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Entertainment & the Arts | February 7, 2013

An anniversary universally acknowledged

Books

Jane Austen fans celebrate the 200th birthday of her most beloved novel

©iStockPhoto.com/Shawn Gearhart

Jane Austen fans, break out your bonnets: Pride and Prejudice just turned 200, and the world is putting on a ball.

For Austen fans everywhere, the 200th anniversary of the British author's best-known and most-loved novel is being celebrated with global gusto, accompanied by a surge of Austen-themed events and merchandise.

"The novel is the most enduring love story of the past two centuries, on par with Romeo and Juliet," Robert Morrison, an English professor at Queen's University, recently told CBC News. "The world Jane Austen lived in is different than today, yet her books remain vital."

So what's behind Austen's appeal?

Dr. Laura Dabundo, an English professor at Kennesaw State University who specializes in English Romanticism, believes the issues of "family, self, responsibility, love and obligation" raised in the novel contribute to its enormous popularity. Pride and Prejudice is well-crafted and well-written, she said, and while young people today may have difficulty adjusting to the more formal writing style, the novel is a masterpiece worth engaging.

"It is an optimistic, positive story of young love in which the good are … rewarded, and the wrong-minded are, if not punished, at least left to their own consciences to work out their fates," Dabundo said. "I enjoy [the novel] anew every single time I read it."

Dr. Shelley Cobb of the University of Southampton told BBC News that Jane Austen's work has longevity because, like Shakespeare, it always offers "something new" for each generation of readers to discover. Dabundo agrees: Austen's fiction remains compelling and enriching because of her multi-faceted characters, individuals "whose lives intersect with one another and the currents of their times, including the challenges of morality and faith, as they sort out who they are and what they will become."

This year, the bicentenary of Pride and Prejudice is generating a flurry of commemorative activity. The Jan. 28 anniversary was marked, among other events, by a "readathon" held by the Jane Austen Centre in Bath. In June, Cambridge University's Lucy Cavendish College will host a conference exploring the novel's historical context and modern adaptations. Other planned events include an exhibition at Jane Austen's House Museum in Chawton, and a Regency-era ball recreated by the BBC in Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball at Easter. BBC News reports that the 90-minute special "will examine the history of Austen's world and show how such social events helped women find a husband."

"It's a worldwide industry," David Lassman, Jane Austen Centre spokesman told BBC News. "There's always been an audience, but the BBC production in 1995 was the turning point that sent Jane Austen global."

BBC's 1995 mini-series of the novel-the catalyst that transformed Austen's novel from a slow-burner success to a worldwide bestseller-starred Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth and Colin Firth (famously) as Darcy. Over the span of two hundred years, what began as the simple love story of Austen's feisty heroine, Elizabeth Bennett, and Mr. Darcy has become a worldwide industry propelled by a string of popular adaptations.

The novel certainly doesn't lack spin-offs, including one that pits the popular characters against zombies. And yet the classic appeal of Austen's original story, first sold to Thomas Egerton in 1813 for £110, remains unchallenged in its own right. Although out of copyright and available for free on e-readers, Pride and Prejudice sells up to 50,000 copies annually in the UK alone, according to BBC News.

"[T]wo centuries after her characters first sprang from Austen's imagination … we still identify with the heroines of her world," wrote Shachi Kurl on the Huffington Post. "After all, what could be more contemporary than Elizabeth Bennett's rapier wit, acerbic tongue and her chutzpah?"