By Caitlin Howle, Digital Marketing Coordinator
Jane Austen has been a staple of great literature for two centuries, but she has also expanded into the realm of pop culture. Her books have spawned countless movies, TV shows, and even an action figure or two. There are devout adaptations that interpret her work word for word and looser adaptations that throw in everything from time-travel to zombies. There’s so much Jane Austen all around us, you might not even realize it.
First, the basics. Jane Austen was an English novelist who lived from 1775 to 1817. Her father, George Austen, was a rector at an Anglican parish and her mother, Cassandra Leigh, was from a prominent family. Austen had three siblings — Henry, Cassandra, and Francis. Her parents encouraged the family to be well-educated and to explore creative interests. The girls were sent to school but later had to return home when their family was unable to afford it. The rumor is that Jane and Cassandra were still tutored at home by their father and that they may have even joined their brothers for lessons.
Austen showed a love for and promise in writing from an early age. In what is known as her “juvenalia” stage, she wrote many poems, notebooks, and a short novel that was meant to entertain her family and friends.
As Austen neared adulthood, her family moved to Bath, England in 1801. Austen was adamant about how much she hated the move, as it took her away from the home that she loved in Steventon. She wrote much less than she had and scholars attribute this to an intense depression that overcame the author. She was in Bath for a short time, moving to Southampton in 1806 and finally to Hampshire in 1809.
Austen took ill at the beginning of 1816 and deteriorated rapidly. Though there is no certainty of what she died of it is rumored to have been Addison’s Disease, as popularized by the 1964 retrospective diagnosis by Dr. Vincent Cope. Despite her illness, Austen continued to write, working on novels that she unfortunately never finished.
Austen only published four novels during her lifetime, all anonymously as women were not allowed to sign contracts at the time. Those novels are: Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1816). After her death in 1817, at the age of 41, Austen’s brother Henry and her sister Cassandra had her remaining novels Persuasion and Northanger Abbey published as a set in 1818. Austen was never credited as the author of her novels while she was alive, with her first credit as an author coming in 1821, though her brother Henry identified her as the author when the posthumous publication of Persuasion came out in 1818.
Jane Austen’s work has continued to thrive, with adaptations upon adaptations coming out based on, or inspired by her novels. From the traditional to the bizarre, here are a few of the ways Pride and Prejudice, perhaps her best-known work, have transcended time and resonated with audiences through the decades.
Pride and Prejudice in Film and Television
The first television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice came out in 1938 in the United Kingdom and starred Curigwen Lewis as Elizabeth and Andrew Osborn as Mr. Darcy. It was broadcast on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and played just before World War II began. Two years later, in 1940, the much better known and first film adaptation appeared, starring Greer Garson as Lizzy and Laurence Olivier as that handsome Mr. Darcy. While very well-received, it did poorly at the box office. That didn’t stop film and television adaptations from coming, however. There was another television miniseries in the 1950s, as well as ones in the 1960s and 1980s. None are as well known, though, as the 1995 television miniseries that featured Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth and Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. This adaptation won several awards, including a BAFTA for Jennifer Ehle for “Best Actress” and an Emmy for costume design.
Adaptations of Austen’s work waned for nearly a decade until 2004 when a Bollywood film named Bride & Prejudice that was loosely adapted from the original novel was produced. The most recent adaptation was the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen as Elizabeth and Darcy. It received four nominations at the 78th Academy Awards, though it did not take home any awards.
Pride and Prejudice in Professional Theater
When it comes to professional theater, there have been plenty of Pride and Prejudice adaptations, with the first documented one being in 1901. An adaptation by Helen Jerome was produced on Broadway in 1935 and was the basis for the 1940 film previously mentioned. Broadway also saw First Impressions in 1959 — a musical version of Austen’s novel with book by Abe Burrows and music and lyrics by George Weiss, Bo Goldman, and Glenn Paxton. The show played 84 performances. There was another play by Jon Jory and a Pride and Prejudice musical again in 1995 by Bernard J. Taylor.
The latest adaptation of Austen’s work is Kate Hamill’s adaptation — the show we have now. It premiered at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare festival in 2017, where Hamill played the leading role of Lizzy. Hamill’s adaptation went on to be performed by Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York, where it caught the attention of regional theaters, many of whom (like Trinity Rep) recognized its value for their own seasons.
Looser Adaptations of Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice has inspired many different versions and some casual allusions to the plot. There are a few adaptations of the work that are looser, but still follow Austen’s classic story or characters. For example, there was a four-part fantasy series from 2008 called Lost in Austen where a Jane Austen fan is sucked into the novel of Pride and Prejudice.
Austen is no stranger to sci-fi, being mentioned in the 2014 “The Caretaker” episode of the time-bending and space-traveling television show Doctor Who. Pride and Prejudice is also a book that the character of Fry jumps into in the Matt Groening (The Simpsons) animated series Futurama, where he and another character wreak havoc on the ball where Lizzy meets Darcy. The novel was also the inspiration for Death Comes to Pemberley, the 2013 miniseries set six years after Darcy and Elizabeth are married — two of
the characters quarrel and a murder is committed with the Bennet crew left to solve the mystery.
In another look at what happens years after the conclusion of the Pride and Prejudice story, the play Christmas at Pemberley by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon premiered in 2016 and will be produced by our neighbors to the north, Lowell’s Merrimack Repertory Theater this holiday season.
The first Emmy ever to be awarded in the category for Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Media — Original Interactive Program went to another Austen-inspired creation. In 2012, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was a YouTube webseries in which Elizabeth Bennet is a graduate student who starts a video blog for her thesis and chronicles her dating adventures with the Bennet sisters through this digital format.
You also may have heard of the 2009 parody novel called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies which was later turned into a 2016 film. The story features the Bennet sisters as martial arts masters and weapon-wielding women in a world where they must fight off the zombie plague and find a suitable husband to marry. The film was a commercial flop, making a mere $16 million compared to the $28 million it took to make it.
Zombies aside, Darcy has been widely imagined as an extremely handsome suitor. Once though, he was a furry, four-legged bachelor in an adorable dog-sized suit. In 1995 the popular PBS children’s television show Wishbone featured Austen’s story, calling it, “Furst Impressions.” The main character, Wishbone, a Jack Russell terrier, was the adorable Mr.Darcy.
Also, in a fun turn of events, there was an Austen-inspired movie that came to life following the 1995 miniseries starring Colin Firth as Darcy. The miniseries has been widely attributed to be the inspiration for the 2001 film Bridget Jones’s Diary, where Firth played “Mark Darcy,” the main character’s love interest. Andrew Davies co-wrote the Bridget Jones screenplay — and wrote the Pride and Prejudice adaptation that Firth starred in.
Of course, Pride and Prejudice is only one of Austen’s works and there are plenty of other adaptations of her novels (for example, the 1990s movie Clueless is a loosed adaptation of Emma). There are tons of fun Austen-inspired products, including a five-inch-tall Jane Austen action figure from Accoutrements, Inc. and an Austen-inspired recipe in a cookbook called Kafka’s Soup. In 2003 Pride and Prejudice came in second in a BBC poll for the United Kingdom’s “best-loved book,” trailing only The Lord of the Rings.
Two centuries after Austen passed away, her work is still leaving its mark on the world and inspiring those who read and become involved with it. The next time you find yourself in the middle of a love story, you might just want to check who inspired it. In all likelihood, it was Austen herself. After all, it’s a small Jane Austen world that we live in.