Austen's power: 200 years of Pride and Prejudice

The world today is vastly different from the Regency England that Jane Austen knew. But fans say her books remain vital because of their wit and insight into human nature. Also, because she defined how to fall in love.

Jane Austen's second novel has spawned numerous film and print interpretations

Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle starred as Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet in the critically acclaimed 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. (BBC/eOne Films)

In the genteel world Jane Austen created for the witty Elizabeth Bennet and the charming Mr. Darcy, zombies would seem to be particularly unseemly intruders.

Yet, 200 years after Austen's Pride and Prejudice introduced readers to these now-iconic lovers, zombies have become part of their modern milieu, thanks to a recent parody novel that seems to have taken on a life of its own.

Jane Austen wrote six novels, but Pride and Prejudice is frequently considered the most popular of her works. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

It is a juxtaposition that finds little favour with those whose appreciation of Austen focuses on the original tale set in rarified Regency England. But in a strange way, it speaks to the enduring allure of the story the author spent years refining before its publication on Jan. 28, 1813.

"It all testifies to the huge appeal of it," says Janet Todd, president of Lucy Cavendish College at Cambridge University in England, and the general editor of the nine-volume Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen.

No zombies will be in the hall when Todd's college hosts a Regency ball in June, complete with music from the period, as part of a conference celebrating 200 years of Pride and Prejudice, the novel Austen said was her "own darling child."

But the range and reach of the novel — which has been retold on screen and in print numerous times, including the 2009 parody Pride and Prejudice and Zombies — will be front and centre for conference-goers who are expected to come from around the world, including Canada.

"It has become global, the brand of Jane Austen," Todd says, in an interview from Cambridge.

"Everybody knows who Darcy is. You can play around with the name. They've become absolutely iconic lovers so I imagine that will go on."

How Pride and Prejudice will go on, however, is an intriguing question.

In the First World War, Todd says, Austen's novel was reputedly given to soldiers who were sent home to recover from shell shock. She also notes it has found a discernible audience among gay men.

"Every generation brings something more to it … that's what a classic is," Todd feels. "It's a book that can be reinterpreted and made fresh for every new generation that comes along.

"If you think back, a little while ago there was a sort of feminist Jane Austen," at least as far as literary criticism went.

"The stress was on the way these heroines break out and the way Jane Austen is trying to give a coded message that she couldn't bring out quite openly. And then there was a Marxist Jane Austen when that was the most popular feeling."

Whither Canada?

While some 19th-century English novels pay a passing nod to Canada, particularly by packing off characters who have no future at home, this country doesn't register in Austen novels.

Yet Elaine Bander, president of the Canadian branch of the Jane Austen Society of North America, can speculate how Canada might have figured in Pride and Prejudice.

"I kind of imagine after a few years, Mr. Darcy equips the Wickhams with enough money to resettle in, say, New Brunswick  or Ontario."

Still, there is the question of just why Pride and Prejudice has such lasting appeal? For fans and scholars alike, much of the allure lies in its wit, wisdom and insight into human nature.

"The novel is the most enduring love story of the past two centuries — on par with Romeo and Juliet," Robert Morrison, an English professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., said recently. "The world Jane Austen lived in is different than today yet her books remain vital."

Morrison went on to note that, "for many people, her novels shape everything from what we think the past might have been like to what we mean when we say we have 'fallen in love.' Thanks especially to movie versions of her books, to 'fall in love' today still means. in many ways. to fall in love like Elizabeth and Darcy from Pride and Prejudice."

It's not a simple falling-in-love, though, where boy meets girl and everything is all hunky-dory right way.

"It’s a love story, but it's an intelligent love story," says Rohan Maitzen, associate professor of English at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Jane Austen House in Chawton, southern England, is looking forward to the 200th anniversary of the publication of Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice on Monday. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

"It's a love story that's mature and witty and it's about articulate, intelligent people who both have to learn and change in order for that romance to reach its very satisfying conclusion."

And that, suggests Maitzen, is an enticing model for us all.

"It's not romance as silly adolescence. It's not romance as teenage angst," she says.

"I think sometimes people who have seen versions rather than read it are a little surprised in the book. It's a very intellectual process of internal development. So although it's very romantic, it's about desire and gratification, it's kind of an interestingly voyeuristic novel."

Not everyone was a fan

While Pride and Prejudice has been roundly praised, not everyone has been a fan of Austen's second novel.

Indeed, some of the criticism came from other famous authors, including Charlotte Bronte and Mark Twain.

Bronte found the novel "limited," says Dalhousie's Maitzen. "She said there's no sense of the fresh air, there's no sense of the big expanse of life, there's no poetry in it, which seems to me a fair criticism, but you can see why Charlotte Bronte might say that because her idea of the novel would be so different."

Mark Twain was similarly not amused, Maitzen adds. "He said … every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shinbone."

Beyond the attraction the basic plot holds, there is also no denying the power of the screen versions to periodically draw fans to both Pride and Prejudice and Austen. (Colin Firth — who went on to win an Oscar as King George VI in The King's Speech —proved especially alluring as a white-shirted Darcy emerging from a pond in the 1995 BBC version.)

"Membership in the Jane Austen Society always spikes in a year after a film has been released," says Elaine Bander, president of the Canadian branch of the Jane Austen Society of North America.

But film is just a portal, says Bander, who is co-ordinating a 2014 conference in Montreal that will focus on Austen's fourth novel, Mansfield Park.

From that portal, people will turn to the Austen novels themselves, she says.

Bander knows Pride and Prejudice is seen as a romantic novel — something she suggests is a result of "some of the weaker dramatizations" — but she considers it a very complex one.

"Jane Austen was anything but a romantic. She was an anti-romantic," says Bander, pointing to how Elizabeth's efforts at romantic love with Wickham didn't work out at all, and so she tried something different with Darcy, later going over and over her early experiences and encounters with him and seeing them in a different light.

A first edition of Pride and Prejudice is seen at the Jane Austen House in Chawton, southern England, on Jan. 24, 2013. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

Bander sees "brilliant writing and wit," along with "shrewd psychology" and "the realistic appraisal of the choices we make in life" behind the appeal of any Austen novel.

"But Pride and Prejudice has perhaps an appeal that is very different from all of Jane Austen's other novels because it's the only one that's really a Cinderella fairytale."

When Pride and Prejudice was published, Austen was not the most popular or famous novelist of the era.

Family ties

One Vancouver resident has a special reason to mark the bicentary of Pride and Prejudice — a family tie to the author.

Freydis Welland is a descendant of Jane Austen's family, and says this year is a "very exciting" one for Janeites.

Austen had the "genius of a comic muse" and would read aloud her writings to her family, says Welland, whose mother was a co-founder of the Jane Austen Society of North America.

"I can certainly imagine her playing the role of each one of the characters in the novel one by one as she read it aloud."

Yet "one of the interesting phenomena is how it's become that way," says Maitzen, "that her profile has not only crowded out other, what we would now call romantic novelists, especially women novelists, but I mean, who reads Walter Scott anymore?"

Which leads, Maitzen suggests, to another question: "Who can really predict or understand fame?"

For Austen, it has all become a self-fulfilling prophecy in a way.

"You can put Austen on a mug," says Maitzen. "You can put her on a handbag. I can put her in the title to a course and I can guarantee it will draw people to it in a way that other writers won't."

But as Maitzen contemplates the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice, she would be quite content if all the reinterpretations stopped popping up.

"Does it have to be another 200 years of imitations and adaptations to follow, or perhaps can everybody just go read the book? That seems to me the most fitting tribute."


Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.