Pride and Prejudice, one of Austen’s most popular and arguably best-loved works, celebrates its bicentenary this January. So arises the question, why are we recognising this 200 year anniversary? What makes a novel, deeply routed in a time of traditional nuclear families and gender restrictions, still relevant to us today: in a world of increasing diversity, and single-parent families?
The playful wit and social commentary of 19th Century Regency England are imperative to critical scholarly debate, contributing significantly to many of Austen fans’ admiration, without, crucially, seeming anachronistic. As evidenced through the number of homages, film adaptations and abundance of sequels, there is undeniably something timeless about her writing.
Her plots still feature in many of the nation’s favourite love stories and ‘chic flics’ today – think Bridget Jones’ Diary. The strength of this novel and its appeal must be partly derived from the happy ending, the perfect love story.
Still, Pride and Prejudice includes an awareness of hierarchical superiority, marital necessity, and the plight of the poor. Perhaps it is thus the realism, particularly with regards to the obstacles to love or happiness, which makes for a novel that is still relevant – explored afresh in Bride and Prejudice (2004) with the introduction of a cultural hurdle.
Austen also includes a variety of stereotypes – caricatures, even, that live amongst us in society today. We have the conceited Mr Darcy juxtaposed with the benevolent Mr Bingley. Bingley respectively is man who is ‘too nice’, alongside the ‘bad boy’, Wickham. Elizabeth’s passion is contrasted with Jane’s seeming reserve. The affecting and occasionally disconsolate emotions evoked in the love story are interposed with comical Mrs Bennett and even Lady Catherine De Burgh – the archetypal villain.
If that wasn’t enough, Mr Collins, the sycophantic skin-crawl inducing man, is depicted so vividly as to surely make him a contender for the least agreeable literary husband of all time. Essentially, what is revealed is Austen’s greatest skill: the formation of believable, three-dimensional, and timeless characters.
Even the National Curriculum has failed to put off a generation of students from these books. True, there are many who aren’t so enthusiastic and criticize Austen’s sparse plot line in which ‘nothing happens’, but this does little to overpower the popular admiration for the author and her works.
It seems that Austen’s works are here to stay. Celebrations have been organised across the country. The city of Bath is fully embracing its connection with her and her books by hosting a ‘Readathon’ on the 28th January in which celebrities, authors, politicians, and school children will read 10 minute excerpts of her text. 2013 also boasts a number of biographies as well as new editions of the novel.
Jane Austen 200 years later, lives on not only in legacy, but in the constant reinvention of her plot and the regeneration of her characters.