January 28: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is two hundred years old today. The first reviewers judged it “very superior to any novel we have lately met with in the delineation of domestic scenes.” Annabella Milbanke, later Lady Byron and embroiled in some notorious domestic scenes of her own, praised the book for its daring normality:
It depends not on any of the common resources of novel writers, no drownings, no conflagrations, nor runaway horses, nor lap-dogs and parrots, nor chambermaids and milliners, nor rencontres and disguises. I really think it is the most probable I have ever read. It is not a crying book, but the interest is very strong….
In a journal entry written thirteen years after the novel’s first publication, Sir Walter Scott notes his enduring admiration and envy:
Also read again, and for the third time at least, Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvement and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going, but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me.
But Austen’s drawing rooms were not for all tastes. Charlotte Brontë (whose Villette, was published on this day in 1853) wrote the following in an 1848 letter to George Lewes, in response to his advice, after having read Jane Eyre, that she might want to write less melodramatically and more like Austen:
Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point. What induced you to say that you would rather have written Pride and Prejudice … than any of the Waverly novels. I had not seen Pride and Prejudice till I had read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book. And what did I find? An accurate daguerrotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.