Pride and Prejudice (1813) is arguably the most popular work of British novelist Jane Austen (1775–1817). Along with Austen’s other novels, it was groundbreaking for its focus on middle-class life. The aristocratic realm had largely been the focus of earlier British literature. Its surprisingly modern plot, replete with comedy and irony, has kept it a favorite for generations.
Austen was the seventh of eight children. Her middleclass parents impressed upon her the value of reading and scholarship. She was enrolled briefly at a ladies’ boarding school, which was more education than most Englishwomen of her station received at the time.
Encouraged by her parents, she began writing, finishing a first draft of Pride and Prejudice as early as 1796. After the manuscript was rejected by a publisher, Austen set it aside and worked on other projects for more than ten years before returning to it. Pride and Prejudice recounts the romantic anxieties of a young woman, Elizabeth Bennet, and her four sisters. Like Austen herself, Elizabeth is of middle-class upbringing. Although Mr. and Mrs. Bennet originally stood to inherit an estate, the fact that they have five daughters and no son means that the estate has been entailed, or forfeited, to a relative, the obnoxious brownnoser Mr. Collins. This unfortunate situation leaves Mrs. Bennet constantly fretting about her daughters’ marital prospects.
At a ball one evening, Elizabeth meets a wealthy young man named Mr. Darcy. Though the two are intrigued by each other, Elizabeth is turned off by Darcy’s arrogance, and he by the unsophisticated antics of her middleclass family. After a long string of awkward confrontations, mutual misunderstandings, and self-recriminations, Elizabeth and Darcy realize their love for each other and ultimately become engaged. Pride and Prejudice is beloved for its wit, insight, and richly drawn characters. The feisty, independent Elizabeth is one of literature’s great heroines. Mrs. Bennet is a clucking hen of a mother, prone to constant dramatics that the devoted Mr. Bennet bears with resignation. Perhaps most memorable is Darcy’s venomously snobby aunt, Lady Catherine, who is aghast at the prospect of her nephew buying into the “upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune.” The combination of these affectionately rendered portraits with incisive humor and a satisfying ending makes Pride and Prejudice one of the most entertaining classics of English literature.
- Austen’s untimely death in 1817 cut short her productive career. Her novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously in 1818.