This Day in Writing History - January 28 - Pride and Prejudice
Updated: Apr 10, 2020
Still fresh off the success of her previous novel "Sense and Sensibility", Jane Austen's follow-up "Pride and Prejudice" was first published on January 28 of 1813. Like its predecessor, "Pride and Prejudice" serves as a romantic and comedic critique of its social climate (Britain's Regency era), depicting the conflict between societal pressure and personal pursuits. The title references two traits that characters display in bountiful supply throughout the story, often driving the action. This is certainly true for protagonist Elizabeth Bennet, who finds her bold and vivacious nature tested as she and her sisters navigate Britain's upper crust, tasked with finding a financially viable husband in order to save their family's estate (as the family has no male heir).
As was commonplace for female writers of the time period, Jane Austen published anonymously. "Sense and Sensibility" listed its author as "A Lady", while "Pride and Prejudice" stated its author was the same one who produced the previous novel. Austen's later works would go on to reference earlier publications in the same way, thus allowing her to carve out a following while still avoiding the publicity that society viewed as unseemly for women to be involved in. However, Austen's identity was an open secret and would be referenced in contemporary reviews, of which there were few, and popular discussions, of which there were many - particularly among the aristocracy.
Given the obstacles in place for a woman wishing to pursue a writing career, Austen needed help from and the approval of her family to press on seriously. She got it. Occupying a space on the lower end of the British gentry, Austen's family was both large enough and well-off enough to provide constant feedback and support during what often proved to be long development periods for her work. "Pride and Prejudice" was no exception, as the story was begun some 15 years prior to its eventual publication, with Austen using the working title of "First Impressions". An attempt at publication was rebuffed, and the story essentially lay dormant for over a decade, until Austen made considerable revisions in 1811 and 1812 that included arriving at the now famous title.
"Pride and Prejudice" was well-received upon release, with the initial edition selling out and giving way to a more expansive second edition later in 1813 along with several foreign language translations. Its arrival hot on the heels of the also popular "Sense and Sensibility" was a boon for Austen's reputation as a writer and helped her to gain a number of devotees, though, in a fashion true to the era, she generally shunned publicity. An exception was made when Austen received an invitation to view the Prince Regent's private library in London, with the librarian explaining that the royal was very much among her devotees. Her growing fame did not prevent Austen from keeping steadily at her craft, producing two more famous works, "Mansfield Park" and "Emma", which was dedicated to the Prince Regent on the advice of friends, in the next two years.
Austen passed away in 1817, but not before she had produced a body of work that would go on to reach exalted status in the annals of literature, with "Pride and Prejudice" often singled out as her very best. Indeed, the BBC's large-scale 2003 poll The Big Read, which sought to determine the UK's best-loved books, saw "Pride and Prejudice" come second only to J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings". It's an outcome that Austen probably could scarcely have dreamed of in her lifetime, as she consulted with friends and family about stories she hoped might simply one day see publication.