|A watercolor portrait of Jane Austen,|
done in 1804 by her sister Cassandra
January is a banner month for Jane Austen fans like me – and if you’re reading this blog, I suspect you’re one of us, too. Towards the end of January 1813, Pride and Prejudice was published to the everlasting delight of millions of future readers.
Of course, it was published anonymously, but that wasn't unusual for women writers then. There were a few published female authors (Maria Edgeworth, author of Castle Rackrent, Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein, to name two) around this time, but literature, like most other intellectual pursuits, was a predominantly male domain.
And, I suspect it took critics a while to consider Jane Austen the literary heavyweight she is, and fully appreciate her work. In fact, when I was a college student some years ago, Austen didn’t make it into the 2-volume Norton Anthology of English Literature (3rd edition) I had to study as part of my English major curriculum. The books, which together contained over 4,000 pages, covered English literature from the Middle Ages to the mid-20th century, but apparently, there was no place in all those pages for Austen.
But back to Pride and Prejudice - though published in 1813, Jane may have actually written it as far back as 1796. Initially, the book was titled First Impressions, and her family liked it so much that in the autumn of 1797 her father George sent his daughter’s manuscript (perhaps without her knowledge) to a London publisher, Thomas Cadell. Cadell rejected the book in the most dismissive way – he sent it back like a boomerang marked “Declined by return of post.”
And thus Cadell joined the ranks of publishers who rejected books that would go on to become best-sellers, a no-doubt rueful group that includes the publishers who rejected J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Stephen King's Carrie, and Herman Melville's Moby Dick, among a legion of others.
Pride and Prejudice was not Jane’s first published work. Jane’s brother Henry Austen helped her get Sense and Sensibility published in 1811, anonymously, of course – the byline reads “By a Lady.”
And when Pride and Prejudice was published two years later (after Jane revised and retitled her First Impressions manuscript) its byline read “By the author of 'Sense and Sensibility'.”
|Original title page of Pride and Prejudice|
Before her death in July of 1817, Austen saw two other books published, though still anonymously. Mansfield Park was published in 1814, and Emma came out in 1815. Following Jane's death, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously as a set in 1817.
As part of the Northanger Abbey/Persuasion set, Henry included a tribute to his sister, identifying her as the author of the books. But it wasn’t until Persuasion was published in France, in French, in 1821 that Jane Austen’s name appeared on the title page of one of her books.
In addition to the published novels written entirely by Jane, there are other three other manuscripts published under her name, one that she wrote but never tried to publish herself Lady Susan (published in 1871), and two that were unfinished manuscripts completed by others, The Watsons (1871), and Sanditon (1925).
But Pride and Prejudice remains Jane’s most popular novel. Since its publication, it’s sold over 20 million copies and never been out of print. (Take that, Norton Anthology of English Literature!) Austen's work has been adapted almost more times than I can count, especially if you add all the books and films that have used its title and theme as a starting point before veering off into uncharted territory. (More on the adaptations this Friday.).
The most recent movie adaptation (that doesn’t feature zombies) is the 2005 movie with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. The critical reviews were good and the scenery was gorgeous, but for me, the best casting of Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy was not Knightley and Macfadyen but rather Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth in the 1995 BBC TV mini-series.
Here’s a popular scene from the mini-series, an unexpected and awkward meeting between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy at Darcy’s Pemberley estate, in which both he and she have reason to be embarrassed:
Happy 205th publication anniversary, Pride and Prejudice!
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons