How precious are Your thoughts to me, O LORD ... how vast is the sum of them!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Happy 200th Birthday, Pride & Prejudice

“I want to tell you that I have got my own darling Child from London.”

In a letter dated Friday, January 29th, 1813, exactly 200 years ago, Jane Austen penned those words to her sister Cassandra. She was speaking, of course, of Pride and Prejudice, which had been published the day before. Jane was at Chawton and Cassandra was at Steventon with their oldest brother James. The rest of the letter was a jubilant commentary on the disposal of her author copies and some final thoughts on the reality she held in her hands … then she forced herself to write of “something else” -- mundane matters that serve to bring the Austen family and their friends to life.

But she would often come back to P & P in future letters: exulting over good reviews from family, friends, and critics and reflecting on the characters. One particularly delightful passage is in a May 24th letter from London:

“… Henry & I went to the Exhibition in Spring Gardens. It is not thought a good collection, but I was very well pleased -- particularly (pray tell Fanny [niece]) with a small portrait of Mrs. Bingley, excessively like her. I went in hopes of seeing one of her Sister, but there was no Mrs. Darcy; -- perhaps however, I may find her in the Great Exhibition which we shall go to, if we have time …. Mrs. Bingley’s is exactly herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her. I dare say Mrs. D. will be in Yellow.”

                                                  (Portrait of a Lady by J. M. F. Huet-Villiers
                                                               A probable Jane Bingley)

What struck me was the way Jane Austen considered her characters to be living on after the events of the book. I usually view my characters as frozen within their stories, but to her, the Bennet sisters should no longer be thought of as the Bennets, but as the wives of Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy. We refer to “Elizabeth Bennet” in the present whenever we talk of Pride and Prejudice, but for her author, Elizabeth was real and was living beyond the story. Once we read the story, she is Elizabeth Darcy.

Pride and Prejudiceis a living book, and Elizabeth is a living character -- she does not die, but is recreated over and over again as each new generation reads her. Once we’ve closed the book, for the first, second, third time, she’s Mrs. Darcy. But then, when we open it, for the second, third, fourth time, she’s Miss Elizabeth Bennet again. Funny how that works.

By the way, have you ever heard Mary and Kitty Bennet’s fates? Jane Austen revealed that Mary married her father’s clerk and Kitty a clergyman near Pemberley.

I wonder if Pride and Prejudice was Jane Austen’s favorite. She mentions it so many times in her letters, which must be just a smattering of what she spoke of in person. Granted, we don’t have all her letters, but still, she adored Elizabeth and the book seems to be very much in keeping with what we know of Miss Austen’s own character. If so, her preference rightly presaged the opinion of the world that loved her works after her.

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