View Comments
A watercolour and pencil sketch of Austen, believed to have been drawn from life by her sister Cassandra (c. 1810).

On January 27, 1813, in a small Hampshire village in England, Jane Austen welcomed into the world her own "darling child". She opened a package containing the three volumes of her story of a feisty young heroine and a brooding, dashing hero.

Two hundred years later this "child" has changed the face of literature. It has not only given the world Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, but also the image of Colin Firth in a clinging wet shirt, Bridget Jones's Diary and a multimillion- dollar industry.

Pride and Prejudice is read and loved by people the world over. There are Jane Austen Societies in places such as China and Argentina, Pride and Prejudice pilgrimages, merchandise, Elizabeth and Darcy Dating Manuals, graphic novels, Facebook pages, pornographic sequels (Fifty Shades of Mr Darcy) and even skateboards.

There have been other great books by other great writers but none has had the appeal and the creative commercialism of this one. So why is Pride and Prejudice such a phenomenon?

One reason, according to Susannah Fullerton, president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia and author of the newly released book Happily Ever After: Celebrating Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, could be relevance of the characters.

"Elizabeth Bennet is outspoken, energetic, fearless, and independent in an era where women were much more docile," says Fullerton on the phone from her home in Sydney.

"Austen's contemporaries didn't really take to this character but modern readers adore her."

Much of the charm of the story, adds Fullerton, is in the dialogue.

"Crisp, exact and witty, every speech in the novel reveals the character of the speaker and amuses the reader. It's an absolute gift for any screenwriter."

Deirdre Le Faye, considered to be the world expert on all things Jane Austen, believes the attraction of the novel lies in its Cinderella theme.

"The Cinderella story is always appealing," she says from her home in the UK. "It gave hope to the poor girls amongst us who are far more numerous than the rich ugly sisters."

When first published, Pride and Prejudice received mixed reactions. The more favourable reviews included "remarkably well drawn and supported" or the fact that Elizabeth Bennet was likened to Shakespeare's Beatrice. Another reviewer opined that a man must have written the novel, as a woman could never have written something so clever.

Not all readers fell under its spell, however. Some called the story one of "vulgar minds and manners" and "downright nonsense" while many members of the clergy disliked it for its portrayal of the simpering Mr Collins.

Some years later Mark Twain would comment: "Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig Jane Austen up and beat her over her skull with her own shin bone."

It does remain, however, that the story of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy has lasted better than any novel of Dickens or the Bronte sisters and it has generated much more merchandise and parodies.

Miranda Young, from the online literary gift store Readers Niche (readersniche.com.au) says anything to do with Jane Austen is a bestseller.

"We have everything from Jane Austen pendants to T-shirts and confetti," says Ms Young, who is based in Melbourne.

"Our bestseller would have to be the bust of Jane Austen, which has the first line of Pride and Prejudice engraved around the base.

"The Pride and Prejudice confetti is also popular. Every bride wants Mr Darcy at their wedding."

At 200 years old Mr Darcy is still hot. Fitzwilliam Darcy remains Jane Austen's most popular hero and many romantic writers have since modelled their own heroes on him. Today there are Mr Darcy mugs, fan clubs, sequels and even a pheromone, the Darcin, a protein responsible for female preference to specific males, named after our hero. Darcy's popularity was certainly not hindered by the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, with Colin Firth playing the role. Think of Mr Darcy and one imagines Firth in a wet shirt from a scene that was not even written in the original story.

"Colin Firth has definitely made the book live again for modern readers," Ms Young says. "When I watched Firth emerging from that lake I made a point of revisiting Austen's other books."

It seems we can't get enough of Darcy and Elizabeth and the goings-on at Pemberley. Hundreds of writers have created sequels, prequels, parodies, adaptations and recreations of Jane Austen's characters and stories. The first sequel was published in 1913 giving readers an insight into the years following the marriage of Darcy and Elizabeth. Latest adaptations have included Lydia Bennet's Story: A Sequel to Pride and Prejudice, Darcy's Story, Death Comes to Pemberley and the more risque Pride and Promiscuity.

Recent adaptations have even included the appearance of zombies and aliens. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, published in 2009, has as its joint authors Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, an American author and screenwriter. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies debuted at number three on the New York Times bestseller list. It has sold more than one million copies and been translated into more than 20 languages.

According to the author in an interview at the time, the story of Pride and Prejudice was perfect for adding zombie horror.

"You have this fiercely independent heroine, you have this dashing heroic gentleman, you have a militia camped out for seemingly no reason whatsoever nearby, and people are always walking here and there and taking carriage rides here and there . . . it was just ripe for gore and senseless violence; from my perspective anyway."

Austen fans and academics such as Fullerton and Le Faye find such adaptations "dire beyond belief".

"Unfortunately, these books and films do nothing except betray the ignorance and vulgarity of their creators," Ms Le Faye says.

But what would the lady herself have thought? Is Jane Austen spinning round in that grave of hers in Winchester Cathedral?

"First of all I think that Jane would be quite amazed to know that her popularity extends from England to the other side of the globe," Ms Le Faye says.

"She would have also been flattered, amused and rather incredulous.

"Being as she was eminently practical, she would also be rather regretful that none of the profits from all these spin-offs and merchandise ever came her way in time to add some extra comforts to her cottage at Chawton."

When Jane Austen died in 1817, only a few thousand copies of her books had been sold.

Today her "darling child" has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and it has given the world romance and heroism, not to mention Colin Firth in a wet shirt. Now that's something to be celebrated.

'The Cinderella story is always appealing. It gave hope to the poor girls . . . who are far more numerous than the rich ugly sisters.'