Today readers around the world mark the 200th Anniversary of publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. What a jewel of a story and easily in my top-five novels of all-time. Every time my 97-year-old grandmother and I get together, we watch the Masterpiece Classic version of Pride & Prejudice – the beloved six-part series with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet.
How interesting to think about the fact that P&P was written in a world 200-years gone, and yet the courtship of Lizzie and Darcy, the deceit of George Wickham, the humorous maleficence of the Bingley sisters – it all still resonates so powerfully even in our chaotic, computer-aged, over-caffeinated culture.
Recently at a wedding, I had a friend come up to me and say: “Quick – the opening line of Pride and Prejudice, what is it?” How could I forget? It is one of literature’s finest openings. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” I literally have that saying on my favorite tea-mug.
I’ve been asking myself all day: what is it about Elizabeth Bennet’s story that stands so timeless, renders it so beloved through all ages? All of Austen’s novels are great. Emma is endlessly entertaining, Persuasion is incisive in its treatment of the broad spectrum of human nature. So what is it about Pride & Prejudice?
And then I remembered something that a great teacher once told me. In college I had the great good fortune of taking a seminar with Harold Bloom, the unparalleled Shakespearean scholar. Professor Bloom told us that, as readers, we connect most profoundly to the characters whom we feel are human enough to walk off the page and quit their own worlds to inhabit ours. For Professor Bloom, he found that in Rosalind, from As You Like It, and in the rascal Falstaff from Henry IV. Professor Bloom also said that he found it to be true of Hamlet, the kind-of-famous lead of the play by the same name.
And I think readers see that in Lizzie and Darcy. How many times have I wondered: what must it have been like at Pemberley? What must Lizzie and Darcy have talked about over breakfast the morning after their wedding? What did they plan to do about their bothersome new brother-in-law, Wickham? Lizzie and Darcy do not cease to exist once you close the covers of the beloved Pride and Prejudice novel. They continue on, and you can easily imagine Lizzie walking the halls of her grand new home, stopping to stand alongside her dashing new husband to receive her visitors, the beloved Mr. and Mrs. Bingley.
Not only do they quit their worlds and stay with us long after we’ve completed reading of their courtship; they make us long to quit our own worlds to inhabit theirs.