Pride and Prejudice, the world’s favourite novel, turned 200 last month. And while we’re contemplating its great age, it’s worth remembering that Jane Austen was 21 when she wrote it. It’s hard to name what it is about her novels, this one in particular, that makes them so enduringly appealing. They’re exquisitely observed, of course; nobody skewers a fop, a bore, a ninny, or a flirt like Austen could in one short sketch. They’re comic as well as dramatic and romantic. They’re full of moral marrow, memorable characters, beautifully drawn scenes and finely turned phrases. But I think above all, the reason they delight and intrigue us still is their exploration of a rich and complex inner life.
Nothing is more often pointed out about Austen than that she turned away from the wider world of history and politics to write about the confined, unvarying world of a small domestic or parochial circle. In fact what she wrote about was not an outer world at all, large or small, but an inner world of immense dimension and substance. Where else but in a fully realised psychological interior do pride, prejudice, sense, sensibility, and persuasion take form? For Austen’s heroines, the stakes are self esteem, personal virtue, rationality and contentment, not the social or pecuniary rewards for which the shallow, morally compromised characters play. Mechanically, the novels resolve in marriages and other social maneuvres, but the real movement of each novel happens in inward reflection, realisation, self-knowledge, and self-command.
Think of Emma’s, (or Marianne’s), blinding realisation of her own error, almost simultaneous with the realisation of her true feelings; Elinor’s bargain with herself to keep Lucy’s secret and prize Edward’s honour above her own happiness. Think of Anne’s tender revelation of her steadfastness to Captain Harville, overheard by Wentworth in that novel’s climactic scene. And think of Elizabeth compulsively re-reading Darcy’s letter: “Till this moment I never knew myself.” The letter is the novel’s turning point, and it’s not Wickham’s shortcomings but her own that shock her, and move her toward knowledge and love. It’s not a world of heroes and cads and dashing romances, but our admission to this private world of deep feeling, long suffering, painful reflection and dawning knowledge that makes these books so endlessly enjoyable.