This week marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s most popular novel, Pride and Prejudice. Originally titled First Impressions, the novel was published in January 1813, and the first edition sold out within the year. Second and third editions quickly followed, as well as international translations. Receiving fairly favorable reviews from English critics at the time, popularity quickly spread to the United States and around the world, and the frenzy has not died since then. A 2003 BBC survey found Pride and Prejudice to be the second most popular book in the UK, coming in only behind The Lord of the Rings.
In the past 200 years, the fairly well known plot—girl meets boy, girl hates boy, girl gets to know boy, everyone gets married (to oversimplify)—has been adapted for stage and screen, from mini-series to musical. In the literary world, prequels, sequels, and more creative adaptations (I’m looking at you, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) have spawned.
What is it about this novel that has not just endured, but increased in popularity over the years? Known for her wit, Jane Austen has filled Pride and Prejudice with the best combination of intelligence and entertainment. Rarely has the art of 19th century everyday life been rendered so fascinating. Austen’s use of irony to critique her society is masterful and quite frankly hilarious, particularly in her frequent employment of free indirect discourse (mixing the words of the characters with that of the narrator).
Her astonishment, as she reflected on what had passed, was increased by every review of it. That she should receive an offer of marriage from Mr. Darcy! That he should have been in love with her for so many months! So much in love as to wish to marry her in spite of all the objections which had made him prevent his friend’s marrying her sister, and which must appear at least with equal force in his own case, was almost incredible!
But Austen’s skill as a writer alone cannot account for the wild popularity of P&P compared to her other novels. Another possible explanation is the story itself. Austen’s characters are incredibly fleshed out, relatable, and move within a story that is not entirely unfamiliar. The trope of the couple who hate each other but secretly love each other is a popular one, a la Much Ado About Nothing, Star Wars, That 70’s Show, and many others.
One of the most innovative Pride and Prejudice adaptations I’ve come across is a recent YouTube web series called The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which conveys the modernized story through a series of vlogs by 24-year-old grad student Lizzie Bennet. Through videos posted a couple of times a week, we meet her sisters Lydia and Jane (along with their cousin Mary and Lydia’s pet cat, Kitty), local swim coach George Wickam, and the new neighbors in town: med student Bing Lee and his hipster friend Darcy. Using modern social media such as Tumblr and Twitter to add dimensions to the story, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries provides a refreshing commentary on the joys and perils of the Internet generation.
The vlogs are not an exact replication of the novel but instead more of a translation: Lizzie must turn down not a marriage proposal, but a lucrative (although meaningless) job offer from Mr. Ricky Collins. The series is still on going, and though it began as a light-hearted way for “Lizzie” to record her life, the videos have gotten darker and more serious of late as a certain relationship between Lydia and George Wickam develops.
Although because it is filmed in the style of an amateur video blog the setting doesn’t change too often (and at times we must suspend our disbelief that certain things would happen on camera while Lizzie is filming), the acting is sophisticated and the characters just as believable as their original counterparts.
The series is an endearing tribute to the original novel as well as a strong stand-alone work of its own. I highly recommend it to fans of Pride and Prejudice, and Jane Austen in general, although I must warn that it is dangerously addictive.
Happy 200th Birthday Pride and Prejudice!