Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is one of the best-loved romances in English literature. But this probably has more to do with the sundry glossy film and TV adaptations than it does with anything Austen wrote.

Reading the book now it’s quite hard to put out of your mind scenes like the one in Andrew Davies’s adaptation for the BBC, where Colin Firth as the hero Mr Darcy bursts out of a lake, a wet shirt clinging to his manly torso; or to think of heroine Elizabeth Bennet without remembering the poutingly pretty but woefully miscast Keira Knightley in the slushy 2005 movie version.

Yes, of course there is romance and even a degree of passion in Austen. But because these books were written in the early 1800s by a genteel spinster, any sexual undercurrents are quite properly suppressed; when they do burst forth, it is most definitely not with the author’s approval. When, for example, Elizabeth’s flighty little sister Lydia runs off with the dashing army officer Wickham, it is a major disaster which brings shame on all involved.

If – like Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters – you are born into an upper-middle-class family with no fortune to inherit, then your only hope of a halfway-decent future is to marry someone rich.

What most concerns Austen, as she makes clear in her famous opening sentence – “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in a possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” – are the workings of a strict social order governed by class and money.

You can laugh at its absurdities  – as Austen frequently does, with her cruel, brilliant and hilarious wit. But you can’t escape its remorseless regimentation. If – like Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters – you are born into an upper-middle-class family with no fortune to inherit, then your only hope of a halfway-decent future is to marry someone rich. (As Austen didn’t, by the way. It’s what makes her books so poignant. They’re a clever, talented, disappointed woman’s wish-fulfilment fantasy).

This is the main attraction of her hero Mr Darcy. Sure, he is reasonably handsome and tolerably mannered, but his real appeal – as Austen keeps reminding us – is that he has an annual income of £10,000. In today’s money, this is getting on for £1 million a year.

Also, of course, he has a really big one. A house, that is, called Pemberley, over which Austen drools at some length. Everything about Pemberley is perfect: the amiable, devoted housekeeper; the tasteful furnishings; the excellent trout-fishing for gentleman visitors; the special windows that open up right from the floor; the various wooded prospects in the park. What makes these descriptions all the more wistful from our heroine Elizabeth’s point of view is that they will never now be hers: thanks to her prejudiced misunderstanding of proud Mr Darcy, she has flatly rejected his earlier marriage offer and done herself out of a fortune.

To modern readers these mercenary considerations might seem distasteful. But that’s because we live in a less constrained age where women aren’t so dependent on men for a comfortable life and where men, with a bit of hard work, luck or dishonesty, can start from scratch and end up with houses as big as Darcy’s.

To modern readers these mercenary considerations might seem distasteful. But that’s because we live in a less constrained age where women aren’t so dependent on men for a comfortable life and where men, with a bit of hard work, luck or dishonesty, can start from scratch and end up with houses as big as Darcy’s.

In England in the 1800s such opportunities weren’t really available. Today we love Jane for her empire line dresses, gentlemen in tight britches vaulting on to horses, stone-built rectories with cottage gardens, genteel sparring in the drawing room over cards, dashing officers at balls. But had we not been born rich we would have felt like prisoners, as most of Austen’s characters effectively are.

Poor Charlotte Lucas. In the book, Elizabeth thinks the less of her best friend for marrying the ridiculous Mr Collins, the social-climbing vicar she herself has rejected. But this is unfair and typical of the pride and prejudice with which Austen has apportioned her complex, not wholly likeable heroine. Charlotte is plain, 27 years old and her father a mere knight with an insufficient fortune: if she doesn’t marry someone, anyone, soon, she is likely to end up an impoverished old maid.

The genius of Jane Austen is that she also works quite brilliantly as she is often seen today: as a creator of feisty, sparky heroines, a sublime comedian and spinner of gloriously romantic yarns. 

Austen’s way of dealing with all this social horror is to make light of it with her wit and her weapons-grade irony. The snobbish, bullying Lady Catherine de Bourgh is a monster but we can bear, just about, the wholly unearned social power that her money and station have granted her by having a jolly good titter with Elizabeth about how utterly frightful she is. In truth, though, it doesn’t make her ability to tyrannise her social inferiors any less real.

The genius of Jane Austen is that she also works quite brilliantly as she is often seen today: as a creator of feisty, sparky heroines, a sublime comedian and spinner of gloriously romantic yarns. But read her again – and re-read her, endlessly, as she deserves – and you’ll be reminded that she is much cleverer, more ambiguous, and a lot tougher than a merely amusing writer of high-end chick-lit.