Austen's "dear Dr. Johnson" wrote in The Rambler No. 166, issued on Saturday, October 19, 1751:
Few have strength of reason to over-rule the perceptions of sense; and yet fewer have curiosity or benevolence to struggle long against the first impression: he therefore who fails to pleas in his salutation and address, is at once rejected, and never obtains an opportunity of showing his latent excellencies or essential qualities.
When Austen was thirteen years old, two of her older brothers issued their own periodical, The Loiterer. In its inaugural issue, dated Saturday, January 31, 1789, Austen's eldest brother, James, wrote:
And since future success so often depends on present reputation, and first impressions are seldom affected by subsequent alteration, we cannot wonder at any degree of pains which Authors exert in order to secure themselves a favourable reception from that Public, by whose suffrage they must stand or fall.
. . .
Allowances are always made for the diffidence of a stranger at his first introduction into a numerous party, and as this kind of colloquial writing bears the nearest resemblance to conversation, there is no reason why an equal degree of indulgence should not be extended to us, who have at least an equal claim to it. In the former case, a decent reserved demeanour, just half way between the extremes of pert garrulity and solemn dulness, has been thought by many to be the most efficacious mode of conciliating the good opinion of the world, who are not always disposed to allot the honour of wisdom to the sententious pedant, or to set a man down for a Wit because he enters the room with a grin upon his countenance. In the latter case, therefore, we should hope, that plainness and perspicuity will be the best recommendation of an introductory Paper, and that the world will forgive an Author's being a little dull, provided he does not pretend to be very witty.
It is my belief that Austen, who was extremely familiar with both publications, set out to prove that neither Johnson nor her brother was actually correct. In Pride and Prejudice, she essentially argues that first impressions are often mistaken, that newcomers are not, in fact given the benefit of the doubt when they enter into a large assembly of strangers but are judged based on appearances and in keeping with the prejudices of the community, and that first impressions can and do change. Darcy and Elizabeth have only just met, but as we will see through the course of the book, Darcy will not continue to maintain that Elizabeth is merely "tolerable" in appearance, nor will he remain uninterested in dancing with her. And although Darcy will always be referred to as proud, we will learn that he is not vain, nor is he mean-spirited.
The Loiterer: A Journal Entry*
Jane Austen, age 13
by Kelly Ramsdell Fineman
Last week, the Loiterer came out –
Our copy came just yesterday.
'Tis James's work without a doubt -
He has such funny things to say!
He claims allowances are made
For strangers in society,
So long as they do not parade
Too much Wit or Sobriety.
I think that James perhaps relies
On Dr. Johnson's position –
The Rambler contains his surmise
That few see past first impression.
I wonder if James is correct –
That first impressions always stick;
A false impression, left unchecked,
Could end in errors lunatic.
Perhaps one day I'll write about
How first impressions can go wide –
For this I feel true with no doubt:
They're based in prejudice and pride.
*Austen undoubtedly kept a journal, but none appear to have survived to the present day. Most likely her sister burnt them, along with the bulk of Austen's correspondence. The poem is based on a combination of known facts and reasonable conjecture.
Austen wrote out a fair copy of First Impressionse that proved exceedingly popular among her family members and close friends, including Martha Lloyd. In two separate letters from the year 1799, Austen teasingly refers to her sister's and Martha's desire to re-read First Impression. She goes so far as to suggest that Martha Lloyd intends to sell the novel as her own after memorizing it, then writing it down. "She is very cunning, but I see through her design;—she means to publish it from Memory, & one more perusal must enable her to do it." (Letter to Cassandra Austen, June 11, 1799). The book that we now know as Pride and Prejudice is, in fact, shorter than the version of First Impressions that circulated among family and friends, based on Austen's assertion that she "lop't and crop't" the manuscript prior to sending it off to her publisher. (Letter to Cassandra Austen, January 29, 1813)
The title Pride & Prejudice is taken from the conclusion of a novel by Frances "Fanny" Burney entitled Cecilia, the last chapter of which was entitled "Pride and Prejudice", with the phrase repeated (using capital letters) thrice in a single (rather didactic) paragraph. This quote alone from Cecilia helps the choice of name make sense: "remember: if to pride and prejudice you owe your miseries, so wonderfully is good and evil balanced, that to pride and prejudice you will also owe their termination". Pride and prejudice certainly cause their share of miseries for Elizabeth and Darcy, but it isn't pride or prejudice that results in their termination, but a realistic understanding of one another.
Just as Northanger Abbey was, in some respects, a parody of a Gothic novel, taking Gothic elements and putting people in the real world, so First Impressions was probably initially a burlesque or parody of Burney's Cecilia, taking the idea of a wealthy girl who needs a husband before she reaches the age of 21 (who must agree to take her surname in order for her to inherit 10,000 pounds) and flipping parts of it around – it's not Elizabeth with the 10,000 pounds to her name, it's Darcy (who gets 10,000/year – at least a million/annum in today's currency by some predictions); that said, Mr Darcy has some things in common with Mortimer Delvile from Cecilia, inasmuch as both struggle with an inherent conflict between their pride and their affections.
Incidentally, if Austen chose to parody something, it was usually something she loved, whether it was the lengthy novel Sir Charles Grandison by Samuel Richardson (she wrote a script for a play of it), the Gothic novel (Austen read all the books mentioned within Northanger Abbey - now known as "the Northanger canon - and then some), or Fanny Burney's works (she is known to have read and re-read them all, and was a subscriber to Burney's self-publication of Camilla).
It's noteworthy that all three of Austen's earliest-written novels (Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey) are deliberately set in the real world, and the heavy-handed morality tales of the day are eschewed. In Richardson's works, for instance, "fallen women" usually died (even if they were the victim of a rape - they owed it to themselves and their loved ones to die of shame, you see - blurgh!). In most books of the time, the good were rewarded and evil doers perished or were punished by a life of misery. As we've already seen with Sense & Sensibility and Northanger Abbey, the good and evil pretty much go on with their lives. Maybe the wrongdoers have regrets or a bit of unhappiness, but it doesn't completely ruin their lives (e.g., Willoughby in S&S, who is not entirely unhappy despite his bad behavior toward Eliza and, to a far lesser extent, to Marianne).