It is a truth universally acknowledged — at least, acknowledged by every source I could find online — that Jan 27, 2013 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. There are other novels from that time that are still remembered today, even highly regarded by critics, but virtually none continues to … for lack of a better word, LIVE. Thousands of people all over the world read PRIDE & PREJUDICE every year, purely for fun. Adaptations of the story (whether that’s the traditional Colin Firth style or “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries”) are popular year after year. That’s pretty stunning if you think about it — that one of our favorite stories was written by someone who lived before photography. Before regular train travel. The person who wrote so beautifully and intelligently about love and courtship was someone who never married. The person whose stories have achieved worldwide acclaim never left her home country – not even so far as Wales or Scotland. It doesn’t matter. Never did.
So what do we learn from Jane Austen? What do her novels and her life have to tell those of us who aspire to write stories half as beloved as hers?
1) Work on your pitch letter.
Jane Austen’s works are so universally associated with the Regency era of their publication that we often forget her first three novels (SENSE & SENSIBILITY, PRIDE & PREJUDICE and NORTHANGER ABBEY) were written in the 1790s. Although she edited these novels between then and publication, they didn’t change that much; the first efforts to publish her work came in 1797, when her father tried to get a publisher interested in PRIDE & PREJUDICE.
Let’s just review really quickly: It was SIXTEEN YEARS before she got that book into print.
Why? Well, for one, while her dad meant well, he didn’t know how to present Jane’s work. In the letter he wrote the publishers, he didn’t really describe PRIDE & PREJUDICE at all. There was no summary of the plot, not even a description of the work as a romance or a comedy of manners. No wonder the publishers never even looked at it! One of the most beloved books in the English language didn’t find a publisher at first because it wasn’t presented correctly. No wonder it can happen to the likes of us, too.
2) If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
The first book Jane Austen sold for publication was NORTHANGER ABBEY, then titled SUSAN. In 1803, the publisher paid her 10 pounds, promised to bring it out soon and went so far as to advertise the book. And then … nothing.
It was 1809 before Jane Austen’s brother wrote to suggest to the publishers that they bring it out already, or at least give it back to the author, so that she might seek another publisher. The publisher responded rather acidly, saying they’d given no specific publication date; they owned the rights, and if the author wanted them back, she could repay them the 10 pounds. That wasn’t an insubstantial amount of money back then, and Jane Austen couldn’t get her own novel out of publishing limbo.
This is the point when a lot of people would get discouraged. She’d gotten rejections. Then she got an acceptance that turned into a publishing nightmare. A decade had gone by, and she still wasn’t getting published. I’ll admit it: At this point, I’d probably have given up, because I lack the self-confidence. You have to think that even she had a few moments of doubt.
But she also had friends and family who kept begging to borrow the manuscript of P&P again. And again. And again. (Imagine her handwriting the entire thing over and over again, so as to have more lending copies.) Jane Austen ultimately believed in her work enough to revise and try again. When SENSE & SENSIBILITY was finally published in 1811, it was an immediate success, and everything changed.
(She finally paid those 10 pounds to get NORTHANGER ABBEY back. Her brother only informed the publisher that this was by the now-bestselling author of PRIDE & PREJUDICE after the fact. Served them right.)
3) Don’t worry too much about trends.
Austen was worried about NORTHANGER ABBEY having been on the shelf for so long. Even the title change from SUSAN came about because another book with the same title had been released in the interim. The biggest problem was that she wrote the novel as a parody of a popular genre of novel back in the 1790s, the Gothic novel. Gothics were sometimes spooky, sometimes supernatural, often melodramatic and always (at least in intention) thrilling. But Gothics weren’t as popular by the 1810s. She felt sure the book was now out of date and that nobody would now understand the references or the jokes. And yet people are still reading and enjoying NORTHANGER ABBEY today, more than 200 years after the specific pop-culture trend they were written to parody.
Why? Well, the most important element of the answer, I think, is that trends change but elements of human nature remain the same. Catherine’s naivety might be different in specifics, but we all recognize elements of it in ourselves. To this day, very few of us wouldn’t be caught up in the romance and mystery of an ancient castle — or confused by the manipulations of people by the Thorpes. The book isn’t about Gothic novels; it’s about letting your imagination run away with you, and about letting fantasy get in the way of a less colorful, but more meaningful, potential reality. Because that part of the story continues to be absolutely true, it doesn’t matter that we no longer immediately understand the passages making fun of THE MYSTERIES OF UDOLPHO. The truth is what we respond to.
If your novel has that core of truth to it — if we understand the characters’ motivations because we recognize them in ourselves – specific publishing trends won’t stand in your way forever.
4) No matter what, you will never please everybody.
Occasionally you run into a critic who sniffs at Jane Austen for being cozy or middle-class or dull. Most of this is pure contrarianism; some of it is sexism, as these days Jane Austen is seen as a writer who appeals mostly to women (as though literally millions of men had not read and enjoyed the novel too). But there are people the novels just plain don’t reach. This doesn’t mean these readers are wrong, only that not everyone enjoys this novel, or for that matter, any novel.
This was always true; Jane Austen kept a book of “Reactions” to all of her novels, mostly comprised of friends and family who had read it. She had the rare privilege of friends and family who would tell her honestly what they thought — sometimes too honestly, like the friend who wrote of EMMA that, halfway through, she “fancied she had got through the worst of it.” Her sister Cassandra argued with her about the ending of MANSFIELD PARK; apparently Cassandra felt it would be more interesting if Henry Crawford were to be truly redeemed by his love for Fanny and win her heart, instead of Fanny waiting for Edmund to finally wake up. (Janeite though I am, I’m not 100% sure I disagree with Cassandra.)
One thing I had to tell myself before my first novel, EVERNIGHT, was released was that I had not written the magical first book in the history of books that would be beloved by everyone. I convinced myself of this by going through Amazon and reading the one-star reviews of books like WAR & PEACE, LOLITA and, yes, PRIDE & PREJUDICE. No book, no matter how delightful it might be to millions of people across generations and even centuries, is going to be loved by everyone. Not Jane Austen’s. Not mine. And not yours. So you can’t let the bad reviews get you down. Those opinions aren’t invalid; as a writer, you just have to hope they’re not the majority!
What I wanted to write about when I first thought of this blog post was why Jane Austen’s novels are so great. I asked people on Twitter to contribute their thoughts, thinking a consensus would emerge – but it didn’t. Virtually every person gave a different answer to the question of what they most remembered from PRIDE & PREJUDICE. Lizzie’s wit, Darcy’s willingness to break society’s rules (or our willingness to break them if it meant getting him!), the incredibly great first-proposal scene: These all got votes. I think maybe the answer that came closest to mine was Emma’s; she wrote, “a love that no one ever expected to happen.” I think we respond very powerfully to the idea of being surprised by desire – and surprising others in return.
But really, PRIDE & PREJUDICE defies a simple explanation of its popularity. There are countless ways that people respond to it, and love it. I couldn’t sum them up in one blog post, or a dozen. I’m not the person who could sum up PRIDE & PREJUDICE; it’s bigger than that, bigger and better and more deeply connected to whatever it is we love most about stories. What compliment could I give that would outweigh that?
So happy anniversary, not to Jane Austen but to us. We’ve had 200 years with this delightful novel, and I’d be willing to bet that 200 years from now, PRIDE & PREJUDICE will still have readers, and love.