One of Jane Austen’s greatest novels, and to many, one of the greatest novels written in the English language, celebrates its 200-year anniversary this year, and this is why you should read it.
Jane Austen, a member of the lower class landed gentry, a socialite and a spinster knew well the world she unfurls for us, and knew how to ironize upon it. The cutting humour and her attempt at poking fun at some deluded members of society makes the book a good read, yet for the lovers of literature and of Austen, the cautionary tale which emerges by reading between the lines trumps the positivity of the love story between the protagonists.
As well as discussing recurring themes in her writing, and in contemporary Georgian society, such as the economic and social dependence of women on marriage, and the importance of virtue, Austen denounces upbringing as an important element in someone’s future, which goes beyond class or income, still true to this day. To many scholars, Pride and Prejudice is actually a critique on Austen’s parents’ behaviour and how their lack of interest failed their two daughters, Jane and Cassandra, who both died unmarried.
Mr and Mrs Bennet are not just comic characters in the novel, full of ironic remarks and hilarious attacks of nerves, they are gross caricatures of both an unhappy marriage and of what at that time would be considered bad parenting. In fact, an underlying critique within the book, suggest that the girl’s behaviour and Lydia’s ultimate loss of virtue is in fact a product of the father’s lack of interest, and the mother’s frivolousness.
Reflecting upon the book, this is one of the elements that I find most interesting. Yes, the social critique, the beautiful free indirect speech narrative style used by Austen in her most successful novels, and the romantic love story between the male and female protagonists are enthralling, but the cautionary tale element has gained new meaning to me.
There is one more question about the novel that maintains it fresh and topical to this day. Though Austen critiques the constraints of the society she lives in, tells of the dangers of character traits such as pride and prejudice, she ties up the book with a tidy double marriage ending. Is Austen just accepting the society she lives in and adapting to its inevitability? Thus confirming one of her own most cutting comments: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”