Today marks the 202nd anniversary of Jane Austen’s most popular novel, Pride and Prejudice, hitting shelves in Britain. It’s a strangely specific anniversary to commemorate, but this blog didn’t exist in 2013 when Pride and Prejudice celebrated its 200th anniversary—a much tidier and, subsequently, seemingly more significant milestone worth remembering. The reality of the situation, however, is that today’s anniversary of Pride and Prejudice is somewhere closer to its 218th.
Published in 1813, Pride and Prejudice got its start almost two decades before when Austen attempted and failed to have it published under the title ‘First Impressions’ in 1797 (hence its debatable 218th anniversary). After the publisher declined to publish it, she sat on it and worked on other writing projects. Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811, a novel that began its life called ‘Elinor and Marianne’ and was heavily reworked before its publication. After the success of Sense and Sensibility, Austen then thoroughly revised her original manuscript for ‘First Impressions’ and published instead as Pride and Prejudice. Its first edition sold out. She would later be honored by the man who would one day become George IV.
When we think of Austen’s novels—any novel, really—we imagine our favorite edition as it sits on our shelf: a hardback or paperback copy probably with a forward by some other author or academic who discusses the lasting relevance of the novel’s legacy. We remember our favorite moments, favorite quotes, and favorite characters. Though you may own the Penguin edition and your friend the Oxford Classics edition, they are more or less the same. The book feels somehow static and unchanging. Austen, like most authors, however lacked the luxury of this consistency. For Austen, her works were in a constant state of flux before their publications, and Pride and Prejudice was no exception.
The problem with commemorating the 1813 publication of Pride and Prejudice is that it maintains the illusion that great works simply come into being. Like some kind of bizarre literary pregnancy, Austen gestated her novel over a period of time and it just plopped out one day a finished product. (That’s how childbirth works, right?) The process is much more complex, often disheartening, and self-reflective. Pride and Prejudice evolved as Austen evolved as an author. It is a book that truly represents her growth from a young writer to a mature author. The knowledge that Pride and Prejudice existed in some form far before its 1813 publication can allow the reader to appreciate the process of creating masterpieces, that an author not only creates but recreates, edits, destroys, and rebuilds, that even in its final form, change is implicit.
While it is easy to remember and commemorate Pride and Prejudice on the anniversary of its publication whether the big 200th, the strangely specific 202nd, or the more revealing 218th, I think it’s more productive to remember Pride and Prejudice as a book that lived and grew as much as the author who created it. Even better than that, I think, is to remember Pride and Prejudice by reading it, to set dates and numbers aside and experience the novel anew. Novels change each time they are read and transform with each audience. Age ain’t nothin’ but a number.
All the same: Happy 202nd/218th birthday, Pride and Prejudice!