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Jane Austen's classic novel 'Pride and Prejudice' turns 200

by Take Two®

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In this image taken in London, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009, three books are shown of a new breed of classic author novel and mutant beast. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Jane Austen novel in possession of added gore is a surefire best-seller. Alastair Grant

Jane Austen's classic novel "Pride and Prejudice" turns 200 today, and people around the world are donning their bonnets and lacing up their bodices to celebrate.

The Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England is hosting a 24-hour read-a-thon, and the BBC recently recreated the lavish Netherfield Ball scene for a TV special that will air later this year. In the two centuries since its publication, "Pride and Prejudice" has spawned countless screen adaptations and spinoffs, from Bridget Jones to Bollywood to zombies.

"Elizabeth Bennet is a strong heroine. She was strong for her day and I think she's still strong," said Audrey Bilger, who teaches a seminar on Jane Austen at Claremont McKenna College. "Many of the key scenes in the novel are about Elizabeth defying people…We root for that kind of strength in a character, particularly in a woman."

Bilger says the 1995 "Pride and Prejudice" mini series starring Colin Firth as the haughty Mr. Darcy, pushed the story into the chick lit realm by turning the sex symbol focus from the Elizabeth Bennet character to Darcy. 

"The Colin Firth Darcy did more to spin Austen off into the chick lit universe than anything else... Before Colin Firth, we had lots of men who read 'Pride and Prejudice' and fell in love with Elizabeth," said Bilger. "After Colin Firth you start to see him as the sex symbol and it gets identifying with swooning women and this whole genre of chick lit."

Bilger also says Austen's novel is still relevant today because it spotlights female strength, intelligence and comedy, much like well-known female comedians of today, like Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig. 

"Elizabeth Bennet is herself a humorist...This is a sort of thing women comedians do today, they take on situation that could be painful and even sometimes discriminatory and they make comedy out of them," said Bilger. "Jane Austen was really the first to do this in that sort of sitcom setting."

Austen was also very modern for her time, when it came to depicting married couples in her novels, including in 'Pride and Prejudice.'

"She's very much about couples that like each other and respect each other and there's a kind of equality in these relationships even though in the society at large men still have so much more power than women," said Bilger. 

RELATED: Read Bilger's article on Pride and Prejudice for Ms. Magazine and in the LA Review of Books

Illustration by Jen Sorensen.

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