A Key to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

August 1, 2021 at 7:40 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
Title page from the first edition of the first volume of Pride and Prejudice, 1813. Lilly Library, Indiana University..
Title page from the first edition of the first volume of Pride and Prejudice, 1813. Lilly Library, Indiana University.

You have almost certainly read Jane Austen’s most famous novel, Pride & Prejudice, or seen a movie adaption of it. In addition to an enthralling plot, full of unexpected turns, this novel, like her others, is known for its insights into human nature, and the ways we trip ourselves up.

The plot centers on the repercussions of an initial misunderstanding between the heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, and the hero, Fitzwilliam Darcy. The misunderstanding arose because Elizabeth, while she was sitting at a ball, waiting to be asked to dance, overheard Darcy say “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humor at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.”

This incident in her fiction might have been inspired by an aspect of Jane Austen’s own experience.

Jane Austen insisted that none of the characters in her novels were based upon particular people. But the personalities and human interactions in her novels necessarily spring from some combination of the personalities and human interactions she had encountered, along with her imagination. One example is the residential displacement and financial stress experienced by wives and daughters when the male head of household dies. That scenario appears both in Pride & Prejudice and in Sense and Sensibility.

Cassandra Austen (1773–1845), Portrait of Jane Austen in watercolor and pencil, circa 1810, National Portrait Gallery (London): NPG 3630 .

Jane Austen was not considered to be particularly pretty, especially in comparison to her older sister Cassandra.

Jane’s awareness of that general opinion about her appearance is probably why Pride & Prejudice contains Darcy’s initial disparaging statement, and is also why the plot hinges upon Darcy’s remark.

Near the end of Pride & Prejudice there occurs a related instance where Jane’s own experiences probably appear in transmuted form. As noted by Joan Klingel Ray, in Simply Austen, Simply Charly, 2017:

Replying to her question about why he first came to admire and love her, he [Darcy] says that “the liveliness of her mind” attracted him the most.

Jane Austen’s personal experiences might also have contributed to her vivid awareness of the stress noted above on the female survivors of the death of a male head of household. Joan Austen, Cassandra, and her mother experienced those stresses. Recall that all of Jane Austen’s novels appeared only after the death of her father. His failure to prioritize his wife’s and daughters’ future financial security is discussed in Marian Veever’s outstanding dual biography of Jane Austen and Dorothy Wordsworth (Jane and Dorothy, Pegasus Books, 2018). That aspect of Jane’s experience may also have influenced the creation of the paternally-inattentive Mr. Bennet in Pride & Prejudice.

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