My sister’s summer assignment for high school honors English included reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and watching the BBC miniseries for extra credit. To my ears, this was extreme punishment inflicted by an instructor determined to deprive students of any rest. As a supportive baby sister, I decided to sit beside her and laugh as she wasted hazy, lazy days in front of a screen.
I still remember the opening scenes and my introduction to Darcy — so insufferably rude, so desperately in need of comeuppance, so delightfully rich. My worldview changed quite rapidly: I saluted the unknown benevolent English teacher and forbade my sister to watch even a minute without me.
Set in the early 19th-century Regency period, Pride and Prejudice features Fitzwilliam Darcy and his best friend, Bingley, falling for Elizabeth Bennet and her older sister, Jane, respectively. When the ladies’ youngest sister requires rescue from a lothario, Darcy offsets prior rude behavior by serving as the gallant savior, restoring the Bennet family name, and winning Elizabeth’s heart. The plot reinforces themes that ring true today: Although good behavior should always be in fashion, we tend to judge people based on their wealth and often allow prejudices to cloud our judgment. Will we ever learn?
Even as a tween I championed Elizabeth’s spirit and felt bewitched by Darcy’s slow-reveal vulnerability. To borrow Darcy’s description of attraction, “I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.” It didn’t occur to me to hold out for heroes (or actors) who were specifically described on the page or portrayed on the screen as Black. It’s fiction, right? So the reader (or viewer) inserts their preferred image and I was clearly Elizabeth.
It turns out I’m not the only one who imagines Austen’s characters as versatile symbols. Her novel is the basis for musicals, film adaptations, and literary reimaginings. The themes and plot of the original text adjust rather seamlessly when placed in different eras, continents, religions, and ethnicities. Traditional publishers are embracing this concept with the welcome addition of Austen-inspired books from a diverse field of authors. Pride and Prejudice plot twists are being reenacted in divergent worlds populated by Regency-era zombie hunters (Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and modern-day Indian American overachievers (Sonali Dev’s 2019 Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors). This trend allows readers to view various demographic groups through the familiar lens of beloved characters — an essential tool these days as our differences are displayed in take-it-to-the-streets protests and direct-to-Twitter outcries over vote counts, COVID cases, and police brutality statistics. Thank goodness Austen’s writing can help cultivate common ground across #JaneAustenNation and beyond. Just as I sat mesmerized all those years ago, it’s important to have cross-cultural “I see you” moments when we smirk at life’s comedic twists. As Elizabeth’s dad suggests, “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”
Readers in Austen’s time saw themselves in the characters of Pride and Prejudice — Austen’s second published novel. It was so well received in January 1813 that it precipitated a second edition by October. David Gilson in A Bibliography of Jane Austen gathered some of those rave reviews. Anne Isabella Milbanke, who would become Lady Byron, wrote to her mother about the “fashionable novel” while writer Sir Walter Scott enthused: “That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements, feelings, and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with.” The Critical Review championed the novel in March 1813: “Nor is there one character which appears flat, or obtrudes itself upon the notice of the reader with troublesome impertinence. There is not one person in the drama with whom we could readily dispense.” Even Austen effused to her sister, Cassandra: “I must confess that I think [Elizabeth Bennet] as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her . . . I do not know. There are a few typical errors; and a ‘said he,’ or a ‘said she,’ would sometimes make the dialogue more immediately clear; but I do not write for such dull elves as have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves.”
Proving ourselves not so dull, praise for Austen continues today. The novel ranked in the top five of America’s 100 most-loved books as part of the PBS-sponsored Great American Read. Why? Pride and Prejudice characters help explain our world. The Bennet family resembles, for the most part, routine family life across racial lines: A mother frets over the dinner menu and marriage options for her daughters, a father craves solitude, and sisters navigate social norms while the particularly audacious rule-breaking baby of the bunch complicates their lives.
I must admit that the annoying younger sister concept does seem a bit far-fetched to me — the angelic baby sister in my family.
Nevertheless, the appeal of Austen’s characters is so compelling that even the alt-right claim citizenship in Austenland. According to Nicole M. Wright, assistant professor of English at the University of Colorado, white nationalists use Austen as an advocate of marriage “despite the fact that her heroines never emerge from the altar, and happy marriages are the exception rather than the rule in her work.” Instead of comparing their movement to Hitler, neo-Nazis invoke “a much-beloved author with a centuries-long fandom and an unebbing academic following” to normalize the movement “in the eyes of ordinary people.” They attempt to elucidate their political agenda by declaring Austen’s characters to be all white and ultraconservative.
However, scholars are finding that the stereotype of moneyed 1800s England as a white monolith is wrong. Austen was writing in a world that included people of color, and some even question the assumption that Austen’s characters were white. Olivia Murphy, author of Jane Austen the Reader: The Artist as Critic, explains, “The fictional world of Austen’s novels . . . easily stands in for most people as shorthand for an all-white England of conservative values and decorous feminine behavior,” but “the white England of these assumptions is a myth.” With no photographs and limited demographic statistics, we can still conclude that there were Black people — some of wealth — in Austen’s London, where she visited her brother and, on at least one occasion, visited Carlton House — home of the Prince Regent, who was an admirer of Austen’s work. The prince, the future George IV, was the son of Queen Charlotte. Some scholars even speculate that Queen Charlotte (who married George III of England in 1761 and died in 1818) was of African descent and cite her physician, Baron Christian Friedrich Stockmar, commenting on her “true mulatto face.” During Austen’s lifetime (1775-1817), poet Anna Letitia Barbauld wrote of the cosmopolitan London “streets, where the turban’d Moslem, bearded Jew, / and woolly Afric, met the brown Hindu / Where through each vein spontaneous plenty flowed, / Where Wealth enjoyed, and Charity bestowed.” Dido Elizabeth Belle, whose mysterious life was featured in the 2013 film Belle, was the child of an enslaved African woman and British officer in the West Indies. In 1765 Belle began living with her uncle, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, whose rulings limited slavery in England and whose surname was Mansfield — a name used in the title of Austen’s Mansfield Park.
At least one of Austen’s novels describes a mulatto character. A few months before her death in 1817, Austen began work on the Sanditon manuscript, which describes Miss Lambe as a “young West Indian of large fortune” who arrives in the seaside resort as one of three young women under the care of Mrs. Griffiths. Austen wrote: “Of these three, and indeed of all, Miss Lambe was beyond comparison the most important and precious, as she paid in proportion to her fortune. She was about 17, half mulatto, and was always of the first consequence in every plan of Mrs. Griffiths.” The term mulatto is defined as a person of mixed white and Black ancestry, especially a person with one white and one Black parent. Andrew Davies, who adapted the unfinished novel Sanditon for television in 2019, expands on the subject: “There were black people in society . . . So that was something that was happening, and obviously Jane Austen thought, let’s include one in my novel.” Hanh Nguyen, senior editor of Culture at Salon, adds: “There were wealthy Black, British, Asian, Moorish people that came to Britain going back to the 1500s. There were very wealthy, of the world, people of color throughout history, but we just haven’t been culturally exposed to those stories.”
Miss Lambe’s label of “half mulatto” in the unfinished Sanditon manuscript suggests she may have darker skin than her companions, but Austen doesn’t provide appearance details for most of her characters. In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy notes that Elizabeth Bennet has a “light and pleasing” figure and “fine eyes,” and Austen depicts Darcy as “tall.” “That’s it,” concludes Murphy, so “there is no compelling or historical reason at all for the next actor playing one of these coveted roles to be white. It’s long past time that representations of the pre-photographic past started to actually look like that past, just as images of our own society need to reflect the true composition of that society. Regency Black lives matter, too.” Identity is more complicated than we thought — even in Austen’s time.
Regardless of the physical shell you envision for Austen’s Pride and Prejudice characters, they symbolically encapsulate everyday events in life’s comedy and are comfortable topics during this time of uncivil discourse and distrust of all things other. Austen simplified adaptation by foregoing minute descriptions of characters locked in a particular time and space. Instead, she seemed to be aware of the multi-ethnic world in which she lived. Let’s read of different Elizabeths and Darcys and say we’re diversifying Austen. Maybe we are. Maybe we aren’t. But let’s not quibble. Two hundred years after its publication, Austen’s engaging novel continues to find devotees. As her fans multiply, a more diverse generation of Jane-ites may help unite us all as we play individualized versions of her classic in our minds and share a universal smile.•