Monday, 28 January 2013

Pride and Prejudice, 200 years on... by Stephanie Burgis

28 January 1813 saw Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice published for the first time, 200 years on Stephanie Burgis tells us how Austen continues to inspire her. 

I still remember my dad opening the big hardcover book. I was eight years old, and he was about to start reading me a new bedtime book. “This one is special,” he said. “I think you’ll like it.”

The book was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice - and he was right, on both counts. It was special…and from the first chapter onwards, I was enthralled.

Jane Austen
Something about that glimpse into a different society, filled with balls and visits and rigid social rules about how men and women could interact, completely fascinated me. Having to say yes or no to a potential husband after only meeting him four or five times, always in public? Having to risk your whole future on how he’d seemed to be at a few balls and a few supervised visits? Well, no wonder Lizzie Bennett, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, makes some mistakes about the men she meets, based on those first impressions!

The whole Regency-era society felt every bit as foreign and as incredible as any of the imaginary worlds in the fantasy novels I loved. And when you add in the passionately-felt romance and the sharp, biting humour - because Jane Austen’s novels are ruthlessly funny, especially in the way she pokes through all her characters’ illusions and pretences - oh, I was lost. I was a fan forever.

Laurence Olivier as Mr. Darcy
After my dad finished reading me Pride and Prejudice, I immediately read it to myself. Then I watched the old movie with Laurence Olivier and the new (at that point, in the 1980s) BBC miniseries version. And of course I hunted down every other Austen novel, from Sense and Sensibility (which turned out to be my favourite, as a kid) to the “novels” and “histories” that she wrote as a teenager, which show where her brilliant adult writing had its roots.

(It’s so encouraging, when you’re a kid who wants to be a writer yourself, to read your favourite writer’s childhood writings! There are moments of great humour in Austen’s earliest works, but of course they aren’t anything like what her adult books would become…so they showed me that I could get better and better, too.)

Now, I’m 35, and I can’t count how many times I’ve re-read Jane Austen’s novels, or how many movie versions of each of them I’ve watched. I don’t love every single Austen novel, but I admire every one, and I learn from all of them - as a writer and as a person - every time I read them.

And oh, the ones I love - Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey (which I read again and again as I wrote A Most Improper Magick and A Tangle of Magicks) - those, I really, REALLY love. They’re imprinted in my bones.

When I was creating Kat Stephenson’s family, in my Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson, I based some of their situation on Austen’s own family - she, too, grew up in a house with lots of siblings but not much money, and with a father who was a minister. Austen’s father, like Kat’s father, used to hold a Fellowship at Oxford before he married, and he took in students to help make ends meet, just as Kat’s father does. Austen’s family, like Kat’s, was on the lower end of gentility - respectable but not wealthy and certainly not invited to the highest social circles - although not for any of the scandalous magical reasons involved in Kat’s family history!

Every time I sat down for a writing session, I spent 10 minutes reading through Jane Austen’s letters first, to try to imprint that Regency style in my head.

Now it’s the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice, the novel I first fell in love with twenty-seven years ago. I can’t imagine my life without it, either as a reader or as a writer. I’m so glad that I don’t have to.

I hope people keep falling in love with her novels for the next 200 years and beyond.

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