“Frosty Morning” by J. M. W. Turner, courtesy of Tate Britain. Turner liked it so much he never sold it, for which I do not blame him. It was completed in 1813, a sparse year for surviving literature.
Only one lasting novel, for example, but what an example. Pride and Prejudice has become an inescapable book, even a best-selling book. I wish I could remember where I read that – you have to add all of the different editions together to get it onto the bestseller list, but then Jane Austen would be side by side with James Patterson.
It was not always so. Pride and Prejudice was never anything like a forgotten book, but it was not so gigantic until recently, surprisingly recently. I turn to my favorite problematic but simple tool for quantifying status, the MLA International Bibliography, a database of articles, monographs, etc. reaching back to 1947, where I count 505 articles, etc. with a Pride and Prejudice tag. The distribution by decade, roughly:
In other words, a full 45% of the academic articles, etc. about Pride and Prejudice have been published within the last ten years! That is amazing. Austen was not always so ubiquitous.
My guess would have been that the 1980s Austen revival was owed to feminist criticism, and perhaps that was the first spark, but a glance through the article titles from the 1980s suggests that all kinds of approaches were making good use of Pride and Prejudice. It is such a rich text.
1813 was an important year for English poetry. Percy Shelley’s first major work, the allegorical radical fairy poem “Queen Mab,” was published to no interest; a decade later it had become a central text for English laboring-class reformers and revolutionaries, a story almost as surprising as the long, slow rise of Pride and Prejudice. I am afraid, or perhaps happy to say, the contents of the poem itself have slipped from my memory.
Lord Byron had hit the jackpot in 1812 with the first parts of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which he followed in 1813 with two long Orientalist romances mostly in rhyming couplets, The Giaour: A Fragment of a Turkish Tale and The Bride of Abydos: A Turkish Tale, both immensely popular, both pretty silly, and both quite a lot of fun for readers who enjoy the poetry (if not, they are unreadable). It is all just an excuse for Byron to show off his gift:
‘The cold in clime are cold in blood,
Their love can scarce deserve the name;
But mine was like the lava flood
That boils in Ætna’s breast of flame.
I cannot prate in puling strain
Of ladye-love, and beauty’s chain:
If changing cheek, and scorching vein,
Lips taught to writhe, but not complain,
If bursting heart, and madd’ning brain,
And daring deed, and vengeful steel,
And all that I have felt, and feel,
Betoken love – that love was mine,
And shown by many a bitter sign.’ (“The Giaour,” 1099-1111)
In some sense I have still only come up with a single book for 1813. What was going on in literature outside of England? I do not know. A number of European countries were understandably preoccupied. Spain was being destroyed in the Peninsular War, yet Francisco Goya was creating the etchings that make up The Disasters of War and paintings like The Madhouse (none of these have firm dates).