Pride and Prejudice Becomes Personal

A 2007 UK-based poll boasted Pride and Prejudice as the number one text, self-titled Janeites often claim it as their favorite of the Austen canon, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies increased its first print run from 12,000 to 60,000 copies, and Pride and Prejudice the Musical closed in New York last month. Why this relentless enthusiasm for the classic?
In a letter to her sister Cassandra immediately after the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Austen writes: “Upon the whole… I am well satisfied enough. The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants shade.” Claudia Johnson, commenting on this remorseless high spirits in “Pride and Prejudice and the Pursuit of Happiness,” asserts that “pursuing happiness is the business of life” (349) in all of Austen, but especially Pride and Prejudice, where we have personal and social wish fulfillment at its best: “a poor but deserving girl catches a rich husband” and “a conservative yearning for a strong, attentive, loving, and paradoxically, perhaps, at times even submitting authority” is affirmed (348). According to Johnson, Pride and Prejudice offers a conservative myth as the reader and Elizabeth look to Darcy–patriarchal figure writ large– for happiness (the happy conclusion “affirm[ing] established social arrangements without damaging their prestige or fundamentally changing their wisdom or equity” [348]). But the counter-camp eagerly appropriates Austen as a more progressive model, arguing that the ending does not corroborate conservative myth because Austen parodies Lady Catherine de Bourgh; Darcy is the exception to the aristocratic, landed gentry class; and the latter’s preference for the Gardiners (from the stigmatized trade class) over the Bennets and preference for Elizabeth over Miss de Bourgh serve to unsettle and chastise the indolence of sacrosanct rank and power.


Just as the text takes on shade and new meaning through various political lens, so too does the text lose some of its sparking high spirit through the lens of Faucauldian readings and “disciplinarian discourse.” Johnson goes on to qualify “happiness as the business of life,” which can come across as flippant, by stating that Austen takes great care “to establish the standards of her character’s happiness” as “an index of their moral imaginations, tempers, and resources that enables us to engage in judicious moral evaluation” (350). Thus, happiness, in this reading is not an end in itself, but a means of judgment, a theme that pervades the text and speaks to Austen’s initial title: First Impressions. In concert with these “disciplinarian” readings, Elizabeth and Darcy undergo a “modification of sentiment” and the former grows into self-awareness and finds the capacity for love through shame and humiliation: “She grew absolutely ashamed of herself. Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think, without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd… ‘How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind…Till this moment, I never knew myself'” (Austen 192). This link between shame and love is, arguably, not the romantic fate for which we pick up Pride and Prejudice in our youth.
And so when I read Maureen Dowd’s “Cain Not Able” in The New York Times today, I wasn’t surprised that she wittily appropriated Austen’s novel for her purposes, using Wickham’s sexual scandal and the faultiness of first impressions in Pride and Prejudice to contextualize the Republican primary: “We have the starchy guy — tall, handsome, intelligent and rich, with a baronial estate — who’s hard to warm up to. And we have the spontaneous guy, who’s charming and easy to warm up to — until it turns out that he has an unsavory pattern with young women and a suspect relationship with facts. It’s the Republican primary. Or ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ Take your pick.” So, in response to my initial question, (“Why this relentless enthusiasm for the classic?”), it seems that the malleability of interpretation in Austen’s text–so much that polar camps can appropriate the text for their polemics– attracts readers. You look for something in Austen and see Austen as you wish. And, while this of course raises questions of authorial intent and respect for the text, it makes sense if we consider Bayard’s concept of the inner book and inner library: “Woven from the fantasies and private mythologies particular to each person, the individual inner book is at work in our desire to read–that is, in the way we seek out and read books”; “Individual inner books create a system for receiving other texts and participate both in their reception and reorganization. In this sense they form a kind of grid through which we read the world, and books in particular, organizing the way we perceive these texts while producing the illusion of transparency” (85). Thus, we read Austen in search of something we think we might find there, but as we read, we are also always trying to find something that matches up to and therefore bolsters the content of our own inner books. And, although we will continuously feel disappointment in our search for a complete match, we take fragments of Pride and Prejudice with us–a fragment that is colored by our fantasies and private mythologies. Thus, Austen becomes, for your purpose, a perpetuation of feminism, conservatism, progressivism, patriarchy, imperialism, romanticism…..

Bayard, Pierre. How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. New York: Bloomsbury, 2009.
Johnson, Claudia. “Pride and Prejudice and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1990.

About Steve Mentz 650 Articles
I teach Shakespeare and early modern literature at St. John's in New York City.

4 Comments

  1. “Authorial intent and respect for the text” (quoting you, Melissa!) are such resonant concepts that keep coming up, it seems, in so may contexts. In your delightful blog post about the iconic and infinitely malleable Pride and Prejudice you bring up the Bayardian way we cognitively and emotionally reorganize a text according to our “inner books.” I think this has such potential for pedagogical study: would it be productive to find ways to enable students to dismantle notions of the text as a monolith? Are some students effectively disconnected from the inner book grid that creates a framework for understanding literature?
    I think this idea of calling on our inner book(s) is a privileged act accessible to those of us who have had the benefit of an easy relationship with language, an affinity with texts that has given us the sense of authority that allows us to appropriate those texts for our own uses. I think for a majority of students arriving to college a literary text is a mysterious locked box that only teachers can open. Further, I think that many students have been conditioned to wait for someone to give them the right key, the one interpretation, to open that text. Add to that the facts that some students struggle with language or with school discourse, and a book becomes an indecipherable and alienating object fully primed with enough negative associations to last a lifetime. What we do as graduate students and as lifetime lovers of literature is invade a text with our own intentions—gleefully, with gusto and with confidence as we find Marxism or queer theory lurking between Jane Austen’s prim lines.
    I’m interested in how we might create opportunities for students to appropriate texts in an attempt to demystify the process of encountering literature, and I think the starting place for that might be as the African American poet Nathaniel Mackey says, “…at the artistic and cultural margin, where ‘the new’ offers resistance to received notions of meaning.” (Mackey, qtd. in Hoover 737.) Think of Professor Brown’s examples of oulipo writings where established works of literature are changed and rearranged to create new meaning. Think of Austen and zombies! Some of us challenge received notions of meaning all the time. Why should students not be given the same authority?

    Hoover, Paul, “Pair of Figures for Eshu: Doubling of Consciousness in the Work of Kerry James Marshall and Nathaniel Mackey,” Callaloo, Volume 23, Number 2, Spring 2000, pp. 728-748

  2. Melissa,
    Very thorough post about interpretation and our understanding of Austen’s work. I personally am not a fan, but that is a direct result of my inner book and the perspective I bring to the reading of the text. I agree with Laura and the need to teach students that there aren’t set in stone meanings in literature. Everything can be changed, shifted, and understood in many different ways. Students need to be encouraged to express their opinions about a text and develop their own meanings based on their reading. Students need to strengthen their inner books. We can let them in our secret club of free flowing opinion, and take a bit of the fear out of English studies.

  3. It’s interesting to consider Austen’s work as “malleable.” Maybe her work is more malleable than other authors and that helps explain the enduring popularity of her novels, especially Pride and Prejudice. No one has written (as far as I know) an Oliver Twist and Zombies or a Middlemarch and Sea Monsters, so maybe there’s something inherent in Austen that lends her to this kind of thought, more so than others.

  4. I’m not sure if Austen is more “malleable” than Shakespeare or Dante, though she is probably more popular — in English language communities at least — than any of other writers outside Dickens. Some interesting stuff to think about: what makes a book re-deployable / malleable / flexible? In the case of P&P, there’s a pretty clear fairy tale architecture, combined with a sharp, at times brutal satiric wit that I’m not sure these pots have captured very well. Things to talk about —

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