“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
That's the iconic opening line of a very famous novel.
Of course, it's 'Pride and Prejudice' penned by the incredible Jane Austen and it's one of my favourite novels.
It was published on January 29th 1813.
Why do I love it? Well, if I had time I'd write you a dissertation, but I haven't so I'll make just a few points.
I'm aware that many people HAVE written dissertations and tomes about this subject and I won't try to come close to all that knowledge but just give you my impressions, as a reader.
If this makes no sense to you at all then you might have to read the book!
'Pride and Prejudice' is a great read for a history lover, and a would be 'time traveller' like myself. The book is described as a 'novel of manners' - Austen is recreating the social world of her time, and she was obviously someone who really took in everything that was going on around her. People and their quirks, the manners and conventions of her time, the values of her community and class. And she is able to convey this in such detail, I just feel I'm there. At the parties, in the drawing rooms, listening in to the conversations with the author.
As a writer and a journalist, I know how important it is keep my ears and eyes open and to observe the world around me. Yes, I am one of those who keeps a notebook, noticing quirky things about the people I meet and see, and one day you all might end up in a novel of my own, in some disguised form. I am a would-be Jane Austen in this respect.
Second, Elizabeth Bennet, Austen's main character. What a woman! I think she's feisty and funny, quite brave and given half a chance, independent.
It's easy for those of us today, in the 21st century, to try to project our own sensibilities and cultural norms on people who lived in the past, but if we do that we maybe miss what novels like 'Pride and Prejudice' may have to say to us and what we might learn about the past through them.
Today, the idea that a woman can't be a real woman unless she has a husband is frankly ridiculous, so it's really interesting to immerse myself in that strange time. However, I am aware that although they might not say it out loud, there may still be those in OUR culture who, if they were pushed on this point, might secretly not think much of single women and might actually believe that they'd be better off with a man. So maybe our time has more in common with Austen's day?
In the person of Elizabeth we see someone who is trying to defy the conventions of her time, someone who is not entirely happy with what society expects of her when it comes to behaviour. But Elizabeth does have to behave largely in a conventional manner and not upset TOO many people otherwise life would be unbearable for her. Of course, we are aware of some of that inner defiance as the reader, but what I really love is the words that Austen put's in Elizabeth's mouth, which helps her to express some of the frustrations.
Just imagine ... a man who you can't abide and hasn't really shown the slightest interest in you, ups and tells you that, against his better judgement because he knows you're socially beneath him, he is in love with you and wants to marry you.
I know what I'd do. I'll tell him to ... well you know.
But if Elizabeth was overtly rude that would be unacceptable to early 19th century sensibilities, so Austen has her being clever with her words.
"From the very beginning—from the first moment, I may almost say—of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish distain of the feelings of others, were such as to form the groundwork of the disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world on whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”
How excellent is that?
And the third reason I love 'Pride and Prejudice'?
Well it has to be Mr Darcy.
Now I have to admit, this might have something to do with the TV drama first shown back in 1995 which had Colin Firth in the role of Mr Darcy ... at the time loads of my friends, and myself, were secretly in love with the character.
But I read the book many years before I saw a TV drama or movie based on Jane Austen's 1813 novel and Mr Darcy was already a favourite literary character of mine.
Yes he was a snob, and rather rude, but of course we pretty much see him through Elizabeth's eyes and narration, so the characterisation is maybe a bit one-sided. But as the novel progresses, we see aspects of kindness and loyalty and yes, romance. For a reader like me in a world where the idea of 'courtly love' is no more, I freely admit Mr Darcy has his attractions. If only as a dream.
When Jane Austen published her novel this day in 1813 I wonder if she imagined that, 200 years down the line, we would be picking her work apart and still enjoying her characters and story.
And one final thought.
The book was originally to have been called 'First Impressions'. Much of the tension of the novel is based on those first impressions that Elizabeth had of Mr Darcy and vice versa, and the story is, among other things, about how the main characters have to overcome their snobbery and pride (Mr Darcy) and their inverted snobbery or prejudice (Elizabeth).
It was only when I learnt more about Jane Austen's life and work that I heard about that alternate title to one of my favourite novels. And it's a lesson to me. Not to jump to conclusions about people, based on the first impression.
How people speak, what they look like, what they are wearing, where they live, what job they have. This should all be less important than their values, their sense of humour and other traits which show us their personality and character.
But of course, we DO often make judgements based on the superficial first impression. And sometimes we, like Elizabeth and Mr Darcy, have to admit that we were wrong, and need to unravel the misconceptions and begin to form relationships with those who we may have thought we would never be able to connect with.
For me, that is a lesson in life, not just in literature.