It is a truth universally acknowledged that Pride and Prejudice is the greatest of all Jane Austen’s works.
It is a blueprint for romantic comedy and Elizabeth Bennet remains one of my favourite literary heroines, being quick witted and intelligent at a time when that was not particularly welcomed. (It isn’t always welcomed now in some places, unfortunately).
This article looks at why the book is special to me and our local links to Jane Austen (which also make for some great days out).
Thank you Miss Mackenzie for your inspiration
I first read Pride and Prejudice as part of my English lessons at my secondary school, Shirley Warren Secondary School in Southampton. The school is no longer there (later pupils, including my sister, were moved to other secondary schools in the area) but it did leave me with a great love for this book.
I owe a huge debt to my mother for instilling in me a love of books from a very early age and my English teacher, Miss Mackenzie, for showing me the wit and irony in Pride and Prejudice.
Favourite quotes from Pride and Prejudice
My favourite quote from the novel, and which has led to me appreciating wit in literature, is from the following scene in Pride and Prejudice, and happens fairly early on in the novel. Elizabeth Bennet has just finished talking with Mr Darcy, Miss Bingley comes up to take her place and engages Mr Darcy in conversation herself.
“Elizabeth looked archly and turned away. Her resistance had not injured her with the gentleman, and he was thinking of her with some complacency, when thus accosted by Miss Bingley.”
“I can guess the subject of your reverie.”
“I should imagine not.”
“You are considering how insupportable it would be to pass many evenings in this manner – in such society; and indeed I am quite of your opinion. I was never more annoyed! The insipidity and yet the noise; the nothingness and yet the self-importance of all these people! – What would I give to hear your strictures on them!”
“Your conjecture is all wrong, I assure you. My mind was more agreeably engaged. I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow.”
“Miss Bingley immediately fixed her eyes on his face, and desired he would tell her what lady had the credit of inspiring such reflections. Mr Darcy replied with great intrepidity.
“Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”
The stressed italics are mine and not in the novel but it was those few words just after Mr Darcy’s admission as to what he was really thinking about that made me laugh out loud. I also love the “self-importance of all these people!” – Miss Bingley’s ego was on open display there and she did not have the wit to see it. Elizabeth would have done so.
It was Miss Mackenzie who showed me the irony here and I am so grateful she did so. It meant I read the rest of the novel looking for further instances of irony like that and, to my great delight, there were many! Also it meant I was being “let in” on the joke and loved that (and still do). It has since given me a great appreciation of wit and humour in literature from P.G. Wodehouse to Terry Pratchett. So thanks again, Miss Mackenzie.
A book can blaze the trail for others at times and I needed (though I didn’t know it at the time) to be shown wit was there in literature to be laughed at and enjoyed over and over again. And I always get great pleasure from re-reading Pride and Prejudice (which, face it, is a wonderful title). Naturally this marvellous book is available in our library.
Pride and Prejudice also has the distinction of having one of the all time fantastic opening lines, which is often used to show writers just what a good opening line should be.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”.
The other quote widely used as a guide for novice writers is George Orwell’s 1984 with its opening line of “It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen”.
The point of quotes like these is to show writers how to bring your readers in so they are intrigued by the opening and want to read more.
Jane Austen’s opening line here shows you immediately that this is going to be a witty book, a comedy of romance and manners and it does not disappoint. (And you really must find out if the story reveals if this opening line is true or not).
Winchester Cathedral: Jane Austen’s resting place
One of the many enjoyable days out I take (usually using the Stagecoach 46 bus) is to Winchester Cathedral, where Jane Austen is buried. The tomb does not mention her profession. It just wasn’t done then. The window, paid for by her family, is lovely and there are a selection of panels showing her life in more detail.
This is not the only local connection. Jane Austen also lived in Southampton for a time and at Bath Spa (which is easy to get to from here thanks to the rail network. I use our shuttle train service to get to Romsey and take the direct train to Bath from there. One word of warning – this train can get very full, in my view First Great Western don’t put nearly enough coaches on, and I’ve found it advisable to get out on a relatively early train to avoid the worst of this).
I must admit I fear for the future of the 46 bus route as it has been very useful to have a direct way in to Winchester when I haven’t had access to a car, though again our local train station and shuttle service can take you to Southampton Airport Parkway and/or Eastleigh where direct trains to London Waterloo stop at Winchester. From there it is a short bus ride or a 15 minute walk to get to the Cathedral. The Cathedral is easy to find. As well as the various tourist signs, it does tower above Winchester so just go in its general direction and you’re there.
I must also commend Winchester Cathedral’s Refectory for the excellence of its hot drinks and cakes! I used to regularly meet Gill James, the editor of Bridge House Publishing, who published my first story, A Helping Hand, in their Alternative Renditions anthology, at this Refectory and we would talk all things writing related over a most enjoyable lunch/afternoon tea.
(I can’t help but think given Jane Austen is very well known for the elegance of her prose, she would approve of the Refectory. It is one of the most elegant places where I have ever eaten cake!)
Admiring Jane Austen’s dedication
I admire Jane Austen for her refusal to give in – she started her career by self publishing. She wrote and re-wrote (all by hand, long before the typewriter yet alone computers) until she felt the prose was right. The old TV programme, Record Breakers, had a signature tune sung by the late Roy Castle about Dedication being what you need. Jane Austen was proving the truth of that well over a century before!
Chawton House: a very evocative place to visit
I visited Chawton House, Jane Austen’s former home, many years ago and it is a lovely place.
Its full address is: Chawton House, Winchester Road, Chawton, GU34 1SD.
Chawton House is easily accessible by road. Public transport is via train to Alton (pick this up from Winchester Railway Station) and then take a short taxi ride to the house. (The taxi is best pre-booked).
Chawton House is now a museum to Jane Austen and there are no alterations to how the house would have been when Jane Austen lived there. It is a very evocative place to visit. Jane Austen spent the last eight years of her life at Chawton House, she revised Pride and Prejudice there and it was only illness in May 1817 that led to her moving to Winchester.
The thought was that she would have better access to doctors there (which was correct) but sadly there was nothing that could be done and Jane died in Winchester. She is buried in Winchester Cathedral.
The BBC’s Big Read Programme
The BBC from October to December 2003 broadcast their The Big Read programme which looked at people’s favourite books and had a celebrity to champion their favourite.
The top 100 books were listed. For the programme the books at the very top of the table were discussed. Pride and Prejudice came second (The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein was first) and was championed by Meera Syal.
The humour in this novel has not dated (a great feat when considered how long ago it was written). Ask anyone to name a famous female novelist and Jane Austen’s name will still come up. (The Bronte sisters are the others who can claim that honour for “classic” novelists.)
The BBC’s Desert Island Discs (Radio 4, repeats on Radio 4 Extra)
For most writers, a good bookshelf stuffed with your favourite works by other authors is a must. You have to read well to write well as you learn by absorbing how others have written their magnum opus.
The BBC’s Desert Island Discs programme on Radio 4 allows their castaways to take one book with them to the fictional island (with Shakespeare and the Bible already on the island). I would like them to expand that category to include both Austen and Dickens.
If I was cast away, I would be torn between Jane Austen’s collected works and P.G. Wodehouse’s collected works but if I absolutely had to choose, I can’t see how I could do without Pride and Prejudice. I have to confess my luxury item would be loads of pens and paper so I could write down all I could remember of Wodehouse’s stories! A cheat? Perhaps!
Nine people over the 70 year period of Desert Island Discs chose Jane Austen’s most famous work as the other book to take with them.
My epitaph for Jane Austen
I have often felt humorous writing can be underestimated and because it is generally an easy read, it must be an easy write. One thing I have learned from writing my stories is that definitely isn’t the case. Easy reads take a lot of hard work and editing to get to that point.
With Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen got it spot on – not one word is out of place and that is difficult to achieve. How many hours did it take her? I’m not sure we’ll ever know but her dedication to her craft is still spurring writers, including me, on to show that same commitment to our own work.
My epitaph for Jane Austen then is: “a wonderful writer who inspires other authors long after her own death and whose contribution to English literature will never be removed”.
I believe Charles Dickens is this country’s best novelist (mainly for the scope of his work and the way he tried to show the reality of poverty to Victorian England) but there is no question as to who the UK’s best female novelist is, was and will be. For me, she will always be Jane Austen. Much as I like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, it is the lightness of touch in Pride and Prejudice that, to me, makes it the better book.
For further information, I would recommend visiting Jane Austen Society UK (this is the website of the UK chapter of the Jane Austen Society).
Note: Don’t miss Allison’s next post on Friday 20th March 2015.
Visit Allison Symes’ website: Fairytales with Bite
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.