Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice turns 200
Professor Deidre Lynch discusses the book's enduring popularity
January 28th marks the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s novel of class, family, love and marriage. The tale of Elizabeth Bennett and her sisters consistently tops lists of the world’s best-loved books. Writer Jenny Hall spoke to Deidre Lynch, Chancellor Jackman Professor in the Department of English, about the story’s amazing staying power.
Lynch teaches about Austen and is the editor of Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees and of the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Austen’s Persuasion.
Why is Pride and Prejudice still so popular?
It’s a fantastic book. It has archetypal Cinderella-story-like qualities that I think help ensure its staying power. And the plot is ever so adaptable—Bridget Jones’s Diary would be a good example. But mainly, it’s because of Elizabeth Bennet, who is just such an attractive heroine, and the particular intimacy with her mind we feel as readers. There’s her wittiness, but there’s also our ability to sympathize when she faces the consequences of her wit, when she realizes what she’s lost and when she realizes how her family looks to other people. We share in her embarrassment.
The bigger question is how did Austen do this? Why are her novels so compelling?
It’s the wit, clearly. Also, she always has an ironic edge. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bennet has this great line: “For what do we live except to make sport for our neighbours?” We like irony and edge right now, and we get that in spades in Austen. Her books have lasted a lot better than more sentimental versions of 19th century literature.
Have her books been popular continuously?
Austen was only out of print for a while, just after her death. She was brought back into print 15 years after her death and has stayed in print since, which is astonishing. That’s not something you can say about any other novels from that period, except Frankenstein. But there are surges in her popularity. In the late 19th century, there was a moment of high Janeite-ism. Henry James complained about her popularity. He liked Austen a lot, but he thought that too many people were reading her for the wrong reasons—reading her for the romance. Then things calmed down. There were other moments during the First and Second World Wars in England. Rudyard Kipling called her “England’s Jane.” The idea was that this was what they were fighting for: England’s Jane. Then in the 1990s it took off again and it’s still going crazy—we’ve had an Austen boom for decades now.
We have an Austen class at U of T that we give every semester, and it has a waiting list as long as the enrolment. That would not have been true 40 years ago. There were no Jane Austen classes when I was an undergrad in the early 1980s.
There does seem to be almost a cult around her.
That too is something that is fairly new—and growing in its intensity. The Jane Austen Society of North America was founded in the 1970s, but it has more chapters and members than it ever has.
It reminds me a little of the Star Trek fan community.
That’s a good analogy. Austen has been a big feature on the Internet, too. There’s a site called Republic of Pemberley, which I recommend without hesitation to my students, partly because those people really know the novels.
Her popularity has inspired lots of modern takes on the books. You mentioned Bridget Jones’s Diary. Do you have thoughts on any of them?
Clueless remains the best Austen adaptation ever. The most recent Pride and Prejudice film I thought was quite sappy because they tried to make it into Wuthering Heights. They missed that what attracts us to Austen is precisely the ways in which she’s not Charlotte or Emily Bronte. And yet they had lots of scenes of stormy weather and moors that just don’t work with the novel. And Keira Knightley can’t do Elizabeth Bennet’s wit very well.
Austen is often thought of as a women’s writer.
What is your take?
Austen has always been the one woman in the canon. Columbia University’s great book program always had room for Austen. But she is seen as a women’s writer today in a way that was not true before. Up until about the 1950s she was thought of as a writer men would like more than women would. There were women in the 1930s, 40s and 50s who said, “I’m trying to get out of the drawing room. Austen keeps me there.” The first person who called himself a Janeite was George Saintsbury, a very famous editor and professor of English literature. But today we tend to see her as a women’s writer, or as the beginning of “chick lit,” which is a term I really hate.
You said earlier that the only books that have really survived from the 19th century were hers and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It’s interesting that it’s the women who endured.
Indeed. Who reads Walter Scott now? He was the bestselling author of the time. He reviewed Mary Shelley and Jane Austen and all but admitted that they had far more literary skill than he. Scott is a struggle to teach to undergraduates. With Austen, they come in with smiles on their faces and they never leave.
Which is your favourite of Austen’s novels?
It depends on what I’m working on! Right now I’m editing Mansfield Park. The heroine is so different than the other heroines. You get a glimpse of the oppressiveness of the life of a young woman who doesn’t have enough money. You get that in Pride and Prejudice too, but there’s this fairy tale aspect where in the end it doesn’t matter. It’s as if in Mansfield Park she’s rewriting that over again. It’s not nearly as charming a book, but I find it so morally complex because it’s about what power does to people’s psyches and about what being oppressed does to people’s psyches. So right now that’s my favourite, but that’s because I’m working on it. Persuasion is one that I often cite as my favourite. I also adore Emma. Pretty much all of them!