I have been reading Austen’s letters this week that have to do with Pride and Prejudice, and in them I have found a very intriguing story. When Pride and Prejudice was first published, Jane and her mother read the story aloud over several nights to Miss Benn who was dinning with them. Jane read the first half one night, and her mother read the second half on another evening. In letters to her sister Cassandra on 29 January 1813 and then again on 4 February 1813, Jane Austen explains…
“Miss Benn dinned with us on the very day of the Books coming, & in the evening we set fairly at it & read half the first volume to her – prefacing that having intelligence from Henry that such a work would soon appear we had desired him to send it whenever it came out – & I believe it passed with her unsuspected.“
I don’t know if Miss Benn knew how lucky she was. It is slightly unclear whether Miss Benn ever knew that Jane Austen was the author or not, but I got the impression that at least at first she didn’t. What a lucky lady! Who would not kill to have Jane Austen read the part of Mrs. Bennet or Elizabeth? It would have been a truly magical experience.
Miss Benn was the younger sister of the Reverend John Benn who was the rector of Farringdon. She was unmarried and living in very poor circumstances in Chawton, close to the Austen’s. She dined with them frequently, as we can see in some of Jane’s letters and is often remembered by Cassandra who gave her a gift of a shawl. Though she was a very poor ‘old maid’, I think she has an enviable situation because she got to hear Jane Austen read Pride and Prejudice aloud.
Jane Austen also writes about Miss Benn’s enjoyment of the novel. “She was amused, poor soul! That she could not help you know, with two such people to lead the way; but she really does seem to admire Elizabeth.” Then we get to the famous quote about Jane Austen’s view of Elizabeth saying…
“I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print & how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.”
The second night of reading did not go over as well as the first because Jane writes in the February 4th letter remarking, “I had had some fits of disgust.” Miss Benn was again at the second reading for Pride and Prejudice but Jane tells Cassandra of some problems with their mother’s reading of the novel. She says, “I believe something must be attributed to my Mother’s too rapid way of getting on.” I can just imagine Mrs. Austen rushing through one of Jane’s favorite passages and how annoying that would have been to her. I am sure she had specific voices in her head for characters and specific ways that conversations would have happened, but Mrs. Austen must not have been doing the best job. Jane explains to Cassandra, “& though she perfectly understands the characters herself, she cannot speak as they ought. Upon the whole however I am quite vain enough & well satisfied enough.”
We can only imagine what it would have been like to be a fly on the wall that evening and what a great thing it must have been. To hear Jane Austen read her own beloved characters the day that she received the text in the mail, whoa! I can only dream in my head how wonderfully witty that would have been. (NOT ANYTHING LIKE THE READING IN THE MOVIE BECOMING JANE AT THE VERY END!!! ) She must have been thrilled, exuberant, excited and yet able to conceal it all from Miss Benn who did not know that Jane was the author, and how lucky she was to be hearing the first reading of the newly published Pride and Prejudice. If only there was such a thing as a time machine, I would go back to that night just to be a fly on the wall.
Until next week,
Virginia Claire, our Austen at Large roving reporter is a college student studying English literature and history who just returned from her time studying abroad in Bath England and working as an intern at the Jane Austen Centre. She is the Regional Coordinator of JASNA North Carolina and a lifelong Janeite. She will be sharing her thoughts on all things Austen this semester and remembering her travels in Austenland.