it as “a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden... but with no open country, no fresh air.”

Pride and Prejudice has been adapted and re-interpreted many times in many forms. There are literally hundreds of prequels, sequels, re-tellings, updatings, and variations on the novel, and we can only touch on a few of the highlights here.

The story is re-told from Darcy’s point of view in Pamela Adian’s “Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman” trilogy, which begins with An Assembly Such as This (e-book | print); Jo Baker writes from the servants’ perspective in Longbourn (e-book | e-audio | print | audio). P. D. James imagines Elizabeth and Darcy as detectives in Death Comes to Pemberley (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), a murder mystery set several years after the original; and Seth Grahame-Smith gives us Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (e-book | print | audio), the first in a recent series of novels that combine the classics with horror tropes.

The story is adapted with varying degrees of fidelity and moved into the present day in Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (e-book | print | audio), Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), and Mary Jane Hathaway’s Pride, Prejudice and Cheese Grits (e-book); and translated into other cultures in Engin Inel Holmstrom’s 1920s Ottoman Turkish House of Daughters (e-book), Soniah Kamal’s modern Pakistani Unmarriageable (e-book | e-audio | print), and Sonali Dev’s Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors (e-book | e-audio | print), which is set among an immigrant Indian family in San Francisco.

Melissa de la Cruz swaps the genders, making Darcy female and changing Lizzie to Luke in Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe (e-book | print); and AJ Michaels gives us a gay male couple in Pride and Modern Prejudice (e-book).

The novel has been filmed many times. Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier starred in the 1940 adaptation; Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen were the central pair in the 2005 film; and many Pride and Prejudice fans insist that the only real Mr. Darcy is Colin Firth, who played the role opposite Jennifer Ehle in a 1995 BBC miniseries.

Several looser adapations have also been filmed. Aishwarya Rai and Martin Henderson took the roles in the 2004 Bollywood-flavored Bride and Prejudice; Renee Zellweger and (again) Colin Firth star in Bridget Jones’s Diary; Anna Maxwell Martin and Matthew Rhys are Elizabeth and Darcy in Death Comes to Pemberley; and Lily James and Sam Riley take up monster-fighting duties in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Pride and Prejudice even made it to Broadway in 1959, when the musical First Impressions ran for two months, with Polly Bergen and Farley Granger as Elizabeth and Darcy, and Hermione Gingold reportedly stealing the show as Mrs. Bennet.

Also This Week

Feburary 1, 1884

The first volume of the Oxford English Dictionary, covering words from A to Ant, was published. The OED is a historical dictionary, tracing the origins and historical changes in meanings of words. It took more than 80 years to finish the first edition; editors are currently about halfway through the third edition. Simon Winchester writes about the relationship between the dictionary’s first editor and one of its major contributors in The Professor and the Madman (e-book | e-audio | print | audio).

February 2, 1905

Ayn Rand was born. Rand was a writer and philosopher who called her philosophy Objectivism. She argued that individual rights were of supreme importance, and that the primary purpose of each person was to pursue their own happiness; the only social system that allowed the individual to flourish, Rand believed, was capitalism. Her philosophy underscores her two major novels, The Fountainhead (e-book | e-audio | print | audio) and Atlas Shrugged (e-book | e-audio | print | audio).

January 30, 1930

Gene Hackman was born. For forty years, Hackman was one of Hollywood’s most popular actors. He was nominated for five Academy Awards, and won twice, for the 1971 police thriller The French Connection and the 1992 western Unforgiven. Hackman announced his retirement from acting in 2004.

February 2, 1944

Ursula Oppens was born. Oppens is a classical pianist who has specialized in commissioning and performing music from contemporary composers. She has had a particularly close relationship with Elliot Carter, and also recorded major new works by Meredith Monk, Peter Lieberson, and Bernard Rands.