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200 years later, why are we still so passionate about 'Pride & Prejudice'?

4:38 PM, Jan 28, 2013   |    comments
A reader waits as part-time actor Ashley Green (not seen) reads chapter ten of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice at the Jane Austen Centre on January 28, 2013 in Bath, England. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
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Happy birthday, Pride & Prejudice.

Two centuries ago, on Jan. 28, 1813, Jane Austen's second novel first saw print. From its immortal opening sentence, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife," Pride & Prejudice has enchanted readers around the world, in every language, for 200 years.

Here are 10 reasons why the story of how proud, rich Mr. Darcy and pert, poor Elizabeth Bennet fall in love continues to win our hearts.

1. It's the ultimate "happy ever after" tale. Pride & Prejudice established the template for an infinity of romance novels, yet no subsequent love story has ever come close to equaling the delights of the original. In P&P, opposites repel then attract: Mr. Darcy is sullen and arrogant. Elizabeth is vivacious and charming. He is rich, she is poor. He is madly in love, she can't bear him. In a scene both hilarious and dramatic, Elizabeth squashes Mr. Darcy's massive pride when she rejects his first proposal. To win her, Darcy is forced to change, to become more kind and polite. But Elizabeth also changes, though her journey from prejudice is less visible.

2.It's fun. The plot of P&P scarcely seems to be the stuff of comedy. Here are five unmarried girls in rural England who will face poverty once their improvident father kicks the bucket since his estate must pass to a male heir. If they can't snag husbands, their career options involve downwardly mobile humiliations such as working as governesses or paid companions to the wealthy. And yet the novel, brimming with sparkling dialogue, "is a pure joy to read," as Anna Quindlen once put it. Perhaps it is Elizabeth's father, Mr. Bennet, who best explains its appeal: "For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?"

3. It's the rom-com of all rom-coms. Which is why P&P has been adapted for screens big and small around the world. Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth have been portrayed by Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson (1940) and Matthew Macfadyen and the radiant Keira Knightley (2005). There is even a 2004 Bollywood musical, Bride and Prejudice. But for many fans, the ultimate adaptation is the 1995 BBC miniseries starring Jennifer Ehle. Her co-star Colin Firth may have won an Oscar playing a British monarch, but to Darcy fans, he is a god thanks to a certain scene involving a wet white shirt. These days, you can watch a Web adaptation on YouTube called The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which stars Ashley Clements as Lizzie.

4. Sex, lies and runaway teens. The next time someone dismisses Pride & Prejudice as a fussy old story about the breeding habits of early 19th-century Brits, point out that the novel's villain, George Wickham, would probably be arrested today as a serial pedophile. An Army officer in his 20s, Wickham is a smooth operator who tries to seduce underage girls for fun and profit. Though he fails to lure Mr. Darcy's 15-year-old heiress sister into marriage, Wickham succeeds in deflowering and shacking up with Elizabeth's 16-year-old sister, Lydia, without benefit of clergy, thanks to her "animal spirits."

5. P&P isn't just "how to marry a millionaire, Regency style." You can divide the world into two groups: mad romantics who adore those passionate Brontë tales about women yearning for tormented psychos like Heathcliff, and more pragmatic souls who admire Elizabeth Bennet's decision to marry for love and money. Readers know that Austen, who never married, disapproves of Elizabeth's friend Charlotte Lucas' decision to marry a "conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man" simply for money. Mr. Darcy, however, wouldn't be Mr. Darcy without the ka-ching of 10,000 pounds a year and the big estate up north. Elizabeth herself jokes about her change of heart regarding Darcy: "I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley."

6. Before the Kardashians, there were the Bennets. Reality TV didn't invent miserable, weird families. Just look at Lizzie's parents, the supremely ill-matched Ma and Pa Bennet. When not locked in his library reading, Mr. Bennet entertains himself by teasing and tormenting his whiny dimwit of a wife in front of their offspring. The deepest bond in the novel isn't romantic love, it's affection between siblings. (Austen adored her own sister Cassandra, who, in turn, encouraged Austen's writing.) Even when Elizabeth dislikes Mr. Darcy, she admits he's an outstanding brother to his little sister. And it's sibling solidarity, not rivalry, with Elizabeth Bennet and her older sister, the head-turning beauty Jane. Indeed, it is a worried Elizabeth rushing to help Jane, fallen sick while dining with wealthy new neighbors, that captured the heart of British writer Martin Amis, who wrote: "Impelled by sibling love, Elizabeth strides off through the November mud to Netherfield, that fortress of fashion, privilege, and disdain. She arrives unannounced, and scandalously unaccompanied, 'with weary ancles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.' By now the male reader's heart is secure (indeed, he is down on one knee)."

7. Back then, well-off people's purpose really was to eat, drink and be merry. Name the one activity that Mr. Darcy, Bingley, Sir Lucas and Mr. Bennet all avoid: Work! They visit the ladies. Hunt birds. Attend balls. Ride horses. Travel. The one worker bee in the bunch - Elizabeth's uncle Mr. Gardiner - is socially handicapped because of that icky thing called his job. Even military life appears to be a social club for swanky young studs - pretty remarkable since P&P was published at time when Napoleon was rampaging through Europe.

8. Now, as then, we choose to see what we want. First Impressions was Austen's original title. Though far less catchy, it does convey perfectly Austen's important message: First impressions are often wrong. For example, Darcy's little sister is often mistaken for proud when she's simply painfully shy. Other first impressions are dangerous. P&P's one truly evil character is the slick seducer Wickham, who charms everyone, even Elizabeth, who prides herself on being nobody's fool.

9. Hypocrisy is always good for a laugh. Some of Austen's funniest and sharpest scenes involve hypocrites. There's Mr. Collins, the clergyman. Upon learning that his teenage cousin Lydia is living in sin, this man of God writes a letter to Mr. Bennet, noting that "the death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison" and closes by urging, "Let me then advise you, dear sir, to console yourself as much as possible, to throw off your unworthy child from your affection forever, and leave her to reap the fruits of her own heinous offense." Nice. ?And while Mrs. Bennet embarrasses her family with her loud voice and silly ways, she's Emily Post compared with the snobbish Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the novel's rudest character.

10. Technology might change, but human nature remains the same. Give cellphones to the youngest Bennet daughters - the boy-crazy shopaholics Kitty and Lydia - and they would fit right in at any high school. Their father is every Baby Boomer dad ignoring both his upside-down mortgage and his out-of-control kids. The one homely Bennet female, Mary, is the 19th-century version of an insecure, overachieving nerd.

In the end, although Austen crafted her characters with a quill pen dipped in ink, they have remained fresh, instantly recognizable and fascinating for 200 years. Whether people read P&P on a print page, a tablet or some future gadget, the love story of how Mr. Darcy won Elizabeth Bennet, will, no doubt, continue to captivate readers for another two centuries.

Deirdre Donahue, USA TODAY

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