Pride, Prejudice and an enduring love affair
This month sees the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice. Susannah Fullerton analyses why Jane Austen has never been more popular
Two hundred years ago Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice went out into the world. It was not a bestseller – many contemporary novelists were publishing more popular books and being better paid. But today few read Sir Walter Scott or Fanny Burney, while the novels of Jane Austen have never been more universally loved.
Pride and Prejudice and Jane Austen’s other five novels have endured because they are still so relevant to 21st century readers. We may not be wearing Regency clothes or driving carriages, but human nature has not changed and Jane Austen’s understanding of what makes people tick is demonstrated on every page of her books.
Everyone who has suffered from listening to a chronic talker will sympathise with Emma who must listen to Miss Bates whose tongue never stops. All those who have discovered that a friend has proved false, faking affection because they wanted something from you, will feel the description of Catherine’s disappointment over Isabella in Northanger Abbey rings true.
Most of us have worked with employees who flatter the boss to gain promotion – just like Mr Collins with Lady Catherine! And many a young man knows the dilemma faced by Edward Ferrars of Sense and Sensibility - he wants a job his mother doesn’t approve, while she insists on another career path.
Most of us have met hypochondriacs like Mary Musgrove (“My sore throats are always worse than anybody’s”), or have been out too late with party animals like Sir John Middleton, or have met sporting bores such as John Thorpe. Jane Austen’s characters are alive and well in our world today, and by reading her novels we learn how to cope with problems, maintain a sense of humour in the face of unpleasantness, and how to better understand human nature.
Jane Austen’s novels are love stories. These days lovers may not be quite so desperate to get a ring on the finger and the church booked, but finding the right partner in life is still a universal goal.
Rich Mr Darcy famously rejects Elizabeth Bennet as “not handsome enough to tempt me” - good looks are still the first object with wealthy footballers or men seeking trophy wives. Fortunately Mr Darcy comes to realise that looks are not everything, and that a good brain, wit and taste, are also important. So he finds happiness with Elizabeth, just as today we try to find shared interests and tastes in the romantic partnerships we form.
Jane Austen depicted young women needing the financial security of marriage - today women can make their own careers, but as long as women bear children they will suffer some vulnerability at such times, so the financial security of marriage is still desirable for most women today.
W. H. Auden commented on the way in which Jane Austen emphasised money. Few writers have had such understanding of money as Jane Austen – she shows what living without it can do to one person’s character, she shows how having too much can ruin another’s; she demonstrates the many ways in which money influences us.
She herself never had money of her own until she published her novels in her mid 30s – she knew what she was talking about when she described characters without incomes (such as the Bennet sisters). In days of global economic uncertainty, her novels are extremely relevant, and her insights into the part played by money, or its absence, especially pertinent.
My book Celebrating Pride and Prejudice: 200 Years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece reveals just how important Jane Austen is to today’s readers. The lessons in her novels have inspired and shaped generations of readers, she has provided role models for us to follow and examples for us to avoid, she has demonstrated an extraordinary understanding of human nature, taught us what to laugh at, guided us through love and romance and, to top it all off, she has provided 200 years of perfect entertainment.
Why not celebrate Jane Austen in this anniversary year by reading all her novels and seeing just how modern she really is!
Celebrating Pride and Prejudice: 200 Years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece by Susannah Fullerton is available now (Frances Lincoln, £16.99). Susannah is the president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia
This week’s Big Issue magazine features articles on Jane Austen’s lasting appeal by Professor John Mullan and novelist Katherine Webb