By Meredith Hindley
Humanities, Volume 34, Number 1 (January/February 2013)
Introduction: In May 1813, Jane Austen mingled among London’s fashionable crowd as she took in an exhibition of oils and watercolors at Wigley ’s Great Room at Spring Gardens. Since the beginning of the year, the “ton” had been chattering about and passing around a delicious new book, Pride and Prejudice, which chronicled the travails of the Bennet sisters as they navigated the marriage market. The author, to the dismay of polite society, remained anonymous. So it was with some ease that Austen strolled through the gallery playing a secret game: Which of the portraits that hung on the walls looked like the characters she had created for Pride and Prejudice? Might she see the sweet Jane who marries the equally pleasant-tempered Mr. Bingley? Or Elizabeth, whose fine eyes and formidable wit crack the shell of the aloof Mr. Darcy?
Austen finally stumbled upon a portrait that she thought looked liked Jane or “Mrs. Bingley.” “Mrs. Bingley ’s is exactly herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there was never a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favorite colour with her,” she wrote her sister Cassandra. Austen didn’t see “Mrs. Darcy ” in any of the portraits, but suspected that her heroine would have been wearing yellow.
A few days later, Austen played the same game when she attended an exhibition of paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds at the Royal Academy at Somerset House. “Mrs. Darcy ” once again proved elusive. A disappointed Austen told Cassandra that “I can only imagine that Mr D. prizes any Picture of her too much to like it should it be exposed to the public eye.” Darcy, she believed, would regard Elizabeth with a mixture of “Love, Pride & Delicacy.”
It’s not surprising to see Austen think of her characters as living, breathing people. Austen had lived with Elizabeth, Jane, Bingley, and Darcy for more than fifteen years. She began writing Pride and Prejudice when she was twenty, working on the book from October 1796 to August 1797. But Pride and Prejudice wasn’t published until January 1813, which raises the question of what caused such an extended delay between its writing and publication.