Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” stands distinct in the history of English novel. Also, it is the mirror image of 18th century English society as it provides deep insight into the values, traditions and psychology of contemporary English social pattern. My research will explore that why “Pride and Prejudice” has such distinction in the history of English novel and how it contributed to the development of this specific genre (novel) of literature. I will further locate the socio-cultural implication of this novel with close reference to contemporary English society.
The correct evaluation of Jane Austen as a novelist has come only recently . Her genius was not recognized by her contemporaries or even her successors. None of her books saw a second edition in her lifetime. The collected edition of her works which was brought out in 1833 could not be sold for about half a century. Her first biographer humbly wished her to be placed beside such novelists as Fanny Burney and Maria Edgworth and no more. But about 1890 the tide of appreciation and popularity markedly turned in her favor and correspondingly, against her contemporary, Sir Walter Scott.
Today she needs no advocate as she had made a secure niche in the temple of fame from where she cannot possibly be dislodged –at least for many years to come. Her works in their entirety have been vastly read and extolled , and she has been characterized as the greatest female novelist of England and one of the best of all novelists. David Daiches has made it clear that: “The greatest of all the novelists of manners of this or any other period and one who raised the whole genre to a new level of art was Jane Austen”.
With no exhibitionist critical apparatus , such as Fielding’s theory of the comic epic ,no pretentiously moral purpose such as Richardson kept repeating ,and indeed with no apparent awareness that she was doing more than essaying some novels in an established social mode ,Jane Austen with her quietly penetrating vision of man as a social animal ,her ironic awareness of the tensions between spontaneity and convention and between the claims of personal morality and those of social and economic prosperity ,her polished and controlled wit ,and beneath all her steady moral apprehension of the human relationships, produced some of the greatest novels in English. Considered strictly as an artist, she is superior to most of her predecessors as also successors.
Most English novelists have had the faults of carelessness . Scott, for example ,never revised a line of his own ,simply because he had no time for it . In the novels of Dickens also we come across passages which could have been easily improved with a little care . Jane Austen was, by contrast ,extremely careful and painstaking. For months together, after finishing a novel, she would go on revising it till she found it incapable of further improvement. Her meticulous artistic concern for, presentation, and style cannot be exaggerated. Her “Pride and Prejudice” is an exquisite example of this aspect of her art, this is her artistic master piece.
Here, in this novel, we found no loose ends, no detachable episodes. In this novel, characters generate the events and events compliment the characters. No dialogue, no character, no scene seems to be out of place in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”. Jane Austen’s art as a novelist has stringently set limits which she seldom oversteps. She was amazingly aware which side her genius lay and she exploited it accordingly without any false notions of her capabilities and limitations . As Lord David Cecil points out ,she very wisely stayed “within the range of her imaginative inspiration” . Her “imaginative inspiration” was as severely limited as, for example, Hardy’s or Arnold Bennett’s .
Her themes ,her characters ,her moral vision ,her observation — everything has a well-etched range within which she works ,and works most exquisitely . Let us now glance at the territories of her art and achievement. (a) All her novels have for their scene of action South England where she lived and which she new so well. The scenes of Pride and Prejudice are also laid in this particular English environment. (b) She deals only with one particular mode of existence. Her novels are about the upper middle classes and their (mostly trivial) activities. Anderson (1975) see this in “Pride and Prejudice” that the chief business of the people was attention to social duties, their chief interest was matrimony.
Unlike Maria Edgworth, whose novels represented a considerable range of social experience, Miss Austen exploited with unrivalled expertness the potentialities of a seemingly narrow mode of existence. (c) Jane Austen had an eye for the minutiae of life. Theatricals, tea parties , and balls were the most important events in the placid life of her own family and her neighborhood. This is what she discuss in “Pride and Prejudice” . These very things are given the pride of place in her other novels as well. The most thrilling events are nothing more than an elopement or a runaway marriage . We see that in “Pride and Prejudice” the elopement of Lydia with Wickham and then her marriage with him is the only incident that disturb the stale and stagnant lives of other characters.
In her novels, there are no storms — except in tea cups. (d) There is thus no adventure ,no passion, and no “romance” in her novels . There are no deeply stirring tempests either literal or psychic, such as we find, for example, in the novels of the Bronte sisters. (e) She was not a romantic novelist of the kind of either the Brontes or Scott. Temperamentally she belonged more to the eighteenth century than her own age which was then being swept over by a strong current of the Romantic Revival . This temperament of hers is exquisitely shown in “Pride and Prejudice”. (f) Jane Austen limits herself strictly to the depiction of personal relations.
Now we see in “Pride and Prejudice” that Jane Austen did not discuss man in relation to himself, his country, nature or God. She discusses him only in relation to other men and to his social environment. (g)She refuses to deal with the seamy aspects of life. In Jane Austen we see no murders or gory crimes. These limitations of range should not be treated as so many imperfections . On the contrary, her awareness of these limitations is what exactly makes her a great novelist. Within her voluntarily demarcated range she never bulges. Her essentially anti-romantic temper made her a realist. She did what Scott did not. Cross observes :”She was a realist .
She gave anew to the novel an art and a style, which it once had, particularly in Fielding, but which it had since lost”. She did not have Fielding’s range, and she also eschewed his masculine coarseness. She feminized Fielding. Even Scott admitted her excellence in her own field. In her deliberately restricted field of art she is perfect and “Pride and Prejudice” is a sparkling example of her art. The study of “Pride and Prejudice” as well as of her other novels makes us believe that in her works characters cannot be considered apart from plot. Characterization and the building of plot go hand in hand in them, and quite often the two are interchangeable too.
Her psychological insight into her characters, like her minute observations, needs no elaboration. Her psychological study of the characters levels the ground for the future novelists who will play with the psychological states of their characters, the likes of George Eliot, James Joyce. Most of her characters are “round” characters and have an organic development. Darcy, Elizabeth and Jane change enormously in the end of the story. Her female characters are certainly more complex and engaging than her men who have certain softness about them. They reveal themselves not in moments of crisis but during their engagement in the trivial activities of social life.
Women characters like Elizabeth, are intricate not only in their outlook but their habitual formations and psychological processes are also complex that manifest themselves in strange behaviors and attitudes. One of Jane Austen’s achievements and merits is her excellence at plot-construction. Very few English novelists have given as well integrated plots as she has. All the characters in her novels are essential to its plot; even the very minor ones cannot be justifiably separated from it on the ground of being superfluous or super-numerary. She has something like the architectonic ability of a dramatist. About the structure of Pride and Prejudice Cross observes:
“The marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy is not merely a possible solution of the plot; it is inevitable as the conclusion of a properly constructed syllogism or geometrical demonstration. For a parallel to workmanship of this high order, one can only look to Shakespeare, to such a comedy as Much Ado about Nothing. She let her characters unfold themselves on their own and she keeps herself aloof from them. Her detachment from her characters is mostly ironic in nature. Her irony, like her humor and comedy, is of quiet, unobtrusive kind. She laughs at the social aberrations and irrationalities of her characters. She is a satirist but shows no evidence of holding a lash in readiness. We laugh at the follies of Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Collins and Darcy’s aunt but we don’t hate them.
The faults in her characters are mostly due to bad training or want of training in youth. Her tolerance as a moralist places her beside Chaucer, Shakespeare and Fielding. ”
Anderson, Walter E. “Plot, Character, Speech, and Place in Pride and Prejudice”, Nineteenth Century Fiction. 1975 Dec. , Vol. 30, pp. 367-382 Cross, W. L. “Chapman, Robert William, ed. The Novels of Jane Austen” [Book Review], Yale Review. 1928 Folsom, Marcia McClintock. “`Taking Different Positions’: Knowing and Feeling in Pride and Prejudice”, 100-14 in Marcia McClintock Folsom (ed. ), Approaches to Teaching Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Modern Language Association of America, 1993