Though the story is set at the turn of the 19th century, it retains a fascination for modern readers, continuing near the top of lists of ''most loved books'' such as The Big Read. It has become one of the most popular novels in English literature, and receives considerable attention from literary scholars. Modern interest in the book has resulted in a number of dramatic adaptations and an abundance of novels and stories imitating Austen''s memorable characters or themes. To date, the book has sold some 20 million copies worldwide.
The plot of the novel is driven by a particular situation of the Bennet family: The Longbourn estate where they reside is entailed to one of Mr Bennet''s collateral relatives—male only in this case—by the legal terms of fee tail. Mr and Mrs Bennet have no sons: this means that, if Mr Bennet dies soon, his wife and five daughters will be left without home or income. Mrs Bennet worries about this predicament and wishes to find husbands for her five daughters quickly.
The narrative opens with Mr Bingley, a wealthy young gentleman and a very eligible bachelor, renting a country estate near the Bennets called Netherfield. He arrives accompanied by his fashionable sisters and his good friend, Mr Darcy. Attending the local assembly (dance) Bingley is well-received in the community, while Darcy begins his acquaintance with smug condescension and ''proud'' distaste for all the country locals. After Darcy''s haughty rejection of her at the dance, Elizabeth resolves to match his coldness and pride with her own prideful anger—in biting wit and sometimes sarcastic remarks—directed towards him. (Elizabeth''s disposition leads her into prejudices regarding Darcy and others, such that she is unable to ''sketch'' their characters accurately.)
Soon, Bingley and Elizabeth''s older sister, Jane, begin to grow close. Elizabeth''s best friend, Charlotte, advises that Jane should show her affection to Bingley more openly, as he may not realise that she is indeed interested in him. Elizabeth flippantly dismisses the opinion—replying that Jane is shy and modest, and that if Bingley can''t see how she feels, he is a simpleton—and she doesn''t tell Jane of Charlotte''s warning.
On an invitation from Bingley''s sister, Miss Bingley, Jane pays a visit to the Bingley mansion. On her journey to the house she is caught in a downpour and catches ill, forcing her to stay at Netherfield for several days. In order to tend to Jane, Elizabeth hikes through muddy fields and arrives with a spattered dress, much to the disdain of the snobbish Miss Bingley. Miss Bingley’s spite only increases when she notices that Darcy, whom she is pursuing, pays quite a bit of attention to Elizabeth.
Illustration by Hugh Thomson representing Mr Collins protesting he never reads novels.
Mr Collins, the male relative who is to inherit Longbourn, makes an appearance and stays with the Bennets. Recently ordained a clergyman, he is employed as parish rector by the wealthy and patronising Lady Catherine de Bourgh of Kent. Mr Bennet and Elizabeth are amused by his self-important and pedantic behaviour. Though his stated reason for visiting is to reconcile with the Bennets, Collins soon confides to Mrs Bennet that he wishes to find a wife from among the Bennet sisters. He first offers to pursue Jane; however, Mrs Bennet mentions that her eldest daughter is soon likely to be engaged, and redirects his attentions to Elizabeth.