Today is the 200th birthday of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
I may have commented on this before, but I recall as a teenage socialist student refusing to read and study and admire the work of an author concerning herself with the privileges of the upper classes and the irrelevancies of their social preoccupations. It wasn’t until much later that I learned to appreciate the often caustic criticism of this social world within which she necessarily restricted her commentary – focusing on what she knew rather than extrapolating on what she didn’t – and also to appreciate the brilliance of her class satire, primarily through the depiction of character, with personas we could joyfully detest or those with whom we could share in the mild mockery whilst developing an accompanying empathy.
My favourite Austen novel is Mansfield Park. Whilst not providing the sustained humour of Pride and Prejudice, the story of a dull and drab Fanny Price’s journey to true heroism is compelling, especially when coupled with the attending narrative drive that portrays in excruciating detail the nasty, obnoxious and priggish Mrs Norris, but who we then see receive at the book’s end one of the most righteously acerbic authorial pummellings of all time. This is Austen revealing the significant depths of her critical but artful analysis of a shallow world.
I loved teaching this book and hopefully conveying to students at the time of study the value of Austen which took me personally longer than it should to discover. I haven’t always convinced those I would want to persuade of the importance of her and the English canon – I don’t know how you can appreciate the role of the novel without reading and appreciating: Dickens’ withering and emotive social commentary [and language pyrotechnics]; C Bronte’s incipient modernism [unconscious revelations vs. the propriety of the Victorian novel]; Austen’s considerable charms outlined above; Hardy’s poetic pastoralism [and tragic trajectories], and Lawrence’s actual and absolute modernism [and later abject misogyny].
Lest the preceding paragraph sound too sanctimonious, I will readily admit that I am woefully ill-read when it comes to contemporary novels.