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Opinion: Pride and Prejudice: does myth-making obscure the work?

Posted by Anna Trench,

This week, in the excitement of Pride and Prejudice turning 200, Anna Trench is wary of the extent to which celebrations of a work peddle pre-conceived readings. We welcome your comments below.

It is a truth annually acknowledged that the work of a choice few dead writers must be commemorated until one grows sick of facetious variations on their opening line. In case it escaped your notice, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was published 200 years ago yesterday. All week there’s been an abundance of column inches zealously celebrating Elizabeth, Darcy and the secluded spinster who created them.

Quite aside from the often arbitrary nature of cannonisation, there can be a problem with this kind of celebration. Like Shakespeare and Dickens, Austen has been so wrapped up in English heritage that, what with fan fiction, tea towels and Keira Knightley’s face, it’s easy to lose sight of the text. Austen has become a myth. And as with any myth-making, there’s a danger of it overtaking and obscuring the real work.

For years A Level students have been wrong footed into writing essays on the moment Darcy revealed his impetuous romantic nature by leaping into the lake and emerging sexy and sodden. But Austen’s Darcy never did that; that was Colin Firth. Austen’s novels have not only been immortalised on celluloid, they’ve been warped by it too. Furthermore, repackaged in chick-lit pastel covers they’ve also been Mills and Booned .

Pride and Prejudice is a great novel: it’s perceptive, moving and funny. But its also a caustic satire that throws up some uneasy observations. Popularising something does not devalue it. But sometimes, when a work is commemorated, what is celebrated is that which has been re-appropriated by different groups – the love story they’ve forced the novel to signify, rather than the novel itself.

It’s similar with visual art. The difference, of course, is that we can see it ourselves at a glance. But what remains sadly the same is when works are reproduced on countless pages, or framed and praised and put on plinths, the blurbs beside tell us what it means and too often we can’t be bothered to decide ourselves.

Popularising something does not devalue it, but it can encourage others not to look for themselves. Don’t take universally acknowledged opinions as truth, make up and celebrate your own canon. And, while you’re doing that, check out Kate Beaton’s Jane Austen comics. It says it all.

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Posted by Anna Trench

Anna is a writer and illustrator who joined us as an editorial intern after studying at Cambridge University and Falmouth university. She wrote for the site between January and March 2013.