Romance that never loses its sparkle: The world's most influential novel ever - Features - Books - The Independent

Romance that never loses its sparkle: The world's most influential novel ever

'Pride and Prejudice' is 200 years old, but the proto-romcom has never been in better health

It gave us Colin Firth in a clinging, wet shirt and inspired Bridget Jones to sing "I'm Every Woman". Jane Austen's "own darling child", or Pride and Prejudice as it's known to you and me, is a brand all of its own. It has inspired more spin-offs than almost any other book in history, and has ballooned into a multi-million-pound industry. Pretty impressive, considering it turns 200 years old this month.

As enthusiasts, academics, authors and film-makers across the globe celebrate the bicentenary of the novel's publication in the next few weeks, experts suggest "cult Austen" is only going to get bigger. Its market, they say – which until now has consisted largely of Britain, the US and Australia – is expanding. China, India and Russia are starting to swot up on all things Austen. Visitors are flocking to visit her home, Chawton in Hampshire, to read the sequels and travel to the locations where adaptations of her works were filmed.

Why? For Germaine Greer, who re-reads the novel every five years, the answer is simple: "Pride and Prejudice is the matrix on which all Harlequin romances are built. It's the best-selling plot-line in literature." .

Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, after Austen sold the copyright to a publisher for £110. It was critically well-received: Sir Walter Scott praised Austen's "exquisite touch" which "renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting." He read it at least three times.

Academics may remind us that the novel was read mostly by men a century ago, but it has long since been sold as a feminine tale. And yet, as much as people try to sell it as a tale for single women worldwide, it has inspired scores of adaptations, each as different as the last.

Here, we take a look at the best Pride and Prejudice has given us – from that Colin Firth scene, to zombies, murders and Bollywood.

Bollywood

Bride and Prejudice

Bend It Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha decided the Bennet family were going to become the Bakhsis from Amritsar, India, in her 2004 version, Bride and Prejudice. Filmed in English, with some Punjabi and Hindi, plus plenty of Bollywood kitsch, the film explores Lalita Bakshi (based on Elizabeth Bennet) and American Will Darcy's relationship.

Mash-up

Zombies

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains," is how the start of arguably the most unusual Pride and Prejudice spin-off begins. Seth Grahame-Smith's best-selling Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which has sold more than 1.5 million copies, follows Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters as they battle a zombie menace in a quiet English village. Billed as 85 per cent Austen's original text and 15 per cent new gore, the novel inspired a host of literary monster mash-ups. It is thought that a film based on the book is in the works.

Spin-off

Austenland

Twilight author Stephenie Meyer has produced Austenland, a film adapted from Shannon Hale's bestseller. It follows Jane, a woman in her thirties with a life-size paper doll of Mr Darcy, who is so obsessed with the BBC adaptation that she travels to a Jane Austen theme park in search of the perfect gentleman. The film premieres at the Sundance film festival this week.

Holidays

Trips and tours

If you want to join a Pride and Prejudice walking tour in the Peak District, ride through the film-sets in a cart dressed as your favourite character, visit Lizzie's room (with shelves fitted by Lady Catherine), wander through the space where Darcy proposed, or treat yourself to a four-day luxury Austen tour, you can. Trips that recreate the experience can cost more than £1,000 a day.

Jamboree

Jane Austen Festival

Each year, hundreds of people attend the 10-day Jane Austen Festival in Bath, many in costume. Last year, more than 1,600 people attended. The festival is run by the Jane Austen Centre, which has almost 60,000 visitors a year. With its tea room boasting "Champagne tea with Mr Darcy" for £25, a gift shop, walking tours and a dressing up exhibition, more and more visitors are flocking – especially, in recent years, from China, Russia and India.

Chick lit

Bridget Jones's Diary

The Wanton Sex Goddess, aka Bridget Jones, was brought to us by Helen Fielding, in 1996, when she used the form of a personal diary to chronicle the life of a thirtysomething single woman in London. The novelist was inspired by the BBC's Pride and Prejudice, dubbing Elizabeth and Mr Darcy her "chosen representatives in the field of shagging". A sequel followed three years later; the Jones books have sold at least 15 million copies. There have been two films, and a third is expected soon.

Small screen

BBC 1995 adaptation

Famous for searing Colin Firth and his wet shirt into our collective memory, the six-episode adaptation of Pride and Prejudice elevated the actor, and the character of Mr Darcy, to superstardom. The series was watched on TV by more than 10 million people, and the initial run of the video sold out within two hours. About 40 per cent of the nation's television sets tuned into the final episode, while eight countries had already bought the rights. Sue Birtwistle, the producer, said her intention was to focus on two themes: sex and money.

The big screen

Keira Knightley version

It was always going to be hard for screenwriter Deborah Moggach to make a film that would tug our hearts as much as that Colin Firth scene, but casting Keira Knightley as Elizabeth in Joe Wright's 2005 Pride and Prejudice film certainly helped. Pitched to a younger audience, and starring British national treasures such as Dame Judi Dench and Brenda Blethyn, the film grossed more than £375m at the global box office and received four Oscar nominations. It divided critics; some thought it failed to deal with the complexity of Austen's novel, but then it was less than half the length of the BBC adaptation that preceded it.

Museum

Jane Austen's house

One place that has benefited from the "Pride and Prejudice effect" is Austen's former house in Chawton, Hampshire, where she spent the last eight years of her life. The 17th-century house has been converted into the Jane Austen's House Museum, and the number of people who passed through its doors more than doubled after the 1995 BBC series, from 25,000 to 58,000 a year. The museum has people standing outside its door when it is closed. At the last count, they had received visitors from 136 countries.

Sequel

Death Comes to Pemberley

A murder mystery with a twist was published in 2011, when PD James released her latest crime thriller – and set it at Pemberley, Darcy's country pile. The year is 1803 and Elizabeth and Mr Darcy have two sons after six years of marriage, and are living happily at his estate. But when Elizabeth's sister, Lydia, arrives with the shocking news that her husband, George Wickham, has been murdered, the reader joins them in a search for the killer. The New York Times claimed that "one succumbs to the impression that it is Austen herself at the keyboard". The book has sold more than 300,000 copies.

It railed at boundaries, but is it feminist?

It might be one of the world's great romances, but critics have argued for years over the extent to which you can call Jane Austen's novel feminist. The IoS put the question to some women known for their strong opinions, with mixed results.

For Germaine Greer, Pride and Prejudice "gives you a notion that women deserve better and shouldn't be taken for granted". She pointed out that the fact that it had a "woman for a hero was unusual", especially one who was "so aware of sexual interchanges between women and men". Esther Rantzen thinks it is "absolutely" a feminist novel. Describing Elizabeth as "feisty", she added: "She won't be put down by this arrogant young man." English professor Mary Ann O'Farrell said the protagonist "rails against boundaries", while Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, said the book marks the "first time that someone is saying that female thoughts are worth listening to." Author Anita Diamantwas less sure. "It's a feminist work, because Austen takes women seriously," she said, but "private relationships take central stage." Joanna Trollope said you would be "hard-pressed" to call it feminist. She added that Elizabeth is "intellectually superior to Darcy, but he controls her life".

But not everyone likes it. Playwright Bonnie Greer said: "I'm not a big fan of Austen; I never got through Pride and Prejudice … she's not to my taste. You're either an Austen fan or a Brontë fan, and I'm a Brontë fan." Edwina Currie was less diplomatic. She said: "I hated Pride and Prejudice; I'm not a fan of Austen. I find her heroines petty and small-minded."

Sarah Morrison

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