First of all, we’d better define terms. Literary and cultural ‘significance’ is a difficult thing to pinpoint. How would we go about measuring something so ephemeral? I’m also far from confident that there is anything that could reasonably be called ‘world culture’ or ‘world literature’—happily the world has many literatures, and many cultures, all of which interact with other literatures and cultures to a greater or lesser extent. And finally, I’m not sure who, if anyone, has made claims for Pride and Prejudice’s global significance, so it’s hard to imagine whether such claims might be exaggerated or not.
More than two hundred years after its publication in 1813 Pride and Prejudice is a bestseller.
Having got that out of the way, it has to be said that Jane Austen’s most famous novel has achieved a rare degree of global popularity. More than two hundred years after its publication in 1813 Pride and Prejudice is a bestseller. In the Anglophone world we’re used to thinking of the novel in exclusively Anglophone terms, but in fact it has been translated into countless languages; except for Antarctica there are Jane Austen societies on every continent—she’s very big in Japan.
Pride and Prejudice, moreover, has proved itself eminently adaptable. Since its publication it has had frequent film, television, radio and stage adaptations, been made into card and computer games, children’s picture books and manga, and spliced with zombies, without any diminution in the popularity of the original text.
Any conspicuously successful cultural work has benefited from an unusual kind of serendipity. Pride and Prejudice was fortunate in being appreciated, early in the nineteenth century, by the kind of men whose literary opinions were the most highly respected and influential (although many Victorian-era women writers resented the implication that all women should write like Austen). These opinions, in turn, shaped educational practices in Britain and around the British Empire, where Austen, like Shakespeare, was chosen as an unimpeachable representative of British values and culture. In Sydney, where I live, Pride and Prejudice has sat on the secondary school syllabus for over a century. It’s the novel’s enduring popularity, however, that really sets it apart from other canonical works.
Pride and Prejudice is different from other highly respected, academically significant works in that it is always being read in very large numbers, by a mass audience.
Books don’t have to be read to have significance, but it helps. Pride and Prejudice is different from other highly respected, academically significant works in that it is always being read in very large numbers, by a mass audience. There are very few novels, plays or poems that could make a similar claim. I would argue that it is the earliest literary work (apart from religious texts like the Bible and Qur’an) that most people ever read for pleasure. And while Pride and Prejudice continues to speak to us about our difficulties in judging other people’s behaviour, the pressures of living in a capitalist society, or the struggles of romantic and familial relationships, I can’t see its popularity decreasing any time soon.
See more on Jane Austen by Olivia Murphy here.