History of the Text
Publication History: Pride and Prejudice first appeared in print in January 1813. It was a revised version of a novel originally titled First Impressions that Austen had written in 1796 and 1797, while in her early 20s, but that had been turned down for publication. Pride and Prejudice was the second of four novels Austen published during her lifetime; two more were released following her death in 1817, at the age of 42. By the conventions of the period, works written by female authors were frequently published anonymously, and such was the case for Austen: Pride and Prejudice was attributed to “the author of Sense and Sensibility,” her first novel. Pride and Prejudice received several positive reviews and sold well by the standards of the day, selling out its first printing, reportedly of 1,500 copies, in less than a year.
Growth in Popularity: In the half century after Austen’s death, her work was respected but seldom read. Her reputation blossomed after her nephew published an admiring biography of her in 1869. From that point forward, her following grew large on two fronts: a popular readership that took pleasure in Austen’s engaging characters and piercing wit, and academics who increasingly recognized her role in the development of the novel as a literary form. Two hundred years after its publication, Pride and Prejudice continues to be a hit. According to estimates, over 20 million copies have been sold.
Role in the Evolution of the Novel: While there’s scholarly debate about the origins of the novel, it’s fair to say that it became an established literary genre over the course of the 18th century. Early novels were melodramatic entertainment that often drew scorn for their sensationalism and superficiality. Pride and Prejudice, along with Austen’s other major novels, was groundbreaking for its realistic portrayal of life—at least within her social class, the landed gentry. The plot adheres to romantic storytelling conventions, with a star-crossed couple overcoming obstacles to find love, resulting in marriage. What set Austen apart were her nuanced characters and the significance she placed on day-to-day concerns that would have been familiar to her readership.
- Perhaps Austen’s greatest contribution to the novel, however, was her innovative use of free indirect discourse. In Austen’s novels, the narrative voice transitions seamlessly between descriptions of outer events and accounts of a character’s interior stream of consciousness. Today, we expect novels to unfold through free indirect discourse, but Austen introduced it to English literature at the turn of the 19th century.
Literary allusions don’t play an important role in Pride and Prejudice. It’s essential, though, that readers develop a rudimentary understanding of the story’s cultural context, to which Austen regularly makes reference. Students are likely to find some of the societal conventions of her time alien and perplexing.
(The entire section is 738 words.)