Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice"

Donald J. Gray is Culbertson Chair Emeritus of English at Indiana University, Bloomington.

He is the editor of the Norton Critical Edition of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. He applied the "Page 99 Test" to the novel and reported the following:
On p. 99 of the 3rd edition of the Norton Pride and Prejudice a young woman named Elizabeth, apparently resident in the country, shakes her head in worry over a letter from her sister Jane, who is visiting their uncle and aunt in London. A possible suitor for Jane has not profited from her temporary residence in London to call on her. Four weeks pass (in a phrase no longer than that), and Elizabeth receives another letter from Jane in which she confesses that she has been “entirely deceived” by a previous show of friendship on the part of a sister, a Miss Bingley, of the as yet unnamed suitor. Miss Bingley has paid a formal visit whose coldness Jane attributes to her fear that her brother is attracted to Jane, and thus is placing his courtship of and possible marriage to another (presumably more desirable) young woman in jeopardy. Jane wonders at Miss Bingley’s anxiety, “because if he had at all cared about me, we must have met long, long ago.” “But I will endeavor to banish every painful thought,” she writes to conclude her letter, “and think only of what will make me happy, your affection, and the invariable kindness of my dear uncle and aunt.”

On p. 99 of the second edition (1813) of the novel, a young man (Mr. Bingley) is paying a morning visit to house of Elizabeth and her sisters. He is flattered by their foolish mother as she prepares him for his role as a possible suitor, and then impulsively importuned by two of Elizabeth’s younger sisters to provide a ball at the house he is renting for the season.

Either passage will prepare a reader for a novel about the tactics of courtship – the schemes and hopes of mother and sisters, the apparatus of social events (calls and balls) in which young people meet one another, or (in the Norton edition) fail to meet, the play of forwardness (in the 1813 edition) and socially enforced passivity (in the Norton passage) in the game of courtship. Things look more promising in 1813 – there will be a ball, at which the couple in the courtship will meet. In the passage of the Norton edition the dark and risky aspects of the game come forward: Jane (and Elizabeth) can do nothing but wait, the sister of one family schemes against the courtship while the sister of the other family is at this moment at least distant and helpless, and can offer only affection to solace the “painful thought” of disappointment. A novel, then, about romance and courtship, played out within the complications and comforts of family, and the provisions of social custom. In 1813 the reader wonders: what is going to happen at the ball? After reading the passage in the Norton edition, the reader thinks: This is a hard way to conduct romance; is it all going to be ok?
Donald J. Gray edited editions and collections of 19th-century British fiction and poetry, including the Norton Critical Edition of Alice in Wonderland and the anthology Victorian Poetry, and published essays on Victorian literature and culture, Victorian journalism and literary publishing, the teaching of English, the education of teachers, and the history of English studies.

Learn more about the Norton Critical Edition of Pride and Prejudice.

--Marshal Zeringue