The Great American Read: Jane Austen

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged”: so begins Jane Austen’s most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, recently voted the fourth most popular in PBS’s The Great American Read.

Composed in the soporific Hampshire hamlet of Steventon during the years 179–, submitted and, with no little astonishment to the author, rejected under the title First Impressions, the manuscript was heavily revised at Austen’s small, round writing desk in Chawton village and finally published in 1813 to favorable reviews.

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Title page to the first edition of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

However little known the feelings of the author towards her work, “it is a truth universally acknowledged” that the novel has never been out of print. Indeed, “it is a truth universally acknowledged, that” of all Austen’s novels, this one has experienced perhaps the greatest post-literary afterlife, having been adapted for the stage, and at last count eight numerous television series, eight movies, including the recent Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and at least one web series.

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Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Without wishing to sound discourteous about Austen’s other five published novels, magnificent though they indubitably are, “it is a truth universally acknowledged,” it seems, that Pride and Prejudice has held, and as the recent PBS poll indicates, continues to hold or rather exercise tenderly affectionate grip on the consciousness of what can be called the reading public.

While it must be admitted that, in terms of narrative, Pride and Prejudice is wholly unoriginal in the way it draws unashamedly on the popularity of the late eighteenth-century novels of sentiment that, like Fitzwilliam Darcy’s Derbyshire estate, cast a protuberant shadow across the drawings rooms and saloons of Georgian England, celebrating, as is there wont, the discords and resolutions of the courtship plot, Austen’s novel provides readers of with a unique style and a remarkable heroine.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that” for many readers, including the earlier reviewers, Elizabeth Bennet’s not infrequent demonstrations of wit as she navigates the uncertain and often dangerous waters of the marriage game offers particular satisfaction. With Wollstoncraftian brio, Lizzy (if I may be so bold), articulates a gender radicalism in her associations with male characters that the heroines of the most popular author of the final decade of the eighteenth century, Ann Radcliffe, invariably do not. Indeed, Lizzy’s energetic deployment of wit, her rational femininity, resoundingly oppose the restraint and submission expected of “a useful wife.”

But, however encomiastic our statements about Lizzy may be, there is another important aspect to Austen’s novel that has ensured, if not enshrined its place in our readerly hearts, that is to say her style. Austen’s narrators unfurl sentences of great energy and irony, presupposing an authorial position that is both intimately acquainted with the world of the narrative yet sufficiently distanced from the social necessities of said world.

While it wouldn’t be accurate to state that Austen’s narrative style isn’t quite as experimental as, say the narrator of Sterne’s proto-modern novel (if novel it may be called) Tristram Shandy, Austen’s seemingly paradoxical narrators imbue almost every sentence with often subtle, occasionally devastating irony. And, even if one were to suspend sanguine judgment on such matters, “it is a truth universally acknowledged, that” such humour appeals universally, particularly when it delineates the courtship of Lizzy and Darcy, their mutual discernment of her prejudice and his pride, and their happy conclusion.

Nota bene:  Frankenstein polled in 43rd place. Written by a teenager, in the company of two of the greatest poets in English literature, Mary Shelley’s first novel continues to exercise the collective imagination, always philosophically engaging and occasionally terrifying.

Mark Crosby, Associate Professor

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