Two hundred years ago today, on 28 January 1813, T. Egerton brought out the first edition of Pride and Prejudice by “The Author of Sense and Sensibility”. How many generations have read the book since then? And, accordingly, how many readers have fallen in love with the immensely loveable Elizabeth Bennet since her first appearance? Margaret Kennedy thought her “an entirely charming girl”, William Deresiewicz “would have taken her side against the world” and Sheila Kaye-Smith, who considered Pride and Prejudice Austen’s least impressive novel, thought that:
Elizabeth Bennet is the Jane Austen heroine I personally should most delight to meet…Elizabeth, with her saucy wit, with that faint, faint but so comfortable touch of vulgarity which she alone of all the heroines is allowed to possess, with her warm heart, her stout spirit, her loyalty, her gaiety, her sense, is to me one of the most endearing characters, not only in Jane Austen’s novels but in all of literature.
I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time when I was fifteen. Unlike some of my other classmates, I was eager to pick the book up, thrilled to finally discover the story that lay behind those famous opening lines, and ecstatic to have entire classroom-full of other fifteen year old girls with whom to discuss the book. I did not need to be convinced of Austen’s brilliance; by then I had already fallen in love with Emma, delighted over Northanger Abbey, and, like Elinor, cried for Marianne in Sense and Sensibility. But those reading experiences had been solitary. Reading Pride and Prejudice in a classroom of twenty girls was a heady experience. We swooned over Pemberley (and Mr Darcy), condemned foolish little Lydia for her reckless behaviour, and wanted more than anything to be just a little bit like Elizabeth Bennet, even with her obvious shortcomings. It was the most fun I have ever had “studying” a novel, with the discussions carring far beyond the classroom. All over the school, you could find girls reading ahead in their already tattered copies of the book, asking how far along their friends had got, wondering if it would be safe to talk to them about Darcy’s letter or Lydia’s elopement, not wanting to spoil the delights ahead for those who had not yet reached them.
My own aged paperback copy is falling apart now (it was not very good quality to begin with) but I can’t imagine ever letting it go. No, that would mean I would never been able to pick it up and see my gushing notes in the margins or the little hearts I drew (in red ink, of course) around the speeches I found most romantic – judging by these hearts, I, unlike Elizabeth, found the first proposal very appealing. It is easier for me now to see the book’s flaws – like Kaye-Smith, I consider it the weakest of Austen’s six novels – but it is never anything less than delightfully fun to read.