Pride, prejudice, and an obsession with Colin Firth
A look at Jane Austen’s life and how it influenced Pride and Prejudice, with a detour into the world of Bridget Jones, wet shirts, and Colin Firth.
Austen’s early life: Birth and boarding school
Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775 at the rectory in Steventon, near Basingstoke, Hampshire. She was baptized at Steventon rectory on the day of her birth by George Austen. She attended the Abbey House School, Reading, from spring 1785 to December 1786. It was a boarding-school patronized by wealthy merchants and tradesmen, and in the mornings offered instruction in English (including spelling but not punctuation), French, some Italian, history, and needlework. There were dancing classes, and some special end-of-half-year events such as theatricals and recitations, which the headmistress organized jointly with the adjoining boys’ school, Valpy’s. But other Abbey House girls afterwards best remembered the school for its long leisurely afternoons, allowing visits to the nearby lending library, which catered adeptly for the tastes and imaginations of girls and young women by way of romance, adventure, and much male greed and villainy.
Becoming a novelist: Wit and verbal economy
In his Memoir of Jane Austen, Edward Austen-Leigh planted the tradition, subscribed to by most twentieth-century critics and biographers, that Austen the novelist was substantially created at home. Thanks to tuition by her father and brothers Jane was exposed as a child to the essayists Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, and Samuel Johnson and to the novelists Samuel Richardson and Fanny Burney. It is probably true that the clarity, sharpness, and wit of the prose of Austen’s juvenilia indicate attentive reading in the century’s stylists, a good ear for the balance of a sentence, and sound regard for verbal economy.
First impressions and second titles
In August 1796 Jane visited her brother Edward and his wife, Elizabeth, at their first home, a large farmhouse at Rowling in Kent. It was while there, or immediately after returning home that October, that she began Pride and Prejudice under the title ‘First Impressions’, perhaps as an instinctive reaction against Kent hauteur. The author was the same age as her heroine Elizabeth Bennet at the start of composition (‘not one and twenty’). This, the first of her novels to be completed, was finished in August 1797, and offered by her father to the publisher Thomas Cadell. The publisher declined without asking to see the manuscript. ‘First Impressions’ remained a family favourite; the title had to be changed, however, after the publication of Margaret Holford’s novel First Impressions, or, The Portrait in 1801. Austen replaced it with Pride and Prejudice, taking a phrase from Burney’s Cecilia (1782) as her new title. Pride and Prejudice was recognized as a fine comedy in the mainstream tradition and was a runaway success on publication in 1813.
Plot ideas from real life: Militia and mayhem
Unusually for Austen the novel is also grounded in real-life public events. Following France’s declaration of war in February 1793. By the winter of 1794–5 three regiments—the South Devonshires, Oxfordshires, and Derbyshires—were billeted in counties near north Hampshire, and they caused trouble locally through riotousness, drunkenness, lechery, and bad debts. Their senior officers were either professional soldiers or gentlemen but the men and junior officers were inexperienced and, like Lieutenant Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, might be disreputable. Jane’s brother Henry had enlisted in the Oxfordshire militia, and he fed Jane with tales about the different militias.
Pride and Prejudice is a story full of movement and instability, thanks partly to the dastardly escapades of Wickham with Georgiana Darcy at Ramsgate and with Lydia Bennet at Brighton and London, and eventually as a junior officer in the regulars at Newcastle. But it also pencils in respectable social gradations, as in the case of the worthy Gardiners, the kind of City of London couple who in real life were business associates at this time of the Austen cousins. To match Mr Darcy’s concessions to the City, Lizzy travels to Derbyshire, is admitted to Pemberley as a mere tourist, and learns from the housekeeper that Darcy is not seen at home as an arrogant snob or despot, but as a good-natured boy who has grown up to be a protective affectionate brother. The successful weave of the many strands of this ambitious plot is one of the causes of its lasting charm.
Pride and Prejudice today
Today Jane Austen’s novels are firm favourites among book buyers and library users and feature prominently in polls of favourite fiction, with a special attachment to Pride and Prejudice. It was the relatively recent recognition of Austen’s universality that drove the rapid growth in the 1990s of hotly competing television and film adaptations of all six of her finished novels. 1995 was a particularly notable year, with an ambitious, well-cast, and conscientiously researched Pride and Prejudice made for television, with running time of five hours, and starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. The production was deliberately literary, and committed to delivering the inward interest and complex relationships of nineteenth-century novels.
Source: Marilyn Butler, ‘Austen, Jane (1775–1817)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2010 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/904, accessed 2 Sept 2012]
Bridget Jones: parody, homage, and fancying Colin Firth
A year later, in 1996, the novel Bridget Jones’s Diary was published. Originally a column in The Independent, Helen Fielding’s comic novel offers a loving imitation of and tribute to Pride and Prejudice. This is done both subtly, by using parallels between the characters of Mark Darcy and Mr. Darcy and the love stories that form the plots of both novels; and overtly, for example in the following diary entry:
“Just nipped out for fags prior to getting changed ready for BBC Pride and Prejudice. Hard to believe there are so many cars out on the roads. Shouldn’t they be at home getting ready? Love the nation being so addicted. The basis of my own addiction, I know, is my simple human need for Darcy to get off with Elizabeth.”
The connection between Darcy / Colin Firth / Bridget Jones continues in the Bridget Jones film, where the role of Mark Darcy is played by none other than Colin Firth. In Fielding’s sequel to Bridget Jones’s Diary, the novel The Edge of Reason (1998), Bridget manages to arrange a media interview with Colin Firth, during which she focuses her questioning almost exclusively on a scene in the BBC adaptation Pride and Prejudice which sees Mr. Darcy / Colin Firth emerge from a lake in a wet shirt – showing just how indistinguishable Colin Firth and Austen’s Mr. Darcy had become in the nation’s minds, or at least in the minds of Bridget and her Chardonnay-chugging singleton friends.
Jane Austen and Bridget Jones in the Oxford English Dictionary
Jane Austen’s novels and letters are frequently cited in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), putting her work currently as the 253rd most frequently quoted source, with a total of 1,620 quotations. Of these quotations, 44 currently provide the very first OED evidence of a particular word, including the adjective ‘fragmented’ (from Northanger Abbey: “In the shape of some fragmented journal, continued to the last gasp”) and “sponge-cake” (from an 1808 letter).
Although not providing the first evidence of any new words, Bridget Jones’s Diary is nevertheless cited in the OED over 30 times, providing modern evidence for words and phrases such as prick-teaser and midriff.
In this quiz, we pit Jane Austen’s novels against Bridget Jones’s Diary in the OED. Can you spot which of the cited words are from the hallowed pen of Austen and which from the probably somewhat squiffy pen of Bridget?
Image by Hugh Thomson (1860-1920) (Lilly Library, Indiana University) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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