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Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice celebrates 200th anniversary

posted 27 Jan 2013, 05:50 by Mpelembe   [ updated 27 Jan 2013, 05:51 ]

Jane Austen published Pride and Prejudice two hundred years ago. Little was she to know that two centuries later the novel would have soared to establish a solid place in popular culture with a fan base around the world and inspire directors with numerous cinematic adaptations.

CHAWTON, ENGLAND, UK (JANUARY 24, 2013) (REUTERS) -  Two hundred years ago the public first got their hands on Jane Austen's classic novel, Pride and Prejudice and centuries later its popularity endures.

The first editions of the English author's novel came out on January 28, 1813 and the tale of manners and marriage was an instant hit with readers back then.

Today, in many people's view, it is their favourite Austen novel.

At the Jane Austen House Museum in Hampshire in Southern England, where the author lived between 1809 and 1817 and where she penned many of her novels, a first edition of Pride and Prejudice, her writing table and one of her hand-written letters are on display.

A museum worker recreates the mood of the early nineteenth cenury, by walking through the charming home wearing the dress actress Anne Hathaway wore in the movie "Becoming Jane".

Louise West, museum curator, describes Austen as one of the first modern English novelists. She said Pride and Prejudice still influences today's authors.

"I don't think you'd say it was even her greatest novel, but it is certainly her most popular one. And it encompasses all that's great about the other novels in the groundbreaking work that Jane Austen was doing in transforming the novel of the eighteenth century into a novel, very much like the ones we read today" she said.

People from all over the world make the pilgrimage to the Jane Austen House to connect with the author who created some of literature's best-loved characters.

West said Pride and Prejudice's Bennet family and the frantic quest of Mrs Bennet's to find husbands for her five daughters in the society of the landed gentry of early 19th century England resonates with many different cultures.

"Particularly today there are some cultures who very much relate to the circumstances of the young women, about what their future is in the world and what their marriage choices are," she said.

Celebrating the bicentenary of Pride and Prejudice, the museum has on display editions in different languages, such as Korean, Hungarian or German, and a letter written by Austen to her sister Cassandra on January 29, 1813, describing the novel as her "darling child".

Helen Conford, Publisher at Penguin, which produces many English classics, said Austen is their most important author.

"She sells incredibly well. If you look at her inside Penguin Classics with George Orwell, Shakespeare, F. Scott-Fitzgerald, Charles Dickens, she's really number one," Conford said.

Austen's works are now out of copyright, meaning anyone can publish her books. That, plus the fact that her works can be published digitally for free, mean it's virtually impossible to track sales and downloads.

But the Publishers Association said that in the UK approximately 132,000 copies of Austen novels were sold in 2012. That's compared with the first print run in 1813 of just 1,500 copies.

CEO of the Publishers AssociationRichard Mollet, said Austen's themes of marriage, money, class and love are universal and the detail with which she paints her characters make her such a special author.

"She writes engagingly about characters which I think the modern audience can enjoy as much as the audience in her time. And I suppose her work has, like all great writers, just a resonance and we can see in characters like the Bennets and like the Dashwoods, we can imagine their equivalents in the modern day and that's what makes them so engaging," he said.

For Austen fans, no-one can think of Pride and Prejudice without immediately conjuring up the image of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. In film and television adaptations there have been many incarnations of the sparring but ultimately perfectly-matched couple.

Some describe Austen as a global brand, but Conford said she can't be equated with more modern literary brands such as J.K.Rowling's Harry Potter.

"She's not quite commoditised in the same way, you don't see sort of small figurines or toys of Elizabeth and Darcy. But there is something interesting about the fact that she is such a fertile ground for creative people to want to interpret her in other mediums," she said.

In the smash-hit 1995 BBC drama Jennifer Ehle played Elizabeth Bennet to Colin Firth's Mr Darcy. The first Hollywood adaptation was in 1940, with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier in the leading roles. The most recent saw Kiera Knightly play a more tomboy-ishElizabeth Bennet, with Matthew Macfadyen as the dashing Darcy.

Bollywood fell in love with the tale and in 2004 Bride and Prejudice hit the movie screens starring Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Martin Henderson, who danced their way in joyful garish fashion through the plot.

Austen's enduring global appeal has inspired spin-off movies as well, such as Becoming Jane, starring Anne Hathaway, which intertwines biographical details fromJane Austen's life with the plot of Pride and Prejudice.

This year Austenland will be released. A comedy about a young American woman who is obsessed with the BBC Pride and Prejudice series and who travels to Britain to stay in a stately home recreating the world of the novel.

And so, two centuries after it was first published, Pride and Prejudice has proved time and time again that it inspires new generations, who all put their own stamp and interpretation on the timeless classic.