TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Last week marked the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen's death. It was the occasion for a flood of appreciations of the author and nods to her pervasive influence on literature film and popular culture. What most caught the attention of our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, were the ubiquitous references to a single sentence of her work.
GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: Shortly after Amazon introduced the Kindle, they put up a page with a ranked list of the most frequently highlighted passages across all the books. It's not there anymore, but when I first looked at the list in 2013, the opening sentence of "Pride And Prejudice" was in third place. That was all the more impressive because 8 of the other top 10 finishers were passages from "The Hunger Games" series, which was the hit of the season that year, as Austen's novel had been exactly 200 years earlier.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. We can argue about whether that's the most famous first line in English literature or whether the honor belongs to the opening sentence of "Moby Dick" or "A Tale Of Two Cities" or "1984," but there's no other opening sentence that lends itself so well to sampling, mash-ups and adaptation. If you're looking to add a literary touch to your article on pension schemes or emergency contraceptives, you're not going to get very far with call me, Ishmael, but it is a truth universally acknowledged is always an elegant replacement for as everybody knows when you want to introduce some banal truism.
The phrase is ubiquitous in the age of Jane-o-mania. Rummage around on the Internet and you'll learn that it is a truth universally acknowledged that a pop star in possession of a good fortune must be in want of baubles, that business class is more comfortable than economy, that online dating sucks and, needless to say, that Jane Austen has left quite a mark on pop culture. Here's the puzzling thing - those adaptations of Austen's sentence are almost never ironic or facetious, they only underscore the prevailing wisdom rather than throwing it into question.
Yet, my guess is that a large portion of the people who adapt that sentence know perfectly well that the original version is anything but straightforward. It may be the most celebrated example of literary irony in all of English literature. Pick up a paperback of "Pride And Prejudice" at a garage sale and it's even money you'll find the first sentence underlined with irony written in caps in the margin. The sentence may look like a truism, but the first part actually undermines the second.
In her book "Why Jane Austen?", Rachel Brownstein points out that if the novel had begun simply with a single man possessed of a good fortune must be in want of a wife, we'd snuggle in for a stock romantic story. We might expect the next sentence to describe an aristocratic Colin Firth look-alike galloping full tilt toward the Bennet's house at Longbourn. But prefacing that clause with it is a truth universally acknowledged implies that that's only what most people say they believe. After all, if everybody really does accept it, why bother to mention the fact? As Austen says in the next sentence, nobody cares what the wealthy man himself thinks he needs.
There's only one truth that matters to Mrs. Bennet, like the other mothers in the neighborhood, that a daughter who has no fortune must be found a well-to-do husband to look after her, which is what 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, where others may miss it. It creates a sense of complicity 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 male literati of the Bloomsbury Set. The sentence is a masterpiece of indirection, so it's no wonder that people keep trying to repurpose it in the hope they can pluck it from its original context and its irony will still 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 in the way an empire waistline or a neck cloth simply 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 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 a few other novels so unwilling to give up their souls.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at the University of California Berkeley School of Information.
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GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Henry Fountain, who covers climate change for The New York Times and is the author of the new book "The Great Quake: How The Biggest Earthquake In North America Changed Our Understanding Of The Planet." The 1964 quake in Alaska - magnitude 9.2 - lasted almost five minutes, unleashed giant waves and resulted in the deaths of 130 people. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Meyers, Ann Marie Baldonada, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.
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