The brilliance of Pride and Prejudice

In celebration of the 210th publication of Pride and Prejudice, Professor John Mullan tells us why it is the most wonderful novel - from scintillating dialogue to living, breathing characters.

You can see – and hear – what is wonderful about Pride and Prejudice just by taking its first chapter. We all know the famous opening sentence (‘It is a truth universally acknowledged …’), and its narrator’s bone-dry irony, but most of what follows is dialogue. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are talking to each other, and after just a couple of pages of their conversation we have an anatomy of a marriage. Theirs is the intimacy of a long relationship (Mr. Bennet notes that his wife’s nerves are his ‘old friends’, for he has heard her ‘mention them with consideration these twenty years at least’). Each calls the other ‘my dear’. Yet the husband teases the wife in ways that she does not – indeed, cannot – understand. The novelist need not steer us as to what these characters’ words reveal: so confident is she in the differences between their two voices that she does not even need to use those ‘he said’, ‘she said’ clauses. She just lets Mr. and Mrs. Bennet speak.

Pride and Prejudice is brilliant in many ways, but its scintillating dialogue is at the heart of it. Against the grain of Elizabeth’s sincerely held convictions about what she thinks of Mr. Darcy, Austen creates the counter-impression of a deep attraction mostly through the crackling dialogue between them. Undoubtedly, Austen has a great ear for the ways in which people give themselves away when they speak, but she also has a more extraordinary ability: to let her characters take over her novels. Rather like Mr. Bennet reading out Mr. Collins’s letter to his family and waiting for their reactions, Austen leaves it to the reader to judge what the characters say.

And every character speaks in his or her own way. Wonderfully, Mr. Bingley’s brother-in-law, the indolent and deeply mediocre Mr. Hurst, has only one sentence actually recorded in the novel. It comes when Elizabeth has declined to join him, Mr. Darcy and the Bingleys at cards – they are playing loo – ‘suspecting them to be playing high’ (i.e. for largish sums of money). Instead, she picks up a book. Mr. Hurst is astonished.

‘Do you prefer reading to cards? said he; ‘that is rather singular’.

There he is: epitomized forever in the only utterance that he has to contribute to the novel.

Those who speak more often also speak themselves. There is Mr. Darcy’s slightly ponderous, though undeniably correct, self-importance, melted occasionally into irony or even flirtatiousness by Elizabeth’s mischief. Or Mrs. Bennet’s tirelessly exclamatory self-pity and complaint. Austen can even let you hear family influences, as when Mrs. Bennet and Lydia echo each other in their shared exclamations (‘Lord! … Oh, Lord!) and shared folly.

‘I am sure,’ said she, ‘I cried for two days together when Colonel Miller’s regiment went away. I thought I should have broken my heart.’

‘I am sure I shall break mine,’ said Lydia.

‘If one could but go to Brighton!’ observed Mrs. Bennet.

‘Oh, yes!—if one could but go to Brighton! But papa is so disagreeable.’

That opening chapter of Pride and Prejudice is even daring in its omission. Elizabeth’s entrance is held back. Austen created the most irreverent and intellectually lively heroine the English novel had known, but kept her away from her opening scene. First, we must find out about her parents. This gives Austen the chance for one of her inimitable sentences.

‘Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character.’

What a singular combination of qualities! There has not been a character – or a sentence – like this, ever before. So, he must exist.

All this entertaining brilliance has its narrative purposes. Only when you are much further through the novel, can you notice that, even as Mr. Bennet makes you laugh, he shows himself up. Taking refuge from his foolish wife in irony that she cannot follow, he lets you glimpse his irresponsibility. Every time you begin the novel, you find him amusing all over again, and every time you finish the novel, you realise that the family’s misfortunes will be his fault.



John Mullan at the Hay Festival 2017

Professor John Mullan is the Lord Northcliffe Chair of Modern English Literature at UCL. He is a specialist in eighteenth-century literature and is at present writing the volume of the Oxford English Literary History that will cover the period from 1709 to 1784.

He has published widely, including his 2012 book What Matters in Jane Austen? He has edited Sense and Sensibility and Emma  for Oxford World’s Classics.