So in her early career Jane Austen was writing to capture a market, deploying her abstract-noun titles as fashionable bait. But with Pride and Prejudice something else was happening under the surface.
Jane Austen was a great admirer of the playwright and novelist Fanny Burney. Burney’s first two novels, Evelina (1778) and Cecilia (1782), were bestsellers, and she went on to have further success with Camilla (1796). In Northanger Abbey Austen referred to Cecilia and Camilla as the patterns of achievement in the novel form:
'And what are you reading, Miss — ?' 'Oh! It is only a novel!' replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. 'It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda'; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.In a letter of 1796 Jane talks about an acquaintance, a Miss Fletcher, who admires Camilla – this being one of two ‘pleasing’ aspects of her personality, the other that ‘she drinks no cream in her tea’ – and in Persuasion she has Anne Elliot mention a character from Cecilia (‘the inimitable Miss Larolles’). And it seems that it was from Cecilia that Austen got the title for her best-loved novel. Cecilia ends with a paragraph in which the capitalized phrase ‘PRIDE and PREJUDICE’ recurs three times:
'The whole of this unfortunate business,’ said Dr Lyster, ‘has been the result of PRIDE and PREJUDICE. Your uncle, the Dean, began it, by his arbitrary will, as if an ordinance of his own could arrest the course of nature! and as if he had power to keep alive, by the loan of a name, a family in the male branch already extinct. Your father, Mr Mortimer, continued it with the same self-partiality, preferring the wretched gratification of tickling his ear with a favourite sound, to the solid happiness of his son with a rich and deserving wife. Yet this, however, 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: for all that I could say to Mr Delvile, either of reasoning or entreaty, – and I said all I could suggest, and I suggested all a man need wish to hear, – was totally thrown away, till I pointed out to him his own disgrace, in having a daughter-in-law immured in these mean lodgings!’
Austen, then, was an admirer of Burney, and in many ways was indebted to her. But as the critic Janet Todd has pointed out, Pride and Prejudice marks an important departure from the conventions of Cecilia – and indeed from the conventions of the eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century ‘courtship novel’ in general. In Cecilia the ‘pride and prejudice’ the unhappy lovers encounter are the pride and prejudice of society against their union. In Austen’s treatment, by contrast, pride and prejudice are internalized, existing within the breasts of the main characters: Fitzwilliam Darcy is the embodiment of pride, and Elizabeth Bennet the embodiment of prejudice. This represents a major psychological shift. No longer is the heroine a passive repository of virtue, as in the standard eighteenth-century novel (one might think in this context of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa): Elizabeth Bennet is a heroine of considerable personal charm and wit, but is not without faults. Jane Austen wanted a more rounded heroine. ‘Pictures of perfection as you know make me sick and wicked,’ she wrote to Fanny Knight in March 1817.
Pride and Prejudice therefore continues the Burney line but introduces new elements. They were new enough to make her more celebrated than any female novelist before George Eliot.
Austen, Jane: Pride and Prejudice, ed. Tony Tanner (Penguin Classics, 2003)
Todd, Janet M.: Jane Austen in Context (Cambridge University Press, 2005)
Austen, Jane, and Chapman, RW (ed.): Jane Austen's Letters to her Sister Cassandra and Others (OUP, 1969)
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