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Pride And Prejudice

Writing Pride And Prejudice

Jane Austen had been a writer almost all her life. She began when she was 12 and completed her first novel, "Lady Susan", when she was just 19. Her writing was an intensely private activity, unknown to anyone outside her close social circle.

family reading and writing together 19th Century
Family life in 18th century England, reading and writing
©TopFoto.co.uk
The novel we know as Pride And Prejudice was initially entitled First Impressions and seems to have been a family favourite. Jane mentions in a letter to her sister: “I would not let Martha [a friend] read First Impressions again upon any account… She is very cunning, but I see through her design; - she means to publish it from Memory, & one more perusal must enable her to do it”.

But First Impressions, from memory or otherwise, did not find success with Cadell publishers in 1797. Submitted by Mr Austen, the manuscript was rejected sight unseen. Nothing survives of this early version so we don’t know how it differed from what we read today, but it may well have been an epistolary novel - that is, in the form of letters written between the characters. 

Sense And Sensibility published

Undaunted by the rejection of First Impressions, Jane got on with rewriting an earlier novel, Elinor And Marianne, which she now called Sense And Sensibility. Even with this catchier title, it took 13 years to finally find a publisher in 1811. (In the meantime she had sold Northanger Abbey but this was not published until after her death). 

The appearance of Sense And Sensibility in print seemed to inspire Jane to revise (and re-title) First Impressions and she sold the copyright to the new-look Pride And Prejudice the following year. Whereas Sense And Sensibility had modestly been promoted as simply by “A Lady”, Pride And Prejudice cashed in on the earlier success and was billed as “by the Author of Sense And Sensibility”.

The new title may have been inspired by a passage at the end of Fanny Burney’s novel, Cecelia. In it, Dr Lyster says: “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.”

Jane finally saw her “own darling Child” in print on January 28, 1813. She was 37 years old. Such was her delight in the publication that the family spent each evening reading aloud to each other from the first edition sent to her by the publishers, T Egerton of London.

Loyal fan club

title page of Pride & Prejudice 1833
A 1833 copy of "Pride And Prejudice"
©TopFoto.co.uk/Fotomas
The Austen family’s pleasure in the story was matched by other readers. The first 1,500 copies sold out, as did the second and third editions. This success was modest, however, in comparison to blockbuster novelists such as Sir Walter Scott, whose sales at this time were measured in tens of thousands for each edition.

In fact, the high regard with which we now view her novels, accompanied by the astronomical sales, only began to develop much later on, with the publication of her nephew JE Austen-Leigh’s biography in 1870.


Peers unimpressed

Here is what Charlotte Bronte had to say to GH Lewes on the matter: “Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point… I had not seen Pride and Prejudice till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book. And what did I find? An accurate, daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face a carefully-fenced, highly-cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses.”

Novelist Joseph Conrad wrote to HG Wells asking, “What is all this about Jane Austen? What is there in her? What is it all about?”

A star is born

Despite their reservations, Pride And Prejudice has been taken into the hearts of the nation. Elizabeth Bennett is a charming heroine, arguably the most sympathetic and attractive of any of Jane Austen’s leading ladies.

Jane herself said: “I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least I do not know…” We shall endeavour to retain Jane’s good opinion!