This week sees Jane Austen’s wonderful novel, Pride & Prejudice, turn 200 years old. A monumental milestone in anyone’s eyes, the book is thought to have sold approximately 20 million copies worldwide since publication.
Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775 in the village of Steventon, Hampshire, to George & Cassandra Austen, both members of significant families (George was descended from woollen manufacturers who had risen to the lower ranks of the landed gentry, and Cassandra was a member of the prominent Leigh family).
Jane was one of eight children, her siblings being James, George, Edward, Henry Thomas, Francis William and Cassandra Elizabeth.
When Jane was 26 years, following Mr Austen’s decision to retire from the ministry, the family moved to the city of Bath (in South West England) and later, after her father’s death, Jane and her mother & sister moved into Chawton House (part of her brother Edward’s estate).
Jane did not marry – she did receive a proposal of marriage from Harris Bigg-Wither in December 1802; Jane initially accepted this offer of marriage however shortly afterwards withdraw her acceptance, realising that she had made a mistake.
Jane died on 18 July 1817. While the exact cause of Jane’s death is unknown, the general consensus is that she was suffering from Addison’s disease (however a variety of illness have been suggested, including Hodgkin’s lymphoma, bovine tuberculosis and typhus). The following memorial gravestone marks where Jane is buried in the north aisle of the nave at Winchester Cathedral:
First published in 1813 (by Thomas Egerton), Pride & Prejudice was Jane’s second novel (the first being Sense & Sensibility).
The story follows the protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet (who is one of five daughters of a country gentleman) as she deals with issues of marriage, education, manners and morality in early 19th century England.
At the core of the story is the developing relationship between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy, however the story also gives an account of the siblings of both Elizabeth & Darcy, as well as numerous other characters (including Elizabeth’s parents).
Perhaps the most central themes of the book are marriage, money and class, all of which were vitally important during Jane’s lifetime. It was common for parents to effectively “arrange” a suitable marriage for their children (particularly in regard to daughters), thus ensuring their social status and lifestyle for the future. Also covered in the novel is the importance of upbringing and environment on the development of character. Both Elizabeth and Darcy are proud and prejudiced due to the attitudes passed down to them from their families.
Celebrating the bicentenary
No doubt, all over the world, events will be held to celebrate the novel’s bicentenary.
The Jane Austen Centre in Bath is hosting a twelve hour international read-athon, during which various celebrities (including authors, musicians & politicians) and competition winners will read through the novel. This read-athon is also going to be broadcast online for those who can’t make the pilgrimage to Bath.
The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) will be recreating the Netherfield Ball (one of the key moments in the romance of Elizabeth & Darcy). A the team of experts will look at the planning and rehearsal of a typical early 19th century ball, including taking a look at first-hand testimony of ball-goers of the time, before ending the programme (due to air in Spring 2013) with an authentic recreation based on Austen's Netherfield Ball.
In June, Cambridge University will be hosting a “Pride & Prejudice” conference, which will explore the original historical context of the novel as well as the modern afterlives, through a series of lectures and screenings. As part of this conference, the University will also be hosting a Regency ball and organising a day trip to Chawton.
So why not pick up the book? If you’ve never read it before, now is a good time to do so and if you have previously read it, just pick it up and start all over again and immerse yourself in the amazing story created by Ms Austen!