“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”.
This is arguably the most famous opening line in all of English Literature. It has been 200 years since these words appeared in Pride and Prejudice. Though first published in January 1813, Jane Austen had penned them much earlier in 1796 under the title First Impressions. Her father George Austen made an earnest attempt to get his 21-year-old daughter’s novel published through Thomas Cadell, a noted London publisher. George Austen even expressed his readiness to shoulder any expense in getting the work published, though, complying with Jane’s wishes, he took care not to mention the author’s name. ‘Declined by return of post’ was the curt reply he received from Cadell, who presumably did not care to read this masterpiece, which sold 1,500 copies when eventually published in 1813, an astounding achievement in that period; soon a second edition followed and a third appeared by 1817.
Born into a moderately wealthy family, Jane Austen lived most of her life at Steventon, a small village in Hampshire. She had little formal education and whatever knowledge she gained came from her father’s library. It is then truly astonishing that she could author novels, which command a fan following of millions. Perhaps it is because what she wrote is relevant even in our modern age. Thoughts like ‘Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance’ and ‘How little of permanent happiness could belong to a couple who were only brought together because their passions were stronger than their virtue’ came from the pen of a young unmarried woman who lived a cloistered life in a rural set-up. They are proof of the farsightedness of the novelist, whose works have never gone out of print, while more celebrated contemporaries have faded into oblivion.
But Jane Austen’s fame was posthumous and her last two novels Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published by her brother Henry Austen, after her death in 1817. Incidentally, it was he who announced to the world the name of the author, whose ardent admirers include legendary figures and political leaders.
Thomas Babington Macaulay, who donned many hats as a liberal Politician, educationist, essayist and historian, was a contemporary of Jane Austen. In his preface to Diary and Letters of Madame D’Arblay, Macaulay writes, “Shakespeare has had neither equal nor second. But among the writers who, in the point which we have noticed, have approached nearest to the manner of the great master, we have no hesitation in placing Jane Austen, a woman of whom England is justly proud. She has given us a multitude of characters, all in a certain sense, common place, all such as we meet every day.”
When Winston Churchill was confined to bed with pneumonia during the Second World War, it was in Jane Austen he found solace. In The History of the Second World War, he writes, “I had long ago read Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and now I thought I would have Pride and Prejudice. [My daughter] Sarah read it to me beautifully from the foot of the bed. What calm lives they had, those people! No worries about the French Revolution or the crashing struggle of the Napoleonic Wars. Only manners controlling natural passion as far as they could, together with cultural explanations of any mischances.”
The Jane Austen Centre, Bath, England marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice on January 28, 2013 with a half-day Readathon, where celebrities read the novel in parts.
While Jane Austen societies exist in America, Europe and Asia, strangely India with its phalanx of literary connoisseurs, does not have an active one. Jane Austen’s works clearly have an import in the 21st century as the primary concern of her novels was the role of women in society at that point in history — women and marriage, women and education, women and employment — subjects that are grouped in the parlance of woman empowerment today. Even romance in our novels and movies pursues the formula which she gave the world two centuries ago.
(Dr. Ashraf, M.D. FICA, FRCP (Glas) is a member of the Tamil Nadu Medical Council and past national vice-president, Indian Medical Association. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)