Archived Pages |  Syllabus  |  Resources  | Current Events |  Email Instructor |  Discussion

Austen, Pride and Prejudice: Vols. I & II
(click here for Vol. III)


Buy this book at!

The Age of the Novel
Yet again, we are skipping over nearly 200 years in order to hit the next literary "Golden Age": that of the novel, which developed its distinctive generic characteristics over the course of the 18th century and really hit its stride, along with industrialism and the middle class, in the 19th century. The next two works we read will be from this "Golden Age of the Novel": Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1806) and Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (1866). Other famous progenitors of "the 19th-century novel" include the Brontë sisters, Dickens, Thackeray, Walter Scott, George Eliot, Hawthorne, Melville, Henry James, Stendhal, Hugo, Balzac, Flaubert, Turgenev, and Tolstoy. Woolf's To the Lighthouse (1927) represents the waning of the certainties that had underpinned the novel, and concomitantly the blurring of the sharp outlines that delineated the novel as a genre, much as the Impressionists had blurred the shapr outlines of naturalist art.

The 200 years we are skipping represent by no means a Dark Age comparable to the 900-year gap between Augustine and Dante, but rather one of the most productive epochs in intellectual history, known (rather fawningly) as The Enlightenment or (perhaps more accurately) as The Age of Reason. As might be expected of an Age known for its Reason, the most celebrated products of the Enlightment are works of philosophy and political theory rather than works of fiction or drama (even though many of the Enlightenment's brightest "lights"--the Francophone ones, at least: Diderot, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau--wrote in both modes), which is probably why this era gets a lot more "air time" in CC than in Lit. Hum. Most famously, perhaps, the era produced the French Encyclopédie (1751-1772), edited by Diderot and D'Alembert, described by the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy as follows: "the most ambitious and expansive reference work of its time, the Encyclopedia crystallized the confidence of the eighteenth-century bourgeoisie in the capacity of reason to dispel the shadows of ignorance and improve society." ("Dispel the shadows," see, hence "enlightenment.")

The ideas promulgated by the Enlightenment in Europe are credited with bringing about the French Revolution in 1789, and certainly underpinned much of the rhetoric both of that Revolution and of the American one in 1776, although both movements were galvanised more by economic considerations than by philosophical ones. In each case, a cynical observer might characterise the "revolution" as an assertion of the will to power of a burgeoning middle class, using the bodies of illiterate peasants. In both cases, repercussions included a general reassertion of the "Greco-Roman" strand of Western culture over the "Judaeo-Christian" strand: democracy in preference to aristocracy/theocracy, and a search for non-Divine sources of order in the world, which paved the way for the lamentable system of free-market capitalism we have inherited from Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations, 1776). These concerns are by no means irrelevant to Pride and Prejudice, which was begun in 1796 (under the title First Impressions), in the wake of the French Revolution, and published (revised and renamed Pride and Prejudice) in 1812, during the libertarian moment in England. (Interestingly, you'd never guess from the novel's content that Napoleon was cutting a swath through Europe at the time of its publication!)

The following summary of the basic ideas behind the Enlightment mentality comes from (emphasis, though, is mine):

"The scientific and intellectual developments of the 17th century--the discoveries of Isaac Newton, the rationalism of Réné Descartes, the skepticism of Pierre Bayle, the pantheism of Benedict de Spinoza, and the empiricism of Francis Bacon and John Locke--fostered the belief in natural law and universal order and the confidence in human reason that spread to influence all of 18th-century society. Currents of thought were many and varied, but certain ideas may be characterized as pervading and dominant. A rational and scientific approach to religious, social, political, and economic issues promoted a secular view of the world and a general sense of progress and perfectibility.The major champions of these concepts were the philosophes, who popularized and promulgated the new ideas for the general reading public. These proponents of the Enlightenment shared certain basic attitudes. With supreme faith in rationality, they sought to discover and to act upon universally valid principles governing humanity, nature, and society. They variously attacked spiritual and scientific authority, dogmatism, intolerance, censorship, and economic and social restraints. They considered the state the proper and rational instrument of progress. The extreme rationalism and skepticism of the age led naturally to deism; the same qualities played a part in bringing the later reaction of romanticism."

This is a big deal: it means that Austen is the first author we've read since Vergil to write from a cultural landscape not utterly dominated by the Christian (especially, the Catholic) church. As you read P&P, bear the above synopsis in mind and think about how Austen is approaching, describing and critiquing the rational legacy of the Enlightenment, as well as the social order of her day. How does she inscribe herself in the history of Western thought?

Jane Austen
You'll find a brief biography of Jane Austen, along with a chronology of her life and works (which also appears on p. xxxi of our book) at these pages by the Jane Austen Society of Australia. For our purposes, it suffices to note that she was born in 1775 (making her just a year older than America...) and lived with her parents and elder sister, Cassandra, until her father's death in 1805 (Jane was 30). After he died, the three Austen ladies moved in with Jane's naval brother Frank and his wife Mary. Occasional visits to Jane's favourite brother Henry in London afforded an opportunity to attend the theatre and art exhbitions. In 1809 Jane's brother Edward offered his mother and sisters a permanent home on his Chawton estate in their beloved Hampshire, which is where Jane got most of her mature writing done, including all of the novels except Northanger Abbey (which was published after her death, probably only because there was no prospect of a new Jane Austen novel to satisfy her fans). Jane died in 1817, aged 41.

Was Jane Austen ever in love? The record suggests....maybe:

  1. in 1796 (when Jane was 20), she had a mutual flirtation with one Thomas Lefroy, but he couldn't afford to marry her (and she would have brought little in the way of dowry).
  2. A year later, Tom's aunt (who had disapproved of their relationship) tried to fix Jane Austen up with the Rev. Samuel Blackall, a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, but Jane wasn't very interested.
  3. Sometime in the years 1801-1805, Jane Austen's most mysterious romantic incident occurred: she met a young man who seemed to Cassandra to have quite fallen in love with Jane; Cassandra later spoke highly of him, and thought he would have been a successful suitor--but before the two could meet again, the young man died.
  4. Finally, in 1802, a prosperous but "big and awkward" landowner and family friend, Harris Bigg-Wither, who was six years younger than Jane, proposed to her; she initially accepted, but changed her mind the next day, and fled with Cassandra. Neither of the sisters ever married.

Web Resources

Study Questions
Please click here for a printer-friendly set of study questions. Remember that it is mandatory to read the study questions before posting to the discussion!

  Creative Commons License  All the original content on these pages is licensed under a Creative Commons License.  Under this license, you may copy, alter, and redistribute any of the original content on this site to your heart's content, provided that you (a) credit me and/or link back to this page; and (b) allow others to make similarly free use of any work you create that is based on material from these pages. In other words, share the love. You might also like to drop me a line and let me know if you're using my stuff -- it's the nice thing to do!
Bible lookup tool -------------------------------------------------  
(see below):

-New International Version
-New American Standard Bible
-New Living Translation
-King James Version
-New King James Version
-Revised Standard Version
-21st Cent. King James
-Darby Translation
-Young's Literal Translation
-Worldwide English
(e.g. Gen 3:16):

Search word(s):

Searching instructions

Other Languages:


  Archived Pages  |  Syllabus  |  Course Info  |  Email Instructor |  Go to Discussion  
  Other Resources  |  Literature Humanities Homepage at Columbia | Current Events Pages