This year marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s seminal novel “Pride and Prejudice.” The book’s popularity is undeniable – in the two centuries since it was first published it has never been out of print. Its place in the canon of English literature is obvious: Each year, countless high-school students with little time and few scruples eagerly snap up copies of the CliffsNotes version of the story to prepare for the inevitable test on the novel. The book is also well represented in popular culture, with actors ranging from Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson to Colin Firth and Keira Knightley starring in film and television adaptations. The story has even been modified to fit the current zeitgeist, with Seth Grahame-Smith penning the parody novel “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” – a surprisingly faithful retelling embellished with martial arts and zombie killing that credits Austen as co-author.
In fact, Austen’s story of love, misunderstanding and stifling upper-class English social conventions is arguably more popular today than when it was first published. In some ways, that shouldn’t be surprising. “Pride and Prejudice” emerged at a time when Romanticism was ascendant. William Wordsworth probably best summed up the period when he said art should be “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” Austen’s novel, by contrast, is about people bottling up their emotions behind a thin veneer of socially acceptable, bourgeois gentility – not exactly the characteristics of cutting-edge literature in the early 19th century.
From costume balls to high teas, Austen fans are celebrating the bicentennial of Pride and Prejudice’s first print run. The Financialist highlights events celebrating the courtship of Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, which to this day continues to define true romance.
Pride and Prejudice Champagne High Tea
March 16th at the Stranger’s Dining Room
Sydney, NSW, Australia
Pride and Prejudice Reading Relay
May 17th at Jane Austen’s House Museum
6th Annual Jane Austen Festival
July 20-21 at the Locust Grove
Louisville, Ky., U.S.
Live Theatre on The Lawns – Pride and Prejudice
August 26th at the Manor House lawns
Of course, Austen got the last laugh. Today, “Pride and Prejudice” is far closer to what modern readers would call “romantic” than most works produced by the actual Romantics. Her formula of boy meets girl, boy offends girl, boy and girl fall in love, but are afraid to admit it, boy makes grand gesture, boy and girl marry and live happily ever after, is oft repeated in Hollywood romantic comedies and the type of made-for-TV movies that show up on cable around Valentine’s Day.
Still, the current popularity of “Pride and Prejudice” is also somewhat surprising. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s landmark feminist tract, “The Feminine Mystique,” a book that raged against the limitations placed on women who wanted a role outside the home. In many ways, Friedan’s work should have been the death knell for a novel like “Pride and Prejudice,” which features women doing exactly what first-wave feminism fought against: sitting around in parlors and trying to decide who to marry.
Yet rather than rejecting “Pride and Prejudice” as outdated, modern readers have managed to interpret Austen’s book using a feminist framework, saving it from the literary scrap heap. The novel’s survival shows that over time, its themes are constantly reinterpreted, which is the mark of a literary work with real staying power. Of course, it also helps that the book keeps selling copies, its film adaptations keep selling tickets, and teachers keep assigning it in English class. Based on its current popularity, it seems likely that “Pride and Prejudice” will still be in print – or whatever has replaced print – in another 200 years.
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