Enduring Impressions

18th January 2013

Jennifer Lipman takes an affectionate look at Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, as the 200th anniversary of its publication approaches…

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a wet shirt and bulging muscles, with a sensitive yet passionate look in his eyes, will make for television gold.

It’s been 18 years since Colin Firth emerged from the water in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice to give women of almost any age a new reason to delve into an old classic. But it takes more than a dashing Darcy to keep literature alive, and two centuries after the book was first published, Jane Austen’s novel is still charming readers. If other once popular 19th century novels – Great Expectations, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Wuthering Heights – can seem out of reach, Pride and Prejudice is the rare much-loved classic that people have actually read.

Its enduring popularity – it is still spawning sequels and spin-offs and re-imaginings – at first seems remarkable, given that the novel is entirely of its period, teeming with Regency social rules, reflecting a now antiquated male-oriented society.

But it is also timeless, of course: surely one of the earliest examples of the immortal romantic comedy plot, where boy meets girl and must overcome multiple misunderstandings in the path of true love. The characters are unforgettable, from cretinous clergyman Collins to dastardly, raffish Wickham, from mild-mannered Mr Bennet to the overbearing but well-intentioned matriarch. And, as with all Austen’s work, the writing is engaging, witty and endlessly perceptive.

When it was published in January 1813, Austen had already enjoyed some success with Sense and Sensibility, another novel about poor (in relative terms) women making it in a rich man’s world. Released two years earlier, Austen paid around a third of her annual income for it to be published and gave the publisher a commission on sales. The arrangements were made with her brother’s help, and her name did not appear on the cover, such was the attitude toward female writers at the time. While female novelists did succeed in the 19th century – among them Mary Shelley, the Brontë sisters and George Eliot – it was invariably a battle for them to be taken as seriously as their male counterparts. Indeed, the Brontës adopted names that could be seen as male – Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell – and Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) reinvented herself completely.

Sense and Sensibility was a success, though, with the first edition selling out in less than two years. Having established herself, Jane submitted Pride and Prejudice to the publisher. The book had already been rejected once, in 1797, under the title First Impressions, but the revised version received positive reviews and by November 1813 a second edition was necessary.

Austen’s career did not end there; Mansfield Park and Emma were in print before her death in 1817, at the age of 41, from what experts now believe was Addison’s disease. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, published posthumously, cemented Austen’s place in literary history as both a prolific and a talented writer.

Yet of all her output, it is Pride and Prejudice that continues to fascinate and inspire, far beyond the schoolchildren tasked with reading it for English literature exams. In 2003, the BBC ran a poll of best loved books; only The Lord of the Rings – in cinemas at the time – was deemed more popular. More than 20 million copies of P & P have been sold worldwide, and in 200 years it has never been out of print.
The tale of the Bennet sisters has made its mark firmly across popular culture, from a London stage version in 1936 to a 1959 Broadway musical and the more recent fantasy television series, Lost in Austen, in which a modern woman was magically sent back in time to Pemberley. Andrew Davies’ six-part version for the BBC, screened in 1995, might be the most memorable, but it’s far from the only adaptation. Others include Laurence Olivier’s Darcy in 1949, Fay Weldon’s 1980 mini-series and Keira Knightley’s rather wooden Elizabeth in 2005.

There’s been a Bollywood take – Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice – and let’s not forget the debt that Helen Fielding owes Austen for the love triangle at the centre of Bridget Jones’ Diary (and for the name of Bridget’s publishing house: one Pemberley Press). The list of literary re-workings, from prequels to sequels and beyond, is enormous, ranging from the undead stalking rural England in Seth Grahame-Smith’s parody, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, to PD James’ recent mystery Death Comes to Pemberley. Novelist Lev Raphael published a version in 2011 which cast Mrs Bennet as an overbearing Jewish mother, with the complicated romance involving a question of religious difference (Pride and Prejudice: The Jewess and the Gentile). And it’s not a new phenomenon; a century ago a writer called Sybil Brinton wrote a sequel titled Old Friends and New Fancies, revisiting many of the central characters.

Given the enduring fascination with the Bennets, Darcys and Bingleys, it’s hardly surprising that the next few months are full of events celebrating the bicentenary, starting with a 24-hour Pride and Prejudice Readathon at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath on the anniversary of the book’s publication, 28 January. Devoted fans can experience the book being read in ten minute segments by more than a hundred people, including authors, politicians, musicians, Olympians, children and personalities.

At the Jane Austen's House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire, the celebrations will continue all year. From now until May, visitors can see the ‘Story of Pride and Prejudice’ exhibition, followed by a show in June bringing together contemporary artwork inspired by the novel. In autumn, the museum will offer a costume exhibition featuring outfits from Andrew Davies’s mini-series. Visitors can also enjoy a full reading of the book, an outdoor production of the most famous scenes, and writing workshops with Rebecca Smith, Austen’s 5xgreat niece. And aspiring young Austens can enter a writing competition by weaving a tale along the theme of First Impressions.

Will readers still be devouring up Austen’s tale of superiority and preconception in another century – or another two? It’s not unimaginable; her tale of romance gone awry has spoken to readers through decades of industrialisation and depression, war and peace.

As Miss Bingley says in the novel – although her sincerity is to be questioned, of course, in that archetypal Austenish way – ‘there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book!’ To which the modern reader might add, how much sooner we all tire of reading any book other than Pride and Prejudice…

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