It’s only fitting that marriage was on Jane Austen’s mind from a young age. As a child, she would inscribe her name alongside that of her “future husband” among the marriage entries in her father’s parish register. Her father, George Austen, was a country clergyman. At that time, Austen imagined herself to have three spouses: Henry Frederic Howard Fitzwilliam of London, Edmund Arthur William Mortimer of Liverpool and further down on the page, and somewhat less grandly, Jack Smith of God knows where.
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Alas, love and marriage were not in the cards for Jane Austen of Hampshire. Instead, the witty, full-cheeked 21-year-old—who loved to dance and flirt at assembly room balls and often peppered letters to her sister with scathing commentary about family acquaintances—wrote one of history’s most celebrated novels.
Pride and Prejudice, initially submitted under the title, “First Impressions,” was rejected on its first attempt at publication in 1797. It would take 16 more years before the romance-starved world would be introduced to wise Elizabeth Bennet, the baffling Mr. Darcy and the four Bennet sisters on their quest to find genteel husbands in the English countryside. Since that time, the novel’s popularity has continued to snowball, engendering modern adaptations including the films Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) and Bollywood’s Bride and Prejudice (2004), and of course, the Quirk Books spin-off, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009). This month, Pride and Prejudice celebrates its 200th anniversary.
So, how does one explain the novel’s long-standing appeal?
“It’s not just a love story,” says Louise West, curator of Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, England. Soldiers returning from WWI were given the novel for its soothing abilities, West says, to help calm shell-shocked nerves. And it was a frequent crutch for Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who cracked the book in times of stress.
“Although society has changed, people haven’t,” says Iris Lutz, president of the Jane Austen Society of North America. “Austen’s heroine [Elizabeth Bennet] seems modern; she’s an independent thinker. The novels are timeless because Austen creates memorable characters, and she’s a good storyteller.”
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