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For two centuries now, British writer Jane Austen's iconic romance novel Pride and Prejudice has inspired legions of fans that ardently admire and love the story. The book was first published on January 28, 1813, when King George III sat on the throne and the British military was engaged in the Napoleonic Wars. Since then, the romantic comedy of manners starring the beloved, whip-smart Elizabeth Bennet has been studied, reinterpreted, and remixed countless times, adapted into major TV series and films, and inspired other hit books including Bridget Jones's Diary and the 2009 horror parody Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
So why, after all these years, does the Bennet-Wickham-Darcy love triangle continue to capture hearts? Literature scholar and English professor Robert Morrison believes there's no one reason for the book's enduring charm. Jane Austen was just a fabulous writer.
"Austen does so many things well," he told Ontario Morning during a recent interview. "She's able to appeal to a huge range of people because she captures something about her age that still speaks to our age. And I think that's got to do with characterization, it's got to do with her wonderful handling of plot, it's got to do with the fact that she is able to be so very funny and clever."
"At the same time, her novels, as witty and enjoyable as there were, delved into topics that are full of dark anxieties and concerns especially about the fate of women," Morrison said.
Ostensibly, Pride and Prejudice is a girl-meets-boy kind of narrative. But there are significant social, cultural and political overtones woven through the plot. With many of Britain's eligible and desirable men off fighting Napoleon's forces, the country is facing a shortage of male suitors. Women of Austen's highly patriarchal society had to seek marriage for economic security, and so the competition for men of means was palpable. Marrying for love was a decadent notion, and many of the gentlewomen of Austen's era likely ended up like Charlotte Lucas, an intelligent, plain-looking girl who marries the bumbling, toadying Mr. Collins because she believes he's the best chance for her to improve her social position.
"He's obviously dreadful, and a fool, and someone that Austen laughs at, but it's better for Charlotte to marry him than to become a financial burden on her family."
Perhaps the biggest reason generations of people have fallen in love with Elizabeth Bennet is because she's the heroine who bucks social convention, wishing to marry not out of obligation or financial opportunity, but for love and respect. Morrison points out that the wealthy but aloof Darcy proposes to Elizabeth and "in effect, says 'you're very lucky I like you,'" given her lower social standing and the boorish manners of members of her family. But she rejects him, as she is not impressed by his money or his rank (although later on she totally digs his house). It's only after Darcy is humbled that the two get to truly know each other that his genuine character -- one of generosity and thoughtfulness -- is revealed.
"That has a tremendously powerful resonance for us today I think," Morrison said.
Related video: Zulekha Nathoo tracks the enduring popularity of Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice