How many novels can you think of that have been voted the world’s favourite novel and the most romantic novel ever written; which have been translated into over 40 languages, and spawned a never-ending stream of adaptions for movies, television, sequels, prequels and retellings; and which features the unforgettable opening line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man of good fortune, must be in want of a wife”?
Susannah Fullerton, Austen scholar, head of the Australian Jane Austen Society, and author of numerous books on Jane Austen, came to Auckland this week for a series of talks to remind us of the ongoing love affair that the world has with Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Last year Pride and Prejudice celebrated its 200 year anniversary, which was marked by events all around the world, and which also saw the launch of Fullerton’s latest book Happily Ever After.
Happily Ever After is a celebration of Jane Austen’s timeless Pride and Prejudice, which Fullerton presents vividly in her talk to the eager Austen fans in the audience. According to Fullerton, “the world became a much better place to live in at the end of January 1813, because Pride and Prejudice was finally published”. Fullerton goes on to present snapshots of how the novel became fervently admired as time went on; citing examples such as the many soldiers during World War One who took copies of Pride and Prejudice with them into the trenches, or the many civilians who were comforted by reading the novel in the London underground shelter during bombing attacks. Other well-known fans of Pride and Prejudice included Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, who declared himself in love with Elizabeth Bennett, Winston Churchill – who read Pride and Prejudice while leading Great Britain through World War Two -, and, most notably, A.A. Milne, whose assessment of people’s character was solely dependent on whether or not they liked Pride and Prejudice. “According to Milne, if you did not love Pride and Prejudice there was something fundamentally wrong with you,” laughs Fullerton.
While the style of Pride and Prejudice is remarkable – Jane Austen was the first writer of her time to perfect the use of free indirect discourse – it is, as Fullerton points out, the characters who have made the novel what it is. Elizabeth Bennett is a heroine who is loved by readers precisely because she is not perfect, yet is intelligent and assertive and grows and learns throughout the novel. As for Mr Darcy, Fullerton states that, while women readers have been falling in love with him since 1813, there was never an interpretation of his character as memorable as that played by Colin Firth in the 1995 BBC adaption of the novel. And although the notorious “lake scene” (here is a link to it for those of you who want to re-live the moment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hasKmDr1yrA ) was not in Austen’s original novel, it did help to cement Pride and Prejudice in the minds of (female?) viewers around the world, prompting accolades such as being voted “the favourite TV moment of all time”, and the somewhat dubious honour of having a male sex pheromone existing in mice named after Darcy.
As well as the many TV and movie versions, the ongoing fascination with the characters and the plot of Pride and Prejudice has seen the birth of a multitude of literary adaptations. Fullerton declares that there is hardly a genre that has not attempted to re-write or use the characters of the novel. We can find Pride and Prejudice in crime fiction (Death Comes to Pemberley), children’s books (the Pride and Prejudice Baby Lit Counting Primer), horror novels (Pride and Prejudice Zombies), and – yes, you guessed it – pornographic and erotic novels (anyone for Fifty Shades of Mr Darcy?).
To conclude her talk, Fullerton takes us through yet another manifestation of Pride and Prejudice, which is the staggering – and often bizarre – array of Pride and Prejudice related merchandise that is available. Apart from the standard key rings and jigsaw puzzles, you can hang up your clothes with clothes-pegs featuring inspiring quotes from the novel, dress up your very own Elizabeth and Darcy paper dolls, and even change your baby’s nappy with special disposable diapers inscribed with the line “In vain have I struggled” – the beginning of Darcy’s marriage proposal to Elizabeth.
Susannah Fullerton’s enthusiasm for Pride and Prejudice is genuine and infectious, and her advice to re-read Pride and Prejudice at least every year will possibly prompt many who attended her talks to consider it as a comforting pre-winter read – or, probably more likely, a mad dash to the DVD store to rent out the Colin Firth BBC mini-series.