IN THE FINAL WEEK of January, 200 years ago, the not-yet-famous 37-year-old author Jane Austen was at Chawton Cottage, awaiting the publication of Pride and Prejudice, her second novel to appear in print. “I have got my own darling Child from London,” she announced with obvious joy in a letter she wrote to her sister Cassandra at week’s end. The novel was anonymously published on January 28, 1813, and Austen received her copy on the 27th. That same day, she and her mother read half of the first volume out loud to a guest — without revealing the identity of the author, which was still pretty much a family secret. Austen, who loved to record people’s opinions of her writing, enthusiastically reported that this first post-publication reviewer “was amused” and “really does seem to admire Elizabeth.” For her own part, Austen could not have been more proud of her heroine. “I must confess,” she wrote, “that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, & how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.” In a later missive, Austen says of her niece Fanny’s response to the novel, “Her liking Darcy & Elizabeth is enough. She might hate all the others, if she would.”
Little could Jane Austen have imagined how much her future audience’s reaction would exceed this modest wish. For the past two centuries, readers have not simply liked Darcy and Elizabeth. They have fallen in love with them and with this very funny novel, which is now probably the most treasured romantic comedy of our time. It is also one of the most prolific commercial products. Today, Pride and Prejudice is more than a mere book. Elizabeth and Darcy have gone viral in multimodal forms of representation; their story has been adapted and retold in virtually every media — from children’s books and cartoons to erotica and musicals to movies and YouTube videos.
This week and throughout all of the bicentennial year, Austen’s “Darling Child” will be enthusiastically celebrated by the literary universe in grand style. For months, the media has been bursting with anticipatory articles. On January 28, birthday events – like the 12-hour outdoor readathons planned for Chicago and Bath — will be widespread and international. In February, the British Royal Mail will issue six commemorative stamps in honor of the novel (the Royal Mail last paid tribute to Austen in 1975, on the bicentennial of her birth). The BBC World Book Club kicked off the anniversary festivities on January 5th with live encomiums from P. D. James and the Anglo-Pakistani writer Moni Mohsin, as well as recorded remarks from other authors around the former British colonies (Colm Tóibín, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Kamila Shamsie). Their adulation joins the long history of authorial praise for Austen and the novel that began with Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Sir Walter Scott, and includes (among an incredibly long list of writers): W. H. Auden; Elizabeth Bowen; Samuel Taylor Coleridge; E. M. Forster; Rudyard Kipling; Harper Lee; George Henry Lewes; W. Somerset Maugham; Katherine Mansfield; A. A. Milne; Vladimir Nabokov; Beatrix Potter; Ezra Pound; Robert Louis Stevenson; Alfred, Lord Tennyson; Rebecca West; Oscar Wilde; and, of course, Virginia Woolf.
As English professors who teach classes and write about Jane Austen’s works, we have e...read more