Jane Austen, one of England’s most cherished and frequently read novelists, was born into the landed gentry in the town of Steventon on December 16, 1775. She was the sixth of seven children raised by strong parents: Cassandra, the daughter of an Oxford University scholar, and George, an Oxford-educated country clergyman. Never married, Austen lived comfortably with her family in Steventon until 1800, and thereafter in Bath, Southampton, and Chawton.
Pride and Prejudice is a love story that is both humorous and deeply serious. It is primarily concerned with the Bennets, a family with five daughters ranging in age from twenty-two to fifteen. The family children live well but know that when their father dies they will lose their home and property to their cousin Mr. Collins, simply because the family has no male heir. Mrs. Bennet, a comically deluded woman, believes that her main business is to arrange for her children to marry rich or, at worst, reputable gentlemen. Her husband, a genial wit, refuses to support her schemes but rarely hinders them. As a result, when experiences with bachelors of varying worth lead to problems and new emotions, the daughters must struggle on their own, without parental guidance.
The story begins in the autumn of 1811 when Charles Bingley, accompanied by his two sisters and Darcy, takes up residence at Netherfield, close to the Bennets’ home at Longbourn. Both homes are located in a rural area of Hertfordshire, a county in southeast-central England. Other scenes take place in nearby Rosings in Kent county, where Mr. Collins occupies a clergyman’s “seat,” and in the central county Derbyshire, where Darcy lives. The novel also describes, but does not show, events that occur in London (located twenty-four miles from Longbourn) and in the popular seaside resort town of Brighton.
Jane Austen is a keen observer of human behavior. She shows that while men and women often think too highly of themselves, deceive or flatter others, and act stupidly, they are also capable of love, kindness, and moral growth. With this mingling of positive and negative traits, her heroes and heroines seem deeply human.
Pride and Prejudice is an exciting, suspenseful story. The novel does not drag, for Austen writes succinctly and structures a tight plot. The story is based on a series of conflicts: the central one between Elizabeth and Darcy, and smaller ones concerning the other characters. Every chapter builds towards the novel’s climax, Elizabeth’s visit to Darcy’s home in Derbyshire, and the resolution is both plausible and satisfying.
Pride and Prejudice contains no violent or explicit scenes and adults should feel comfortable that it is appropriate for young readers. Nevertheless, the novel does present as “normal” certain attitudes that few readers share today. The class system imposes unwritten rules on who may marry or socialize with whom. Young readers may profit from learning about other manifestations of class discrimination: injustice, social unrest, and the leveling of aspirations.
VII TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Reread the first two sentences of chapter 1. Does the novel demonstrate those sentences to be true? Why do families vigorously compete for single men such as Charles Bingley?
Sense and Sensibility deals with the fortunes in romance of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, daughters who could not inherit their father’s property and thus are left in difficult circumstances. The novel contains the unscrupulous Willoughby, a Wickham-like figure. Mansfield Park centers around Fanny Price, a timid girl given up at the age of nine by her weak, overwhelmed parents to her kind uncle Sir Thomas. While being raised in his troubled household, she suffers frequent abuses by empty, snobbish, or spiteful people but ends up growing into the strength of the family. Emma, often regarded as Austen’s finest work, shows the smug title character’s maturation as her failed efforts to control others and the wisdom of Mr. John Knightley gradually deflate her ego. Northanger Abbey, possibly the first of Austen’s completed works, contrasts the melodrama of popular Gothic novels with reality. In it Catherine Moreland, a likeable girl who has read a few too many ghost stories, imagines on scant evidence that the father of the man she loves is engaged in criminal behavior. Persuasion, the writer’s last completed work, is a tender, less satirical novel than its predecessors. The story concerns the quiet pain of Anne Eliot, unmarried at twenty-seven, who through circumstance becomes reacquainted with her now-prosperous ex-fiance, a man she still loves-Frederick Wentworth. Years before she had broken their engagement on the advice of a trusted friend. Avid Austen readers will also enjoy Austen’s letters, juvenile writings, and unfinished works, all of which can be found in the convenient volume Minor Works, published by Oxford University Press.