‘I haven’t any right to criticize books,’ wrote Mark Twain in 1898. ‘I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shinbone.’
Fifty years earlier, in 1848, Charlotte Brontë expressed the same sentiment rather more genteelly, in a letter to G. H. Lewes. She characterized Pride and Prejudice as ‘an accurate, daguerreotyped portrait of a common-place 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 neck.’ ‘I should hardly like’, she continued, ‘to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses.’ ‘Why’, she demanded, ‘do you like Miss Austen so very much?’
Both Twain and Brontë express opinions which are at odds with a truth universally acknowledged, namely that Pride and Prejudice is one of the best-loved novels in the English language. For this reason, it is rather a daunting book to write about, and I suspect fellow ‘Janeites’ reading this will have their own clearly defined ideas about both Pride and Prejudice and its place in a hierarchy of Austenian perfection. I should say at the outset, therefore, that although I am by trade an academic with a specialism in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature, I feel no more qualified to write about Pride and Prejudice than any other reader of the novel. Like Mark Twain, ‘I haven’t any right to criticize’, although, unlike him, I don’t feel inclined to hit Austen over the head with her own shinbone. Instead I present here a partial, prejudiced and ignorant account of why I think Pride and Prejudice is about as perfect as it is possible for a literary work to be.
So ‘why do [I] like Miss Austen so very much’, and why do I think Pride and Prejudice perfect? Because it is, quite simply, magical. Charlotte Brontë was wrong, Mark Twain was wrong, and anybody who has ever written arrant nonsense about the circumscribed scope of Austen’s world is wrong. There is nothi
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