This review of Pride and Prejudice appeared in the journal The Critical Review in March 1813, two months after the novel’s publication. Like Jane Austen, The Critical Review was politically Tory. The review is anonymous.
The reviewer describes in detail the plot and characters of Pride and Prejudice. Today, readers tend to regard the novel primarily as a love story between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. Here, the reviewer identifies Elizabeth as the main character, but emphasises that the novel is the story of a whole family. He suggests that this distinguishes Pride and Prejudice from most novels of the time, in which ‘the whole interest of the tale hang[s] upon one or two characters’.
The reviewer compares Elizabeth Bennet to Beatrice in William Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing. Beatrice is a witty and independent-minded woman who despises men and marriage. She argues continually with Benedick, the hero of the play, yet the lively, punning character of their arguments mark them out as well-matched, just as Elizabeth and Darcy’s combative, playful conversations demonstrate their suitability for one another. The reviewer also alludes to another comic play when he compares Wickham to Joseph Surface, a character in Richard Sheridan’s comedy of manners The School for Scandal (1777).
Realism and morality
As in other contemporary reviews of Austen’s novels, this review praises the realistic nature of the scenes and characters in Pride and Prejudice. The reviewer observes that ‘[m]any such silly women as Mrs Bennet may be found; and numerous parsons like Mr Collins’. Two years later, Walter Scott would write in his review of Emma that he had a friend who was ‘recognized by his own family as the original of Mr. Bennet’. It is unlikely that Austen really did base Mr Bennet on this person (her nephew James Leigh-Austen wrote that ‘her own relations never recognised any individual in her characters’), but the anecdote suggests how realistic her characters appeared to readers.
However, the reviewer sees Pride and Prejudice as having a purpose that goes beyond social and psychological realism. He suggests that the novel contains practical and moral advice: Lydia’s elopement contains an ‘excellent lesson’, and readers may find ‘useful’ the author’s assessment of the line between greed and practicality in the choice of a husband.