PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.34, NO.1 (Winter 2013)

Reading Pride and Prejudice

Susan Allen Ford


Susan Allen Ford (email: is Editor of Persuasions and Persuasions On-Line.


the celebration of Pride and Prejudice’s two-hundredth anniversary has spanned the globe in the form of conferences, festivals, courses, books, an online series, journals, readings, discussion groups, and occasional YouTube videos.  Jane Austen might have been surprised.  But perhaps not.  Her surviving letters from 1813 show an interest—and a delight—in the widening audience for her book.  On 29 January she writes to Cassandra (visiting at the chilly Steventon parsonage) that her “own darling Child” has arrived from London.  She and her mother begin reading the first volume—half of it the first evening—to their neighbor Miss Benn:


She was amused, poor soul!  That she cd not help you know, with two such people [Jane and her mother] to lead the way; but she really does seem to admire Elizabeth.  I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, & how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.


Austen need not have worried.  Although another evening’s reading to Miss Benn was not as satisfactory because of Mrs. Austen’s “too rapid way of getting on,” Jane Austen, on the whole, was “quite vain enough & well satisfied enough” (4 February).


Even while Jane Austen relishes the domestic performance of her novel—for an audience that includes listeners both in and outside of the secret of her authorship—she is also concerned with the wider distribution of the first copies, for which Henry has been responsible, to her brothers:  to Charles in London, Edward at Godmersham, James at Steventon, and Frank in Portsmouth (29 January).


A few days later come two letters:  one from Cassandra, conveying both her own and their niece Fanny Knight’s judgment, and another from Fanny herself.


I am exceedingly pleased that you can say what you do, after having gone thro’ the whole work—& Fanny’s praise is very gratifying;—my hopes were tolerably strong of her, but nothing like a certainty.  Her liking Darcy & Elizth is enough.  She might hate all the others, if she would.  I have her opinion under her own hand this morning, but your Transcript of it which I read first, was not & is not the less acceptable.—To me, it is of course all praise—but the more exact truth which she sends you is good enough.  (9 February)


Here there is praise from someone intimately connected with the novel—someone who has seen and heard it from its days as First Impressions—as well as an appreciation of the hero and heroine from a less partial, and somewhat more distant, reader.


Later in the year, Austen’s letters chart the widening of her circle of readers beyond her family.


Lady Robert [Kerr, married to a younger son of the Marquis of Lothian] is delighted with P. & P- and really was so as I understand before she knew who wrote it—for, of course, she knows now.—[Henry] told her with as much satisfaction as if it were my wish. . . . And Mr Hastings—I am quite delighted with what such a Man writes about it.—Henry sent him the Books after his return from Daylesford. . . . (15-16 September)


She returns later in the same letter to the appreciation of Warren Hastings, former Governor General of India:  “I long to have you hear Mr H’s opinion of P&P.  His admiring my Elizabeth so much is particularly welcome to me.”  And a few months later, in a long and summative letter to her brother Francis, she recurs to the enlarging circle (though now in the context of the knowledge of her authorship):  “Henry heard P. & P. warmly praised in Scotland, by Lady Robt Kerr & another Lady;—and what does he do in the warmth of his Brotherly vanity & Love, but immediately tell them who wrote it!” (25 September).


During the same week, writing from Godmersham to Cassandra, Austen mentions a letter from their mother’s cousin Mrs. Cooke, wife of the vicar of Great Bookham and a friend of Frances Burney, that brings intelligence of the approval of the Warden of All Souls, Oxford:  “Poor Dr Isham is obliged to admire P. & P.—& to send me word that he is sure he shall not like Mde Darblay’s new Novel half so well.”  Quickly she adds, “Mrs C. invented it all of course” (23-24 September).  What part of this story is invention?  Dr. Isham’s reading of the novel?  His praise?  His ranking Pride and Prejudice above Burney’s long-awaited novel?  In any case, the modest retraction does not conceal Jane Austen’s satisfaction in this expansion of her readership and the value placed upon her novel.


This year’s Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, coordinated by Gail Parker, celebrated Pride and Prejudice as “Timeless.”  Janeites converged on Minneapolis to consider the ways in which Austen’s “light & bright & sparkling” novel has been and is still being read.  This edition of Persuasions On-Line probes the attribution of timelessness in a number of ways.  Elaine Bander considers the relationship between Austen’s novel and Frances Burney’s Cecilia.  Kristen Miller Zohn and Jeffrey A. Nigro draw our attention to Austen’s incorporation of the decorative and painterly arts of her day.  Susan Allen Ford considers how readers might have understood Mr. Collins’s choice of Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women while Theresa M. Kenney looks toward the silent Anne De Bourgh to understand Austen’s artistry.  And in a further expansion in time and space of the novel’s readership, Sarah M. Horowitz and Nora Foster Stovel examine the illustration of the text and its adaptation for film and television.


The Miscellany also celebrates timeliness and timelessness.  Patricia M. Ard turns our attention to the ways Jane Austen’s brother George has been erased from the biographical record.  Christine Grover looks at a different kind of erasure—the lands in Winchester inherited (and later sold) by Edward Knight.  Gill Ballinger considers Jane Austen’s invention of Bath and Bath’s reinvention of Jane Austen.  Essays by Sarah Eason, Linda Robinson Walker, Brett Bourbon, and M. W. Brumit attend to Austen’s novels in very different ways:  through queer theory, the contemporary historical record, philosophical discourse, and card games.  Sally B. Palmer, Eleanor Hersey Nickel, Lori Halvorsen Zerne, Amanda Marie Kubic, and Rosa M. Garcia Periago look at the ways Austen’s work has been transformed through film, television, and on-line adaptation.  Finally, Deborah Barnum provides the Jane Austen Bibliography for 2012, more evidence—if evidence were needed—of the range of the impact of Jane Austen’s fiction.


As the celebrations of the two-hundredth anniversary of Pride and Prejudice draw to a close, I’d also like to celebrate those who made this issue possible:  the authors whose work is represented here, the members of the Editorial Board (listed on the title page), who donated many hours reading and responding to submissions with great thoughtfulness and care, JASNA’s President Iris Lutz, and of course JASNA’s web manager Carol Moss, whose attentive effort and creativity bring the journal to life.


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