The Stories behind Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice

austen pride-and-prejudice1946I think that Pride & Prejudice is the best English novel, ever. Is that too much? Perhaps it is, but I’m a fan, and in the world of non-fantasy prose storytelling it is about as good as it gets for me.

One of the things that make Pride & Prejudice so rich—besides its irresistible story and ever-present wit—is that it is a story that has been written in a tradition. As much as it is vibrant and original and the emerging of something new, it is also in conversation with many great stories of the past.

Let’s look at a few of them.

Often titles have hints of what’s in the background. Brave New World is Aldous Huxley’s way of tugging back to Shakespeare, the glossy Vanity Fair goes back to Thackeray who goes back to Bunyan, and C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength is taken from a David Lindsay poem about the Tower Of Babel story—a subtle key to reading the book.

Penquin Pride and PrejudiceBecause of this trend, I am tempted to think about the perfectly chosen title. While drawn from the subject matter and Eliza’s own speeches and letters, it may also go back to Fanny Burney’s novel Cecilia (1772). Reading that book might give us a hint, but the title quotation might be enough to entice us further:

“The whole of this unfortunate business,” said Dr. Lyster, “has been the result of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Your uncle, the Dean, began it, by his arbitrary will, as if an ordinance of his own could arrest the course of nature! and as if he had power to keep alive, by the loan of a name, a family in the male branch already extinct (Cecilia).

Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1776) is one of the key triggers of the Romantic movement, and we can see how the epistolary style of Werther is echoed in the letters and diaries of Pride & Prejudice. The story strikes me as quite different, but I can see aspects of Elizabeth’s (Eliza) character in Werther’s romanticized view of Charlotte (Lotte).

I have been reading more and more of the 18th century epistolary writers like Goethe and Burney. When I was reading Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1733) last summer I came to realize that behind the character of Eliza was the figure of Pamela.

Richardson_pamela_1741Pamela is the story of a young housemaid whose middle class family had lost their living. As a teenager she goes to a Lady’s house to serve her and she is favoured the Lady. Her own good upbringing and excellent education were augment by the lessons in estate management and personal service she learned there.

When the Lady died, Pamela was devastated and assumed her living was lost. Instead, the Lady’s son took a liking to her, and asked her to stay—even giving her some gold from the estate. As time goes on, the new young master falls in love with Pamela and attempts to make her his mistress. As a true, virtuous (Methodist) young woman, she rejects his advances and maintains her integrity.

The Master is not put off, however. He pursues her again and again, using enticements and punishments to either attract or coerce her into an affair. She resists, even to the point of holding herself against his various attempts to rape her. Her rigorous piety only increases her attractiveness to him, and solidifies her reputation as a strength among the servants.
Eventually the Master kidnaps her, hoping to create a context for to fall in love with him. But she holds to her integrity, arguing that if he truly loved her he would make her an honourable offer of marriage. Even as that temptation to marrying the peasant occurs to him, social pressures increase against the idea. The Master’s remaining family see such a match as a betrayal of his name and rank—really as an impious and dishonourable choice.

Pamela 1742 plateAs the Master flounders and Pamela’s heart softens, the Master does eventually propose marriage. Pamela discovers, quite to her own surprise, that she is in love with the gentleman. After a comedy of miscommunications and small problems that would prevent a match, eventually Pamela is able to marry the young Master and make her home in love, forgiveness, and honour.

I think the parallels are pretty clear between Pamela and Pride & Prejudice, even if the plotline is quite different. I think, however, that the connection is deeper.

Pamela was a runaway bestseller in its time. When Pamela says “yes” to the master, it is reputed that people listening to the story ran into the street and rang the church bells in celebration. It was a viral movement of story and piety combined in the character of Pamela—a girl who went on to inspire art, fan fiction, poetry, and parodies.

I think Pride & Prejudice is one of those parodies.

Really, I think that Jane Austen hated the Pamela character.

I could be wrong. I don’t have any evidence. But Eliza, the real hero of P&P, is a character full of life, independent thought, social acumen, and an incontrovertible sense of humour. “Wit” is the key word among Austen’s best characters. Like Pamela, Elizabeth is quite beautiful and well read. They both suffer from station and struggle against social explanations. And they both find themselves accidentally in love.

pride and prejudice Keira Knightley reading a bookBut Eliza is everything that Pamela is not. Pamela has virtue, but it is pancake flat, a solid wall of embarrassment and shame. It is good shame—shame that Austen would appreciate. But the idea of falling in love with a rapist would have been grit in Eliza’s teeth. Pamela lacks any sense of humour at all. All she really is is a pretty face and a Bible pinned against her chest by crossed arms.

While a third party reader (like me) would recognize that Eliza could have used some of Pamela’s ability to forgive, almost none of us prefer Pamela to Eliza. All of the adventure and winsomeness of Eliza makes us root for her when her pride clouds her reason.

With Pamela, I really wanted her story to end.

So I think that Pride & Prejudice is a response to Richardson’s Pamela.

William_Shakespeare_1609But I don’t think it is the only one. We cannot think of Lizzie and Darcy without seeing the unlikely-in-love narrative. They are “star-cross’d lovers,” and when we think of forbidden love, it is hard not to think of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Beyond love that goes against fate’s grain, I don’t know that there is much more there. But the P&P-forbidden love connection is intriguing enough to peak backwards.

Behind Romeo and Juliet is the Arthurian Tristan and Isolde, or in the love triangle version, Launcelot and Guinevere. There is the faint aroma of the Arthurian left in Austen’s world. There is the court and the status of the gentry—now no longer a fellowship but still important to the economy of everyday life in Britain. There is also the danger that Eliza’s aging father will duel with the philandering Wickham, as well as the evolved social system that was once chivalry and courtesy. I had a fuller experience reading Pride and Prejudice this time after spending a couple of years reading the Arthuriad in the background.

I would like to draw out one more story—perhaps an unlikely one for most readers. I think that P&P is in its own way a complex and beautiful retelling of the Prodigal Son story in Luke.

If you think about it for a moment, you can perhaps see the connection. Darcy and Wickham grow up together in the same house, almost as brothers. The younger brother, Wickham, takes his fortune and goes into town, blowing it on gambling and women, leaving a string of bad debts behind him. We see in Darcy—now the “Father” of the house—the difficulties of dealing with the prodigal son in a way we don’t see in the Jewish story. The prodigal takes not just the inheritance, but also takes Darcy’s sister, and then Eliza’s sister. It adds a layer of complexity.

keira knightley  Pride-and-Prejudice sarcasmAnd, there are not just two brothers, but two sisters (or several sisters!). Austen retells the folkloric parable in the rich context of early 19th century England.

The lessons are different than St. Luke’s. But there are lessons. The last chapter—which I sort of wish wasn’t included—shows us that love that overcomes pride can grow and deepen, but that impetuous romance fades to distaste. We see that brotherly-sisterly love has great value, but not every broken bond can be mended. Jane Austen has her own parable-like lessons for us.

Stories are like cathedrals, C.S. Lewis once said. They grow over the centuries through the work of architects and builders, but they are still made up of the cathedrals of past ages. From this angle, we can see the rich book that Pride & Prejudice really is.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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40 Responses to The Stories behind Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice

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  3. jubilare says:

    What about the echo of humor and unlikely-but-well-matched romance in Much Ado about Nothing?

    I think the last chapter of P&P is absolutely necessary, and I think, in your evaluation of it being a parody/answer to Pamela hits on why. From the start of her literary career (it’s extremely blatant in Northanger Abbey), Austen was parodying the hugely-popular-at-the-time Gothic Novel genre and contemporary romances. She consciously, I think, pointed out the reality of life, how change is possible, and does happen, but that not everyone changes. Lizzie and Darcy change, and so, it seems, to Kitty and Mary, but the rest, for the most part, do not. It’s sort of a happy-but-not-perfect ending, an acknowledgement that, in this life, even when things turn out well, people remain people and that causes strife. Lol! It just occurred to me that this is almost exactly why I don’t like the Knightly P&P, but then you do like it! Maybe it’s softer take on the personalities of its characters appeals to you more than it does to me. 🙂
    Speaking of which, have you seen the webisode P&P series set in modern times? I ask, because I really like where they went with the characters, sometimes very different from the book, but pretty profound. The Lydia-Lizzie arc is particularly poignant.


    • To be fair, I love the Knightly P&P for a couple of reasons that are beyond character. In particular, I love the scenery, setting, and especially the way the screen is staged. The use of colour, the symmetry and asymmetry, mirror and lace and lacquer–it drives me mad with visual addiction.
      And I probably have a screen crush on Keira Knightly, as I do with George Clooney and a few others.
      The question of change/unchange is one that has tugged at me for a few years–since really digging into the Wesley-Whitefield revival of the 1730s-70s. I think that revival really changed the way people viewed human nature. The “change that effects the heart” has sociological implications; I (or sin, or the Holy Spirit) change my heart, and can thus change my station and vocation.
      So I thought that the Change Characters were placed against Unchange Characters for two reasons: 1. Background/Foreground; and 2. Juxtaposition. The #1 background people are like some of the girls, like Mrs. Bennet. They are the background scenery, the potted plants and vertical stripes that allow the protagonist to look like she is moving when it is really the perspective of the reader that is moving. So there is a continuity of change narrative even in stasis.
      #2 is far easier. Bingley’s sister is the anti-Lizzie or the anti-Bingley, just as Darcy is opposed (ultimately) to Lady Catherine’s worldview. Lizzie and Darcy (himself) fail to see that Lady Catherine views the universe differently than Darcy. Part of Lizzie’s change is the humility to see that her own class prejudice is as damaging as Lady Catherine’s: in both cases, it made Darcy off limits.
      Does that make sense? I have been fascinated by the change question for many moons.
      I have not seen the modern P&P. I haven’t even heard about it.
      And “Much Ado” is a good ur-text. Shakespeare is kind of obvious, though, isn’t it? Milton & Shakespeare–who isn’t in someway writing after them?

      Liked by 1 person

      • jubilare says:

        Actually, I’ll agree with you on the aesthetics. That P&P is visually wonderful.

        I’d say Mrs. Bennett is significant in that one can see how she has shaped her children. Mr. Bennett is so passive, that I really think it is his wife who the daughters either emulate, or fight against in their own way. Therefore we don’t expect much change in her, but I’d say she is more than just a contrasting background. L. Catherine, also, gives background on Darcy. The Bingley sisters are probably there to be antagonistic more than anything, as I don’t see that they shaped their brother much. Collins… his extremeness, I think, is to drive home the possible problems in marrying solely for security. If he’d been less ridiculous, I think Lizzie would have come off looking less-sympathetic to Austen’s original audience. I find Charlotte fairly interesting, though.

        Aye, it makes sense! I think both Lizzie and Darcy have to overcome pride, prejudice, and pre-judgement (the original title was “First Impressions.”

        You might enjoy it. It starts off very silly, but it gets more involved and more interesting. I think it quite well done. 🙂


        • That’s pretty clever. Don’t know if my wife will love it or hate it! She didn’t really care for the Bourne series, and is more of an Ever After girl.
          I like your reading of Rev. Collins. He’s one of my favourites. What is intriguing, too, is how the pastoral class is a transition opportunity at the time. So what’s his name, the philanderer with the great jaw–WIckham–he is poor, right? Yet he is an officer, and thus connected to the gentry. His “poverty”–and you can help me here–has more to do with the fact that he expects to live on 500 a year or whatever, and not 30 a year, like the average Breeder of Ducks or Maker of Pies. The church would be a way for him to shift his class status–not by coins in pockets, but by a living in an estate, education opportunities, and an amphibious social class standing.
          So Austen’s choice to make the clergy-to-be Wickham a hypocrite, and the clergyman Collins ridiculous, serves to undercut one of the institutions that undercut the pride and prejudice of the class structures.
          WHatever reason, it’s pretty effective. I’ve always wanted to write Collins as getting a modern urban pastoral charge, and how he deals with his first day in the office (tramps, prostitutes, and the like).


  4. jubilare says:

    LOL! I love your description of Wickham as “the one with the great jaw” XD Yes, he’s poor, but as you point out, poor in comparison to the gentry, but he’s always been on the edge of the gentry, rather than part of it. I don’t think his parents were gentry, but Mr. Darcy Sr. wanted to get him into one of those liminal professions, like the clergy, military officers or lawyers. From what I understand, these were all professions that were open to both the poorer members of the gentry and those in the middle-class who could get enough wealth and or influence to climb. Wickham’s problem is that he doesn’t want to work, or have any self-control when it comes to finances, and Collins’s problem is that he’s more interested in his social position, and doesn’t really understand the faith he’s trying to uphold. 😛 His head would explode within a day.

    Some of Austen’s other clergy are quite sympathetic, and some of her officers, as well. As is typical with her, it’s not professions or positions she lampoons, but different failures and foibles of humanity. 🙂


    • I wouldn’t mind being as “poor” as Wickham–or to have his jaw!
      Actually, I could enter the reserves and maybe the military as an officer because of my masters degree. So perhaps I’m upwardly mobile!
      You know how I define “humility?” Self-awareness. In that sense, Collins entirely lacks humility. So it is hard to see his devotion to vocation as anything more than tact, structure, and a ridiculous confusion of emphasis.
      I want to read more Jane Austen!

      Liked by 1 person

      • jubilare says:

        I’ve seen people be arrogant about their level of self-awareness in contrast to what they see in others… but then, I guess, that is still a failure of self-awareness. I wonder if any of us could ever be fully self aware, and then I tremble at the thought of what that would be like! I’m pretty sure, but for the grace of God, that if I were fully aware of what I am, I’d just curl up into a traumatized ball of embarrassment.
        Collins strikes me as not only lacking in humility/self-awareness, but in original thought, as well.
        You should! Every book of hers is very different. I don’t care for Mansfield Park . P&P and Persuasion are my favorites, though they are worlds apart in tone, I think they are the best written. Emma is lively and fun, Sense and Sensibility is wonderfully complex. Northanger Abbey is silly and less polished, but funny. Lady Susan is hair-raising. 🙂


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