Celebrating Pride & Prejudice: 200 Years of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy

Illustration by C.E. Brock | Image via Molland's

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice; needless to say, it’s a very important day for Jane Austen fans the world over. Although it was her second novel (Sense and Sensibility celebrated its bicentennial in 2011), Pride and Prejudice has easily become Austen’s most widely-recognized and celebrated work. When I first sat down to write about the novel in celebration of its anniversary I was a bit flummoxed as to where exactly I ought to begin. When you really examine the influence Pride and Prejudice has had on society and culture it all becomes a little overwhelming. Here is a novel that has inspired every mode of adaptation under the sun and developed a legion of fans as devoted and longstanding as no other. Few novels have gone on to do exactly what it is that Pride and Prejudice has done. Its love story has entertained millions of readers for centuries at a time, its themes have remained current and relatable throughout history, and its characters have become some of the most timeless men and women to ever be created. Will any of us ever forget the time-tested ridiculousness of Mr. Collins and the outrageous dramatics of Mrs. Bennet? Will Caroline Bingley’s significance as the quintessential rival ever waver? And then, obviously, there’s Mr. Darcy. He’s been called many things by many people – overrated, brilliant, uninteresting, the perfect man – and now, two hundred years later, he remains one of the most immortal men in the history of fiction.

"I loved Mr. Darcy far more than any of my own husbands." - Rumer Godden

Elliot Cowan as Mr. Darcy in Lost in Austen
Elliot Cowan recreates Colin Firth's lake scene
in the 2008 miniseries Lost in Austen

The question that a lot of men (and a few women, for that matter) have asked about Mr. Darcy’s impossible allure is Why? And it’s a very good question. It wasn't enough that Jane’s own Mr. Darcy affected his audience from the novel’s pages, but he inspired an impressive host of personifications on the screen. He might be Laurence Olivier, or Colin Firth, or Matthew MacFadyen, or Elliot Cowan. He might be Fitzwilliam Darcy, or Mark Darcy, or Will Darcy. Whichever persona he’s taken on and whatever format is used to translate his character, Darcy is one of the most widely-recreated and impersonated literary heroes. But the question of why Darcy is in such high demand, as it were, still lingers. Whether it’s the popularity of Pride and Prejudice that separates him from the rest of Jane’s heroes or whether there really is something singularly wonderful about him (or if it can all be blamed, in blissful simplicity, on Colin Firth) is very much, I think, a matter of opinion. I've never subscribed to the idea that he’s perfect, but I think to some degree it’s his imperfections that contribute a great deal to my appreciation for him. As a romantic hero, really, he’s a bit abominable throughout a large part of the book (and that’s when he’s even around at all). But it’s the many blunders and misunderstandings that lead him to a true understanding of his own feelings, and I've always admired the way Jane took him on that journey. I find that there’s something familiar and comfortable about Darcy, whether through the memorized passages of the book or the favorite scenes from the adaptations. Somehow Darcy has become such an instantly recognizable character that he takes readers and viewers alike to a nostalgic place, a simple and happy place, much like the scores of both the 1995 and 2005 adaptations cause a flutter of delight for Jane’s diehard fans. It’s interesting to consider, through the years and the many Darcy-centric adaptations and retellings, whether or not Darcy has managed to overshadow his fiercely independent and forward-thinking love interest, Elizabeth Bennet.

“Elizabeth Bennet has but to speak, and I am at her knees.”- Robert Louis Stevenson

Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet
Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet in 2005

Well before Colin Firth stepped out of a lake and changed life as we all knew it, Elizabeth was the indomitable spirit that drove Pride and Prejudice – and she stole a few hearts, herself. In the earlier portion of the book’s life it was Elizabeth – not Darcy – with whom everyone was falling in love. It’s hard to believe that a character as unstoppable as Elizabeth Bennet could be overshadowed by anyone else (even Darcy!), so maybe the more apt scenario can be found in the combination of Darcy’s recent surge of appeal and the fact that fewer men read Jane Austen nowadays, thereby missing out on the opportunity to fall in love with Elizabeth as so many men once did. It’s amusing, though, when I consider the fuss that’s always ensued when women say that Mr. Darcy has ruined them for mere mortal, mere nonfiction men; and likewise, when men complain about the impossibility of usurping the very immortal Mr. Darcy. I imagine that if more men read Pride and Prejudice and Elizabeth’s full arsenal of admirable traits were given the same attention from her admirers we'd find that the shoe would very much wind up on the other foot. If any heroine were to encompass the same magnitude of presumed perfection as Mr. Darcy, who more appropriately than Elizabeth Bennet? The way that her own journey of self-discovery mirrors Darcy’s is one of my favorite aspects of the story; the layers of their similarities are vastly entertaining, but it’s also revealing of just how singularly wonderful Elizabeth herself is as a character. She’s strong-willed without being as foolhardy as her younger sister Lydia; she’s compassionate, but with a bit more boldness than the shy, modest Jane. I've always felt that Elizabeth’s traits are an amplification of what’s good to be found in a person. What's more, the strong traits that could be considered her flaws played a role in helping Darcy to become what many believe to be the perfect man. You really don't get a more wonderfully fearsome and inspiring heroine than that.

Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle in the groundbreaking BBC miniseries production

One thing I love about the bicentennial celebration of Pride and Prejudice is that it won’t be lasting for merely a day; this is only the beginning. With hosts of events to enjoy all over the world and new books, from collectible editions to new commentaries on the endurance of the novel, it looks like 2013 will very much be the year of Pride and Prejudice. Part of my personal celebration has been spent here, putting my thoughts into words and reliving the story many times over as I try to capture what exactly it is that makes Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth and Darcy, and even (lest I forget to mention the most handsome character) the glorious Pemberley quite so special.

To my fellow Janeites, enjoy the revelry of Pride and Prejudice's 200th anniversary!