Pride and Prejudice: Introduction

Considered a masterpiece of world literature by scholars and critics, Pride and Prejudice is equally appreciated by the general reading public often topping international polls of the “the most loved” or “favorite books” of all time. Numerous stage and screen adaptations continue to remind us of its incredible draw to the modern audience and reaffirm its value financially and culturally. Its hero and heroine Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet may be the most famous romantic couple short of Romeo and Juliet. Its plot, characters and style have been widely admired, often emulated but rarely equaled. High praise indeed for a novel written almost two hundred years ago by a clergyman’s daughter raised in the English countryside of Hampshire, home schooled by her father and unexalted in her lifetime. If Pride and Prejudice is the long shot of literature, then we are the lucky owners in the winner’s circle.

First published in 1813, Pride and Prejudice was Jane Austen second novel after Sense and Sensibility in 1811. Written between 1796 and 1797 when Jane was not one and twenty, the edition we see today was not her first concept. Originally called First Impressions it was written in the epistolary format popular with contemporary novels such as Fanny Burney’s Evelina. Jane’s father Rev. George Austen was so confident in his daughter’s work that he pursued publication contacting one of the leading publishers Cadell & Davies in London, only to have the manuscript returned by post unopened. After the success of Sense and Sensibility, Austen would make extensive revisions “lopping and cropping” the manuscript, retitling it and presenting it to her current publisher Thomas Egerton. He paid her £110 for the copyright. That was the only money she would ever earn from her most popular work. It is estimated that 20 million copies of it have been sold world-wide to date.

Set in the country village of Longbourn in Hertfordshire, the story revolves around the Bennet family and their five unmarried daughters. They are the first family of consequence in the village, unfortunately the Longbourn estate is entailed by default to a male heir, their cousin Mr. William Collins. This is distressful to Mrs. Bennet who knows that she must find husbands for her daughters or they shall all be destitute if her husband should die. Mr. Bennet is not as concerned and spends his time in his library away from his wife’s idle chatter and social maneuvering. The second eldest daughter Elizabeth is spirited and confident, wanting only to marry for love. She teases her eldest sister Jane that she must catch a wealthy husband with her beauty and good nature and support them. The three younger sisters Mary, Catherine and Lydia hinder their sister’s chances for a good match by inappropriate and unguarded behavior.

When Mr. Bingley, a single man of large fortune, moves into the neighborhood with his fashionable sisters he attends the local Meryton assembly ball and is immediately taken with beautiful Jane Bennet. His friend Mr. Darcy is even richer with a great estate in Derbyshire, but is proud and arrogant giving offence to all including Elizabeth by refusing to dance with her. She overhears him tell Bingley that she was only tolerable and not handsome enough to tempt him. This amuses and annoys her enough to repeat it to her friends and family. The whole community declares him the most disagreeable man, eaten up with pride.

Elizabeth and Darcy continue to cross paths and she challenges his contempt with impertinence. He is intrigued. She is indifferent. When the militia regiment arrives at Meryton, Elizabeth is introduced to the handsome Lieutenant Wickham who quickly reveals Mr. Darcy’s ill treatment of him, ruining his future. This only confirms Elizabeth’s prejudices against him. Jane and Bingley’s blossoming relationship seems to be a certain match in Mrs. Bennet’s view. As she brags about it to her neighbors, Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte Lucas is not so sure, advising her that Jane should show more affection than she feels. The Bennet’s cousin Rev. Collins arrives with the design of marrying one of the Bennet daughters. He is an odious, pompous man who extolls upon the condescension of his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh and his comfortable arrangement as her pastor on her estate in Kent. He proposes to Elizabeth and she is appalled, refusing him. Mrs. Bennet will never speak to Lizzy if she does not marry Mr. Collins. Ironically, her father will not speak to her if she does, winning the argument and saving Elizabeth from certain misery.

Then, as abruptly as Mr. Bingley arrived in the county, he and his party depart for London with no immediate plans to return. Jane is heartbroken, Elizabeth puzzled and Mrs. Bennet despondent. Elizabeth is pleased that Mr. Darcy is gone, but saddened for her sisters loss of Bingley. What could it all mean? Elizabeth suspects Mr. Darcy and Bingley’s snobbish sisters have influenced his decision. The Bennet’s are not refined or rich enough for their society and they have separated them. Surprisingly, Charlotte Lucas reveals that she and Mr. Collins are to be married. Impossible declares Elizabeth who is told by her friend that she is not romantic like her. Elizabeth now realizes that to marrying only for love might mean not marrying at all.

© 2010 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose