Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: 10 Facts

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a romantic novel with a protagonist named Elizabeth Bennett and her love interest, the aloof but handsome Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. The book was first published on 28 January 1813 by bookseller and publisher Thomas Egerton. It was preceded by Sense and Sensibility and followed by Mansfield Park, but Pride and Prejudice would remain one of Austen’s most popular books. It would also result in more than 20 million copies sold and would inspire theatre adaptations, TV versions, and even films.

Besides these interesting tidbits, there are 10 other facts about Pride and Prejudice that may be of interest to Austen fans.

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice - the title page

Title page of “Pride and Prejudice” 1813. Author’s collection.

Fact #1: When Austen finished the book, she was 21, and her father, George Austen, tried to help her get it published by sending a letter to Cadell & Davies. He wrote:

“Sirs, I have in my possession a Manuscript Novel, comprised in three Vols, about the length of Miss Burney’s Evelina. As I am well aware of what consequence it is that a work of this sort should make its’ first appearance under a respectable name I apply to you. Shall be must obliged therefore if you will inform me whether you chuse to be concerned in it; what will be the expense of publishing at the Author’s risk; & what you will venture to advance for the Property of it, if on a perusal it is approved of.”[1]

Instead of getting a letter of approval of Austen’s novel, George received the publisher rejection scrawled on the returned envelope stating, “declined by Return of Post.” Why was it rejected? According to one twenty-first professor at Cardiff University there might be several reasons:

“Turning firstly to George’s letter, it become apparent that, despite displaying some knowledge of publishing practices, it is in some other respects clumsy and businesslike. He seeks an immediate answer for an unseen manuscript, enquiring the terms under which they would publish: it is hardly likely that Cadell & Davies would find this anything but intrusive. Perhaps the Burney link was supposed to invoke their recent success with Camilla, but this possibly misfired, pointing to Evelina, an already old-fashioned (epistolary) novel. If we consider the relatively high standing of the firm in the booktrade at the time it does seem risible that an unknown cleric from Hampshire should attempt to gain anything tangible on the basis of a few lines and a comparison to a superannuated novel. We might even surmise that a clash of personalities might have occurred. George Austen’s provincial attitude typifies the eighteenth-century opinion that publishers were tradesmen. Conversely, the metropolitan firm perhaps had its own sense of hauteur, having dealt with established authors for many years.”[2]

Fact #2: First Impressions was the working title of the book and was probably used because the spirited and opinionated Elizabeth meets the arrogant and prickly Mr. Darcy and both dislike each other based on their first impressions. However, the book was published under the title of Pride and Prejudice likely due to commercial reasons as Minerva Press had already published a book titled First Impressions. The new title also suggests that two oppose traits will be the central theme of the novel, which is then demonstrated when Austen shows her characters displaying different types of pride and prejudice in both good and bad ways. However, one historian notes that First Impressions may be have been a more accurate title because “there is no monopoly of pride on Darcy’s part and prejudice on Elizabeth’s, but rather an equal misunderstanding.”[3]

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice - letter mentioning the book

Page 2 of a letter from Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra (11 June 1799) in which she first mentions Pride and Prejudice, using its working title First Impressions. Courtesy of National Library of Australia.

As to where the Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice title comes from, many people believe that it was likely taken from a passage written by a writer that Austen greatly admired named Fanny Burney. At the end her popular 1782 novel titled Cecilia, pride and prejudice is mentioned three times:

“The whole of this unfortunate business, said Dr Lyster, has been the result of PRIDE and PREJUDICE … Yet this, however, remember, if to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you owe your miseries, so wonderfully is good and evil balanced, that to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you will also owe their termination.”[4]

Fact #3: Before Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, 36-year-old Austen wrote a letter to her good friend Martha Lloyd on 29 November 1812 announcing that she had sold her novel. She stated:

“P. & P. is sold. — Egerton gives £110 for it. — I would rather have had £150, but we could not both be pleased, & I am not at all surprised that he should not chuse to hazard, so much. — Its’ being sold will I hope be a great saving of Trouble to Henry, & therefore must be welcome to me. — The Money is to be paid at the end of the twelvemonth.”[5]

Fact #4: The day after the novel’s publication, on 29 January 1813, Austen received a copy and wrote excitedly to her sister Cassandra stating:

“I want to tell you that I have got my own darling Child from London; — on Wednesday I received one Copy, sent down by Falknor, with three lines from Henry to say that he had given another to Charles & sent a 3d by the Coach to Godmersham; just the two Sets which I was least eager for the disposal of. I wrote to him immediately to beg for my two other Sets, unless he would take the trouble for forwarding them at once to Steventon & Portsmouth — … For your sake I am well pleased that it shd be so, as it might be unpleasant to you to be in the neighbourhood at the first burst of the business — The Advertisement is in our paper to day for the first time; — 18s — He shall ask £1–1- for my two next, & £1–8- for my stupidest of all. … Miss Benn dined with us on the very day of the Books coming, & in the eveng we set fairly at it & read half the 1st vol. to her — prefacing that having intelligence from Henry that such a work wd soon appear we had desired him to send it whenever it came out — & I believe it passed with her unsuspected. She was … amused, poor soul! That she cd not help you know, with two such people to lead the way; but she really does seem to admire Elizabeth. 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 — There are a few Typical errors — & a ‘said he’ or a ‘said she’ would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear — but ‘I do not write for such dull Elves.

As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.’ — That 2d vol. is shorter than I cd wish — but the difference is not so much in reality as in look, there being a larger proportion of narrative in that part. I have lopt & cropt so successfully however that I imagine it must be rather shorter than S. & S. altogether.”[6]

Silhouette of Jane’s sister Cassandra. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Fact #5 After its publication, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was well received and extremely popular. In fact, a twenty-first century historian remarked that “before May 1813, Pride and Prejudice had become the ‘fashionable novel,’ according to Anne Isabella Milbanke, who was to marry Lord Byron.”[7] Austen’s book also remains wildly popular today. In fact, USA Today notes that there are ten reasons why it is timeless. The newspapers reasoning ranges from Austen’s interesting and hypocritical characters to the fact that the Bennet girls are much like the Kardashians. The daily paper also notes that Austen’s story contains that ever popular element of being the ultimate “happy every after” story.

Fact #6: Although Austen may have written fiction novels, she included current events, which thereby allowed her to use the fears that the British held at the time about Napoleon Bonaparte invading the country. These fears increased when he declared war in 1803. It also allowed her to introduce militia characters into Pride and Prejudice and to present the scalawag George Wickham who eventually runs off with Elizabeth’s youngest sister, the frivolous, headstrong Lydia Bennet. Austen also placed the story in the coastal city of Brighton, a place that was full of “fun-seeking” sailors and “good time” militiamen. Moreover, because her two youngest brothers pursued honorable careers in the navy — Francis became an Admiral in 1863 and Charles became a Rear Admiral in 1846 — one biographer noted the accuracy of Austen’s remarks related to the navy:

“She was always very careful not to meddle with matters which she did not thoroughly understand. She never touched upon politics, law, or medicine, subjects which some novel writers have ventured on rather too boldly, and have treated with more brilliancy than accuracy. But with ships and sailors she felt herself at home, at least could always trust to a brotherly critic to keep her right.”[8]

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice - illustration

Elizabeth tells her father that Darcy was responsible for uniting Lydia and Wickham, one of the two earliest illustrations of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The clothing styles reflect the time the illustration was engraved (the 1830s), not the time in which the novel was set. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Fact #7: Austen characters in Pride and Prejudice wore the Regency styles of dress that were popular at the time. These styles had been borrowed from France and were gauzy sheer muslin fashions with empire waists and low necklines. They were also often white as that color looked classical like a Greek or Roman statue and indicated the wearer was wealthy enough to employ someone to keep it white. One famous French socialite, Madame Récamier, who was considered a merveilleuse because she was fashionable and wore extravagant styles, was always seen wearing white. In fact, the color became synonymous with her, and many British women mentioned her penchant for white fashions when she visited England during the peace of Amiens in 1802.

Juliette Récamier 1801 by Jean-Baptiste Jacques Augustin. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

For risqué women, they might be seen wearing no drawers, no chemise, and no petticoat with the sheer gauzy muslin fashions. This was a trend that another merveilleuse embraced. Her name was Madame Tallien, and, apparently, this fashion trendsetter once appeared at the Paris Opera without underwear in such a sheer white diaphanous gown that one shocked observer proclaimed, “One could not be more richly unclothed!”[9]

Fortunately, Austen made sure that Elizabeth was much more modest and proper that Madame Tallien. She likely wore drawers and without question wore a petticoat. This was noted when she wore a gauzy muslin dress across a wet field to Netherfield and was criticized by Charles Bingley’s two sisters, Miss Caroline Bingley and Mrs. Louisa Hurst, because “her petticoat, six inches deep in mud … and the gown, which had been let down to hide it, [was] not doing its office.”[10]

Fact #8: Austen wrote about societal and class changes. For instance, she saw that gentlemen of her time could improve their station in life by earning it rather than by being respectable through genteel status. Moreover, once a gentleman was rich enough, he could buy property and become a land owner. Pride and Prejudice thus introduced enlightened hard-working businessmen, such as the Bingleys, who were associated with rank and whom Austen noted “were a respectable family in the north of England; … [whose fortune] had been acquired by trade.”[11]

Fact #9: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice also tells the story of women of gentile poverty trying to make a good match. Austen must have been thinking of this very thing when she wrote her novel because she had flirted with a young man named Thomas Lefroy. He was educated at the expense of his great-uncle Benjamin at Trinity College, Dublin and eventually practiced law in Dublin. Of him, Austen wrote:

“I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself, however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all. He is very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you.”[12]

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice - watercolor of Jane Austen

Watercolor portrait of Jane Austen by Cassandra in 1804. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

She was close enough to Lefroy that a friend gave her a portrait of him. Austen also once joked that if he asked her to marry him, she would if he dispensed with his white morning coat. Unfortunately, just like a character in one of her romantic novels, 20-year-old Austen found herself rejected after only four weeks when his family separated them because she was not rich enough and because she did not have a high enough social standing. Austen sadly wrote:

“At length the Day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, & when you receive this it will be over –— My tears flow as I write, at the melancholy idea.”[13]

Lefroy later became engaged to a woman named Mary Paul, who had a large fortune. They married in 1799 and had nine children.

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice - Thomas Lefroy

Thomas Lefroy. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Fact #10: The first line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice novel reads: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”[14] It is an ironic line that says one thing, while meaning the opposite. Austen must have thought about that line and also thought about being a wife, but she never married even though she was much like her heroines, pretty, intelligent, and flirtatious.

Things were complicated for her because she had no dowry and as marriage was often contracted for economic reasons, it made marriage a difficult prospect for her. However, she got another chance for marriage in 1802. It was in December that a shy and stammering Harris Bigg-Wither proposed.

He was a brother to her friends Catherine and Alethea Bigg, and Austen was six years older than him. She accepted, at least over night, but then reconsidered and broke it off the next morning. She never explained why, but perhaps she wanted a life that was not dependent on the whims of a husband or perhaps she wanted to pursue a writing career with no worries. It could also be that she just decided it wasn’t worth marrying a man who would not sweep her off her feet like Elizabeth experienced with the handsome, tall, and intelligent Mr. Darcy.

References:

  • [1] A. Mandal, Jane Austen and the Popular Novel: The Determined Author (New York: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2007), p. 57.
  • [2] Ibid., 59
  • [3] Irene Collins, Jane Austen: The Parson’s Daughter (London: Hambledon Continuum, 1998), p. 149.
  • [4] F. Burney, Cecilia, Or, Memoirs of an Heiress v. 3 (Chiswick: C. Whittingham for C. S. Arnold, 1823), p. 315–16.
  • [5] Deirdre Le Faye, ed., Jane Austen’s Letters, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 197.
  • [6] Ibid., P. 201-202.
  • [7] E. Copeland and J. McMaster, The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 10.
  • [8] London Quarterly and Holborn Review: American edition v. 128-129 (New York: Leonard Scott Publishing Company, 1870), p. 105.
  • [9] F. Gendron, J. Cookson and J. C. François Gendron, Gilded Youth of Thermidor (Montreal: MQUP, 1993), p. 34.
  • [10] J. Austen, Pride and Prejudice (London: RD Bentley, 1853), p. 30.
  • [11] Ibid., P. 12.
  • [12] D. Le Faye, ed., p. 1.
  • [13] Ibid., p. 4.
  • [14] J. Austen, p. 1.

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