I joined a bandwagon, I admit it! It was the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice last month (just in case you missed it) and lots of lovely new books about Jane and her novels have been released to coincide with such an important event. I’ve mainly been reading about Shakespeare lately, but to be frank, I’ve had enough, and the Pride and Prejudice bicentenary seemed a perfect excuse to jump ship and reach for the familiar and much loved ground of Austen instead. It still counts as work anyway, because I’ll be teaching Pride and Prejudice next term and I am simply getting a head start! As such, I was considerably intrigued by the premise of Susannah Fullerton’s ‘celebration’ of this much loved novel. Alongside some enjoyable literary criticism, Fullerton has also written chapters on Pride and Prejudice in translation, Pride and Prejudice sequels and adaptations, Pride and Prejudice on film, Pride and Prejudice illustrations and editions, and Pride and Prejudice marketing materials, all of which are topics I don’t often see discussed. Opening the pages of this very attractive, copiously illustrated collection of essays, I was excited to discover new insights into the book I love so much.
I whizzed through the essays on the characters and the style of the novel; there wasn’t much new in there, but the discussion was lively, intelligent and enjoyable nonetheless. Where my interest really became piqued was in the chapter on translations. So much of Austen’s brilliance is in the subtlety of her language, and I have always wondered how well that can be captured in another tongue. Apparently, until recently, the answer to that question has been ‘not very’. The first translation of P&P was a few short months after its first publication; in a time when there were no such things as rights, Austen probably wasn’t even aware of its existence. It was a cheap, much abridged and much adapted French version, amended to suit the tastes of the French public. Forty of the original sixty one chapters were left out entirely. Subsequent French translations followed the same theme; in fact, until very recently, the main translation of Austen available in France was a decidedly dodgy early 19th century one, which makes it no surprise that Austen has spend most of the last two hundred years being barely read in the country.
I was shocked to find that the situation was much the same across Europe, until very recently. Austen’s language is complex, and harnessing her wit and clever turns of phrase outside of her native tongue must be a nigh-on impossible task. I certainly wouldn’t like to attempt it. Fullerton raises the excellent point that the title Pride and Prejudice is itself a minefield, before even getting started on the text; both ‘pride’ and ‘prejudice’ have multiple meanings in English, and the correct understanding is often gleaned through context. Where there is no direct translation available, which understanding do you take as the dominant? Arrogance or dignity? Presumption or suspicion? The more you dig, the more tangled you get. In recent years, mostly since Colin Firth turned millions of women on to the charms of Mr Darcy, a new wave of translations have appeared that have led to a new interest in Austen outside of English speaking countries, but I still wonder whether they can truly have the same experience as those of us who can read the original text. I’d love to hear from people who can comment on Jane Austen in translation, as I really am intrigued by this!
Another chapter that I really enjoyed was the chapter outlining the various editions and illustrations of Pride and Prejudice that have been produced since its first publication. Originally it was published in cardboard wrappers, as the book buyers of the early 19th century would have taken their copies to a book binder and had them bound to their own specification. In the later decades of the 19th and early 20th century came a huge explosion in Austen’s popularity, and a range of attractively produced volumes were made available. From the luxurious and still much coveted ‘Peacock‘ edition (it has been my dream for many years to own this edition; I live in hope of coming across a copy in a charity shop!) illustrated by Hugh Thomson to cheap ‘yellowbacks’ decorated with pictures of Elizabeth and Darcy in High Victorian fashion, there was something for every pocket. Fullerton reproduces many illustrations, most of which I’d never seen before. I had no idea that Helen Sewell, illustrator of the first editions of the Little House on the Prairie books, had illustrated an edition, though her Lizzy Bennett looks rather too po-faced for my liking. I rather like the look of Chris(tiana) Hammond’s illustrations from the late 19th century, which are very detailed and show Lizzy to great advantage. My own edition of Pride and Prejudice is a 1902 Macmillan copy with Austin Dobson illustrations; I like it very much, but now I know the range that is available, it’s made me itch to find an upgrade! Not that I think any illustration can truly do the characters justice; there can surely be no better picture than that us faithful readers can conjure in our own heads.
Overall, this is a lovely book that looks at Pride and Prejudice from a wide range of intriguing perspectives, bringing us right up to the modern day with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and the action figures die hard fans can buy to create their own Jane Austen worlds at home! I feel enlightened by it, and I think that understanding more of the context surrounding the novel has certainly enriched my appreciation of what a wonderful book it is and how lucky I am to be able to access it so easily without the barrier of language to block my enjoyment. I am very thankful to the publisher Frances Lincoln for sending it to me, and I can’t recommend it enough. It will make a brilliant teaching tool when I finally get to spend my days talking about Darcy and Lizzy rather than Romeo and Juliet!