A simple story of love, really: a guy and girl from different classes meet, it’s hate at first sight, and then after many obstacles, they fall in love. Jane Austen’s treasured work of love, “Pride and Prejudice,” celebrated its 200th birthday on January 28th, with fans worldwide celebrating a story that has not only captured so many hearts and imaginations, but has turned into an entire industry.
The tale of the feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet, and her relationship with the haughty, brooding Mr. Darcy is the stuff of spinoffs aplenty. Even if you were unable to stay awake while reading the original version in school, you’re likely to have seen one of its many remakes, including Bridget Jones to zombie thrillers and even murder mysteries.
But the best-known work of Jane Austen’s career, described in her assessment as her “own darling child”, was not an instant hit when it was released on January 28, 1813.
“It was very well received, and it made money, but it wasn’t a massive bestseller in her day,” says Louise West, curator of the Jane Austen House Museum at Chawton, in Hampshire.
Instead it would become a slow success, turning its author into a literary star only after her early death in 1817.
Cambridge University English professor Janet Todd puts Austen’s enduring appeal down to “the mixture of simplicity and complexity — her work looks so simple, so ordinary, and yet underneath, the more you look, the more you see, and the more complicated it becomes.
“Austen is one of the very few real crossover writers, who are popular with the public and also feted by critics and academia — it is very rare.”
“It’s not just any old love story,” says West. “It is also brilliantly written. Austen was the first truly modern novelist, and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is full of irony, craft, careful plotting — you read it for the story, but you get all these other layers of richness too.”
But she attributes the secret of the novel’s success to its protagonists, Elizabeth and Darcy, “two terribly attractive characters who spark off each other in a very dynamic and sexy way,” and to its heroine, in particular.
“‘Pride and Prejudice’ is the book that brings more people here than any other,” says West. “They come looking for Elizabeth Bennet — she is the character women aspire to be, she got the fairy story, and they want it to be real.”
The book’s bicentenary will be marked throughout the year with a series of events; on Monday, its bicentennial release day, the Jane Austen Centre in Bath held an international “Pride and Prejudice Readathon” , which included exhibitions and an outdoor theater production in London.
A conference celebrating the anniversary will also be held at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge University, featuring everything from scholarly lectures to a Regency Ball — and talks by figures including veteran mystery writer P.D. James, who turned “Pride and Prejudice” into a detective story in her “sequel,” “Death Comes to Pemberley.”
However simple the love story was between its two main characters, over the last two centuries “Pride and Prejudice” has become a global industry worth billions of dollars; the story has been used everywhere from Hollywood movies to bestselling books, including a 2009 parody entitled “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”
“It is a multi-billion pound business, because nobody has to pay any royalties to the author,” explains solicitor Mark Stephens. “They can just go back to the original text and remake programs, and as a result they’re much cheaper to make.”
The recent surge in interest in Austen’s work can be traced to the BBC’s 1995 version of the story, starring Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth, and — famously — Colin Firth as Darcy, complete with wet shirt.
“Everyone fell in love with Colin Firth,” explains West. “I don’t want to go on about him — though I could, of course,” she jokes. “He wasn’t the only thing people loved about that version, but I’d be lying if I said he hadn’t had a major impact.”
David Lassman, of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, agrees. “The 1995 production really ignited the whole Jane Austen ‘industry’.”
Interestingly enough, Austen herself worried that the novel would be “too light and bright and sparkling,” but many readers state that this uplifting tone has given them much-needed hope.
“Our visitors’ book is full of comments from people who’ve come from around the world, telling us what ‘Pride and Prejudice’ means to them,” says West.
“They range from the usual ‘It’s my favourite book,’ and ‘I love Darcy,’ to ‘This book has saved me at times of great trial,’ she says, adding: “Austen was even prescribed to soldiers in World War I, to help them get over shell shock.”
Gurinder Chadha, director of 2005 Bollywood remake “Bride & Prejudice” says the story is universal — whatever the setting.
“Jane Austen said that every woman wants to find their Darcy,” says Chadha. “They don’t want to compromise to be accepted by that Darcy, they want to be their own woman. It’s a romantic desire that we all have. It’s the ultimate love story.”