Laughter and humor in Pride and Prejudice

Jane lies in Winchester—blessed be her shade!
Praise the Lord for making her, and her for all she made!
And while the stones of Winchester, or Milsom Street, remain,
Glory, love, and honour unto England’s Jane!
—Rudyard Kipling, “The Janeites”

The cathedral of Winchester where Jane Austen is buried and Milsom Street in Bath where she shopped do in fact still remain. If anything, the glory, love, and honor that Kipling called down upon her head soon after the First World War are greater now. It has been an occasion for general rejoicing that Pride and Prejudice is this year celebrating its two hundredth anniversary. Few books of that age attract not only scholars, but also attentive common readers whose love overflows into movies, fan fiction, beach towels, and knitting patterns. With every passing year, Austen inspires great pleasure, even almost religious devotion.

It seems an act of Providence that, two hundred years ago last January, when the novel was published, Jane Austen was briefly separated from her sister and confidante Cassandra—providential, because her letters from that time preserve her initial reaction to her second published novel. She looked on her work and found it, well, pretty good: “Upon the whole . . . I am quite vain enough & well satisfied enough.” Faint praise, we might think, but to Cassandra she also called the book “my own darling Child.” Her child had a long gestation. She had first written a complete version of it in 1796, when she was twenty—the same age as her protagonist—but had only revised it after many unhappy upheavals in her life, including the death of her sympathetic clergyman father and several moves to places she found mostly uncongenial. Austen was particularly pleased with her heroine, Elizabeth Bennet. “I must confess,” she wrote to Cassandra, “that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, & how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.”

Elizabeth Bennet’s charm is unmistakable—even her obtuse suitor Mr. Collins is pleased by her “wit and vivacity.” Her figure is “light and pleasing”; matching it is her “lively, playful disposition, which delighted in any thing ridiculous”; her manners are “easy and unaffected” with “a mixture of sweetness and archness.” Above all, it is “her temper to be happy.” No wonder Mr. Darcy finds himself “bewitched” and alert to some “danger” he feels she holds for him. The whole novel is crammed with entertaining characters, amusing conversations, wittily choreographed situations, clever plotting—Who couldn’t wholeheartedly love Pride and Prejudice?

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