“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”*

*opening sentence of “Pride and Prejudice(1813), by Jane Austen.

Geoff Nunberg, a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley, posted at npr.org on July 25, 2017:

“…prefacing that clause with “It is a truth universally acknowledged” implies that’s only what most people say they believe — after all, if everybody really does accept it, why bother to mention the fact? In fact, as Austen says in the following sentence, nobody really cares what the wealthy man himself thinks he needs. There’s only one truth that matters to Mrs. Bennet and the other families in the neighborhood — that a daughter who has no fortune must be found a well-to-do husband to look after her, which Mrs. Bennet has made “the business of her life.”

But we suspect that Austen has her reservations about that single-minded pursuit of an advantageous marriage, even if she doesn’t say so outright. And we’re flattered to think that she counts on astute readers like us to pick up on that, while others will miss it. It makes us feel complicit with her. As the modernist writer Katherine Mansfield wrote in 1920, “every true admirer of [Austen’s] novels cherishes the happy thought that he alone — reading between the lines — has become the secret friend of their author.” (That pronoun “he” gives us a start now, but bear in mind that back then the most prominent Austen devotees were the male literati of the Bloomsbury set.)

Austen’s sentence is a masterpiece of indirection, and it’s no wonder that people keep trying to repurpose it in the hope that they can pluck it from its original context and its irony will somehow cling to its roots. But that can’t happen without the covert wink, the tip-off to the sharp reader that the truth isn’t as pat as the rest of the sentence makes it seem. Otherwise, the phrase is an empty gesture. It merely signifies irony, the way an empire waistline or a neck cloth signifies Regency gentility.

OK, it’s just a sentence. But it points to what always happens when Austen is repackaged for export. There have been some wonderful stage, film and TV adaptations of Pride and Prejudice over the years. But as charming as they are, they can only depict the second half of that opening sentence, the Colin Firth bits. We get a beguiling story of romance and courtship. But we don’t see it at Austen’s skeptical remove. We miss the arched eyebrow, the sly and confiding voice.

That’s the paradox of Austen’s novels. Like the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice, they cry out for adaptation. They seem infinitely resilient: You can relocate them to Beverly Hills or Delhi; rewrite them as murder mysteries or erotica; populate them with vampires or zombies — they’ll always retain some trace of their original appeal. Yet there are few other novels so unwilling to give up their souls.”

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