Last Monday was the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, the second and most amusing and beloved of the enduring six novels written by Jane Austen.
Surveys show that she is the second most well known and admired writer in English literature, after William Shakespeare.
The wry opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice is one of the most famous, and most panned, in world literature: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
The book deals with the complex social, economic and class problems faced by Elizabeth Bennet, the most clever and challenging of five daughters of a rural land owning family seeking to marry the girls off as quickly as possible because the estate is due to be inherited by a male cousin.
Elizabeth’s journey from bachelorhood to engagement is one of self-realisation and understanding. She renounces her early dislike of and prejudice against the apparently haughty Fitzwilliam Darcy, a wealthy landowner, whose pride suffers serious knocks before he comes to terms with her.
Although the book is set in the 19th century, it has remained evergreen because the problems Elizabeth encounters continue to vex later generations. Her characters are lightly sketched, encouraging readers to form their own images of Elizabeth, her silly mother, self-absorbed father, sisters, and, of course, Darcy.
All her books have survived because Austen’s language is simple and direct, making them easy reading for native English speakers and those who learnt English as a second language. Born in 1775, Austen wrote the novel, originally called First Impressions, between 1796-97. Her father, a country rector, dispatched a letter to a London publisher asking if he would be interested but he declined. Austen made major revisions between 1811-12 and renamed the book Pride and Prejudice as two other books bearing that title had already appeared.
She sold the novel for £140 to publisher Thomas Egerton who produced three editions. In 1813 French, German, Danish and Swedish translations appeared but Austen died in 1817 without enjoying the fame and fortune the book should have brought her. Her name did not even appear on her books until after she died when she was identified as the author of the last two as well as the four published earlier.
Pride and Prejudce was published in 1832 in the US and a year later the first, cheap popular edition was issued. However, the standard edition, on which subsequent versions have been based, did not appear until 1923.
Since then Jane Austen has become a brand, an industry, and a cult. Her last home, Chawton cottage in Hampshire is a shrine, her brother’s nearby mansion, a centre for the study of women’s writing, and Austen book clubs have sprung up the world over, “Janeites,” lovers of Jane, commemorated the anniversary by staging a non-stop 12-hour “readathon” of the novel broadcast from the Jane Austen Centre at Bath. Jane Austen admiration societies from Australia, Japan, Holland, North America and Brazil tuned into the reading.
Although its original print run was in the hundreds and the third edition was remaindered, Pride and Prejudice now sells around 50,000 copies a year in Britain alone.
The book gave birth to mystery writer PD James’s Death Comes to Pemberly, Darcy’s country mansion where Elizabeth and Darcy solve a murder of another character in Pride and Prejudice, and spawned Seth Grahame-Smith’s irreverent Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,’ soon to be made into a film.
The book has been filmed five times, the first hilarious version was made in Hollywood in 1940, starring Sir Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson; the screen play was by Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, a futuristic novel made into two films.
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has made several versions for cinema and television, the most well known was the television film released in 1995 and featured Colin Firth as Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth. The most lucrative film of the book, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew McFadyen, made in 2005, earned $120 million in worldwide cinemas.
The story of Elizabeth and Darcy has also been adapted for Bridget Jones Diary (2001) and the wildly popular Bollywood extravaganza Bride and Prejudice, and Aisha, a 2010 Hindi film. The Lizzie Bennet Dairies is a modern television adaptation when she relates the story of Pride and Prejudice on video blog.
Lost in Austen is an entertaining film about a contemporary young woman transported back into the nineteenth century contest between Elizabeth and Darcy.
It has recently been discovered that Pride and Prejudice could also be good for your health by giving your brain a work out. US researchers claim magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanning shows that close reading of Jane Austen novels activates areas of the brain associated with movement and touch because, due to Austen’s empathetic characterisations, readers inject themselves into the story.
As a tribute to the woman, Austen scholars have revised the false impression projected by early biographies that depicted her as a shy, reclusive, maiden and, as she grew older, maiden aunt, who wrote mainly for her family circle, cared nothing for others’ opinions, shunned other writers, and was reluctant to deal with publishers.
Recent research reveals that she was a lively, engaging person who was a natural writer deeply committed to her craft, was prepared to look after her own business interests, and supported herself as an author once her books were published. She avidly read comments on her books appearing in reviews and basked in the praise of those she respected. This fiesty Jane Austen was probably very like her favourite heroine Elizabeth Bennet in the book she regarded as her “child,” a child who has been adopted and beloved of people of all nationalities round the world.
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict