Pride and Prejudice still captivating

Pride and Prejudice comes to our cinema screens this week, and not for the first time. KEIRON PIM finds out why Jane Austen’s classic novel is such a lasting favourite.

It is an enduring story that just keeps us coming back for more. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is among Britain's all-time favourite books - it has been cherished since its publication in 1813 and like her other five novels has never been out of print.

The tale of Mrs Bennet, her five daughters and the eligible Mr Darcy is a novel that many readers return to at different times of their lives, and has spawned several adaptations for film and television.

This week sees the latest of those reach the cinema screen, and coming from the film production stable that brought us Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, it's poised to be a big hit.

Mind you, the last version, made by the BBC in 1995, was so successful that for many people it's now impossible to think of the novel without picturing Colin Firth emerging from a lake, clad in a clinging wet white shirt.

The man with the unenviable task of making the role his own this time around is Norfolk-born actor Matthew Macfadyen, until now best known for playing MI5 agent Tom Quinn in the BBC spy series Spooks.

He stars opposite Keira Knightley, who plays Elizabeth Bennet, the role taken by Jennifer Ehle in the 1995 adaptation.

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“It's the classic romantic novel,” said Kate Drayton, who teaches courses on Jane Austen's novels at the UEA.

“Novelists and screenwriters try to produce decent variations on the theme but they seem to come back to Austen and frankly, if the best romantic comedy we can come up with is something like Love Actually then I say thank God for Austen!

“Pride and Prejudice is a simple and highly appealing love story, obviously, but it masks this fiercely intelligent view of the wider world. I think that people read it again and again because each rereading reveals another aspect.”

As a novel it is not immediately cinematic in style - Austen's great skill is to involve her readers in the inner life of her characters - but it has one factor decisively in its favour.

“The gift for screenwriters is the great dialogue,” said Kate. “In the adaptations they tend to swap some of the lines about and give good lines to different characters. There are some great lines there for the taking!”

The plot is universally relevant, couched as it is in the somewhat distant world of the Georgian minor gentry; to be precise, that of Mr and Mrs Bennet and their five daughters, who live at their Hertfordshire residence of Longbourn.

Mr Bennet is a witty but rather laid-back gentleman, whereas his wife is obsessed by marrying off her daughters - and with good reason, for on her husband's death the estate will pass to the wholly unsuitable Rev William Collins, a rude and foolish man.

So when wealthy bachelor Charles Bingley and his smart set of friends move into a nearby mansion for the summer, Mrs Bennet and her daughters begin buzzing with excitement.

Elizabeth's interest in the handsome and snobbish Fitzwilliam Darcy turns quickly to dislike and their relationship becomes a tempestuous battle.

The path of true love never runs smoothly, but of course we all know the outcome; the pleasure that generations of readers have derived lies in Austen's amusing plots and the wit and irony of her prose. Far from being a reactionary tale implying that no woman is complete without the love of a dashing hero, Austen is sharply satirising this romantic fantasy.

Austen herself was a spinster, and never had her own Mr Darcy.

“Someone like Darcy would have been a fantasy figure for someone like Austen. Although she didn't marry, she did have what Hollywood might term 'love interest' in her life,” said Kate.

Austen was born at the rectory in Steventon, a little village in north-east Hampshire, on December 16, 1775, the seventh child of the Rev George Austen and his wife Cassandra Leigh.

She lived there until she was 25 and then travelled to Kent to stay with her brother Edward at his mansion, sometimes taking trips to Bath. This period helped her to write the settings for Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey, which along with Sense and Sensibility she drafted in the 1790s.

In 1801 Jane and her sister moved with their parents to settle in Bath, from where they took holidays in the West Country, which gave Austen the background for Persuasion. After her father's death in 1805 the family moved to Southampton and then Chawton, where they lived on one of Edward's estates.

It was a very subdued existence, far more so than the world of romance and intrigue that she conjured in her writing.

Kate said: “Austen did once accept a marriage proposal, but she changed her mind the following morning and in the end she was never married.

“Many years before the proposal she had been disappointed in love by a dashing young man called Tom Lefroy.

“His family disapproved of the match and whisked him back to Ireland. So she lived most of her life in a fairly quiet way, particularly after the family moved to Chawton. In Bath they had a busier life, and Austen visited London more than people tend to realise, but she certainly wasn't part of any racy Regency set.”

Austen fell ill in 1816 and the next summer her family took her to Winchester for treatment, but she died peacefully on July 18, 1817 and was buried in Winchester Cathedral.

The fact that audiences are bound to flock to the cinema this weekend to see the latest version of her most famous work is testimony to its lasting appeal.

t Pride and Prejudice (U) previews at some cinemas on Wednesday and Thursday, then opening nationally on Friday, September 16.

t Matthew Macfadyen was born in Yarmouth in 1974, the son of an oil industry executive and a former drama teacher. But he doesn't seem to have hung around in Norfolk for long - the family moved to Scotland and Indonesia when he was young, and much of his childhood was spent on the move owing to his father's job. He is married to the actress Keeley Hawes, one of his co-stars in Spooks, and they have a daughter. Romantic drama is not entirely new to him - he made his TV debut in a 1998 production of Wuthering Heights in the role of Hareton Earnshaw.

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