Pride and Prejudice Historical and Social Context
by Jane Austen

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Historical Context

Publication History, Reception, and Legacy

Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice was first published in 1813. It was Austen’s second published novel, following the success of her debut novel, Sense and Sensibility. Pride and Prejudice was well received by the public, receiving three positive reviews within its first month in circulation. It became a fashionable novel amongst the public and cemented Austen’s reputation as a writer, though none of her novels were initially published directly under her name. Writing was not considered a suitable profession for a woman, so Austen’s first novel was published “by a Lady.” Each subsequent novel obliquely credited Austen in reference to her other texts. Pride and Prejudice was published by “the author of Sense and Sensibility.”

Pride and Prejudice has gone on to become one of the most popular and beloved English-language novels of all time. It remains a topic of literary criticism, and it is a mainstay in English curricula. While some critics feel that the fairytale-like quality of the ending lacks realism, others praise the novel’s proto-feminist discourse around women’s education and financial dependence. Austen’s writing style has been frequently and widely emulated. She is often credited with the popularization of free indirect discourse, a literary technique that is ubiquitous in today’s fiction.

First Draft and Title

Though the exact dates are unknown, Austen began work on the manuscript that would later become Pride and Prejudice in the 1790s. It was originally titled First Impressions but was later renamed to reduce potential confusion with other works of the same name. The title is most likely an allusion to Frances Burney’s novel of manners, Cecilia, which Austen referenced in other works as well. It is commonly speculated that the initial draft of First Impressions was an epistolary novel, or a novel comprised of letters and documents rather than exposition. Scholars cite the number of letters that appear in Pride and Prejudice—as well as their bearing on the plot—as evidence of this theory.

Background

(Novels for Students)

Jane Austen's house Published by Gale Cengage

Jane Austen's England

Jane Austen's major novels, including Pride and Prejudice, were all composed within a short period of about twenty years. Those twenty years (1795-1815) also mark a period in history when England was at the height of its power. England stood as the bulwark against French revolutionary extremism and against Napoleonic imperialism. The dates Austen was writing almost exactly coincide with the great English military victories over Napoleon and the French: the Battle of the Nile, in which Admiral Nelson crippled the French Mediterranean fleet, and the battle of Waterloo, in which Lord Wellington and his German allies defeated Napoleon decisively and sent him into exile. However, so secure in their righteousness were the English middle and upper classes—the "landed gentry" featured in Austen's works—that these historical events impact Pride and Prejudice very little.

The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars

The period from 1789 to 1799 marks the time of the French Revolution, while the period from 1799 to 1815 marks the ascendancy of Napoleon— periods of almost constant social change and upheaval. In England, the same periods were times of conservative reaction, in which society changed very little. The British government, led by Prime Minister William Pitt, maintained a strict control over any ideas or opinions that seemed to support the revolution in France. Pitt's government suspended the right of habeas corpus , giving themselves the power to imprison people for an indefinite time without trial. It also passed laws against public criticism of government policies, and suppressed working-class trade unions. At the same time, the Industrial Revolution permanently changed the British economy. It provided the money Pitt's government needed to oppose Napoleon. At the same time, it also created a large wealthy class and an even larger middle...

(The entire section is 2,497 words.)