Jane is still making us turn the pages after two hundred years
Jane Austen herself called it her "darling child". But when she launched that child – her novel Pride And Prejudice – into the wider world, she can have had little idea that it would still be being discovered by new readers – and inspiring films, sequels, spin offs, festivals, fan clubs and unswerving adoration – 200 years later.
Tomorrow is the bicentenary of the publication of this clever, sparkling story of a young man who changes his manners and a young woman who changes her mind.
Proud Mr Darcy and spirited Elizabeth Bennet – Lizzie – are the ultimate fantasy couple, and their on-off romance has been lapped up down the years by millions of readers. They've fallen equally for the supporting cast of characters too, from sardonic Mr Bennet to silly Mrs Bennet, desperate to marry off her five daughters, to pompous Mr Collins, devious charmer Wickham and the formidable snob, Darcy's aunt Lady Catherine de Burgh.
Some 20 million copies of the book have been sold since that first edition was brought out on January 27 1813 by a London publisher called Thomas Edgerton, who had published Jane's novel Sense And Sensibility three years earlier.
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Jane herself seems to have taken the publication in her stride, writing lightheartedly to her sister Cassandra that "on the whole I am satisfied..." adding, perhaps a little tongue in cheek, "it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense".
But this self-effacing woman, whose genius as a writer was known only to her close-knit family for much of her lifetime, had good reason to call Pride And Prejudice her child, for she'd spent many years perfecting it.
She'd written her first draft of the sparkling romance some 16 years earlier, when she was just 21. She'd called it First Impressions, and her father, the Reverend George Austen, loved it so much that, in November 1797, he wrote to London publisher Thomas Cadell, offering to send the manuscript "by a lady" with a view to publication. Cadell, in possibly one of the worst business decisions in history, turned him down flat.
But perhaps this was a blessing in disguise because Jane was able to hone and rework her masterpiece so that, when it was finally published in 1813 it was, as millions of readers have concluded in the years that have followed, pretty much perfect.
Jane Austen was an acute observer of the foibles of the provincial milieu in which she grew up, the village of Steventon in Hampshire where her father was the rector. And she must have attended dozens of village dances like the one at the assembly rooms in Meryton where Lizzie first claps eyes on Darcy, who has been dragged along to the dance by his friend Bingley. Darcy, standing aloof and disdainful at the edge of the room, clearly viewing the assembled company as beneath him. Bingley, himself entranced by the beautiful Jane Bennet, tries to persuade his friend to dance, and suggests Jane's sister Lizzie as a partner. To which Darcy, glancing over at her, delivers his famous withering put-down: "She's tolerable I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me. And I'm in no humour at present to give consequence to women who are slighted by other men."
Lizzie, whose wit and intelligence mark her out as one of the great heroines of English literature, is not cowed by this remark.
"She told the story with great spirit among her friends, for she had a lively and playful disposition that delighted in anything ridiculous," writes Jane Austen.
The chemistry is there right from the start and, needless to say, Darcy, starts to find her attractive, despite the fact that she has a vulgar mother and three silly younger sisters. But, fortunately for readers, the path of true love does not run smooth, particularly when Elizabeth finds out that Darcy has been meddling in the romance between Jane and Bingley, and when he further enrages her with a marriage proposal in which he tells her he's struggled in vain to turn his back on his love for her because of her appalling family.
It is a huge achievement for a book to still be a bestseller after 200 years, but what that perhaps tells us, as well as the fact that Jane Austen was a genius, is that people, and the minutiae of the world, don't change that much. We may not drive around in horse-drawn carriages or wear floaty muslin dresses any more, or talk quite so blatantly as Mrs Bennet does of the brass tacks of the marriage market. But we are still the same underneath, with the same foibles, sense of the ridiculous and habit of falling in love. And, in a recession, the opening sentence – "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in a possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife" – is only too true. Pride And Prejudice will, surely, go on to sell many more copies in the years to come.