Publication History and Critical Reception
Pride and Prejudice, probably the most popular of Austen's finished novels, was also, in a sense, the first to be composed. The original version, First Impressions, was completed by 1797, but was rejected for publication — no copy of the original has survived. The work was rewritten around 1812 and published in 1813 as Pride and Prejudice. The final form must have been a thorough rewriting of the original effort, for it is representative of the mature Austen. Moreover, the story clearly takes place in the early nineteenth century rather than in the late eighteenth century.
Austen's works, including Pride and Prejudice, were barely noticed by critics during her lifetime. Pride and Prejudice sold fairly well — the first edition sold out at about 1,500 copies. Critics who eventually reviewed it in the early part of the nineteenth century praised Austen's characterizations and portrayal of everyday life. After Austen's death in 1817, the book continued to be published and read with little attention from critics for the next fifty years. The few critical comments made during that time continued to focus on her skill at creating characters, as well as on her technical mastery. In 1870, probably the most significant nineteenth-century critical article on Austen was published by Richard Simpson; in the article, Simpson discussed the complexity of Austen's work, including her use of irony.
Modern Austen scholarship began in 1939 with the publication of Jane Austen and Her Art, by Mary Lascelle. The scope and vision of that book prompted other scholars to take a closer look at Austen's works. Pride and Prejudice began getting serious attention in the 1940s and has continued to be studied heavily since that time. Modern critics take a variety of approaches to the novel, including historical, economical, feminist, and linguistic.
Various critics have consistently noted that the plot development of Pride and Prejudice is determined by character — coincidence exerts a major influence, but turns of action are precipitated by character. Although human weakness is a prominent element, ranging from Miss Bingley's jealousy to Elizabeth's blind prejudices, outright evil is little in evidence. Austen maintains an attitude of good-humored irony toward her characters.
Historical Context of Pride and Prejudice
During Austen's career, Romanticism reached its zenith of acceptance and influence, but she rejected the tenets of that movement. The romantics extolled the power of feeling, whereas Austen upheld the supremacy of the rational faculty. Romanticism advocated the abandonment of restraint; Austen was a staunch exponent of the neo-classical belief in order and discipline. The romantics saw in nature a transcendental power to stimulate men to better the existing order of things, which they saw as essentially tragic in its existing state. Austen supported traditional values and the established norms, and viewed the human condition in the comic spirit. The romantics exuberantly celebrated natural beauty, but Austen's dramatic technique decreed sparse description of setting. The beauties of nature are seldom detailed in her work.
Just as Austen's works display little evidence of the Romantic movement, they also reveal no awareness of the international upheavals and consequent turmoil in England that took place during her lifetime. Keep in mind, however, that such forces were remote from the restricted world that she depicts. Tumultuous affairs, such as the Napoleonic wars, in her day did not significantly affect the daily lives of middle-class provincial families. The ranks of the military were recruited from the lower orders of the populace, leaving gentlemen to purchase a commission, the way Wickham does in the novel, and thereby become officers.
Additionally, the advancement of technology had not yet disrupted the stately eighteenth-century patterns of rural life. The effects of the industrial revolution, with its economic and social repercussions, were still most sharply felt by the underprivileged laboring classes. Unrest was widespread, but the great reforms that would launch a new era of English political life did not come until later. Consequently, newer technology that existed in England at the time of Pride and Prejudice's publication does not appear in the work.
General Critique of Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice continues to be popular today not only because of its memorable characters and the general appeal of the story, but also because of the skill with which it is told. In Pride and Prejudice, Austen displays a masterful use of irony, dialogue, and realism that support the character development and heighten the experience of reading the novel.
Jane Austen's irony is devastating in its exposure of foolishness and hypocrisy. Self-delusion or the attempt to fool other people is almost always the object of her wit; note how she has Elizabeth say that she hopes she will never laugh at what is wise or good.
The reader finds various forms of exquisite irony in Pride and Prejudice: Sometimes the characters are unconsciously ironic, as when Mrs. Bennet seriously asserts that she would never accept any entailed property, though Mr. Collins is willing to; other times, Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth serve to directly express the author's ironic opinion. When Mary Bennet is the only daughter at home and doesn't have to be compared to her prettier sisters, the author observes that "it was suspected by her father that she submitted to the change without much reluctance." Mr. Bennet turns his wit on himself during the crisis with Wickham and Lydia — "let me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame. I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression. It will pass away soon enough."
Elizabeth's irony is lighthearted when Jane asks when she began to love Mr. Darcy. "It has been coming on so gradually that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley." She can be bitterly cutting, however, in her remark on Darcy's role in separating Bingley and Jane. "Mr. Darcy is uncommonly kind to Mr. Bingley, and takes a prodigious deal of care of him."
The author, independent of any character, uses irony in the narrative parts for some of her sharpest — but often unnoticed — judgments. The Meryton community is glad that Lydia is marrying such a worthless man as Wickham: "and the good-natured wishes for her well-doing, which had proceeded before from all the spiteful old ladies in Meryton, lost but little of their spirit in this change of circumstances, because with such a husband, her misery was certain."
Austen uses irony to both provoke whimsical laughter and to make veiled, bitter observations. In her hands — and few others are more capable and discriminating — irony is an extremely effective device for moral evaluation.
Dialogue also plays an important role in Pride and Prejudice. The novel opens with a talk between Mrs. Bennet and her husband: "'My dear Mr. Bennet,' said his lady to him one day, 'have you heard that Netherfield is let at last?'" In the conversation that follows, we learn a great deal — about Mrs. Bennet's preoccupation with marrying off her daughters, Mr. Bennet's ironic and sarcastic attitude toward his wife, and her self-pitying nature. The stage is effortlessly set for the family's introduction to the Bingley group, and the dialogue has given us information on both incidents of plot and the attitudes which drive the characters.
The pieces of dialogue are consistently the most vivid and important parts of the novel. This is natural because novels were mostly read aloud in Austen's time, so good dialogue was extremely important. We learn of the major turning points through the dialogue, and even intense inner change like Elizabeth's famous self-recognition scene ("How despicably have I acted!") is related as a person talking to herself.
Each character's speeches are individually appropriate and the most telling way of revealing what each is like. Elizabeth's talk is forthright and sparkling, her father's is sarcastic, Mr. Collin's speeches are tedious and silly, and Lydia's fountain of words is all frivolity and no substance.
The things that happen in Pride and Prejudice happen to nearly all readers — embarrassment at the foolishness of relatives, the unsteady feelings of falling in love, and the chagrin of suddenly realizing a big mistake. The psychological realism of the novel is revealed in the quick recognition we have of how the key characters feel.
It is very natural for Elizabeth and Darcy to be angry at each other after she first turns him down, and it is very natural for them to feel twinges of regret, and then have a complete change of mind with the passage of time. Every step in their progress toward each other is described with a sensitivity to how people feel and act. In the subtle and beautiful description of Elizabeth's self-realization is a convincing view of how an intelligent, feeling person changes.
When considering Austen's realism, however, readers should recognize that her major weakness as a writer is related to her greatest strength. She writes about what she knows — and this means that great areas of human experience are never touched on. We never see that much of the male characters, and they are rough sketches compared with her heroines. Extreme passions are usually avoided in her writing, and this becomes noticeable when, for example, she moves to a very impersonal, abstract voice when Elizabeth accepts Darcy: Elizabeth "immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change . . . as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances." People who dislike Austen's works often cite this lack of extreme emotions as their main reason. Even so, no one can deny her ability to create unforgettable characters, build well-structured plots, or deliver assessments of society with a razor-sharp wit. Austen's works possess a timeless quality, which makes her stories and themes as relevant today as they were two hundred years ago.