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Before Downton: Happy 200th Anniversary, Pride and Prejudice

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Before there was Downton Abbey, there was Derbyshire, the county in which stood the fine grounds of Pemberly, the house whose brooding, handsome master, Fitzwilliam Darcy, turned Colin Firth into an instant star, capturing the hearts of viewers around the world when BBC first aired its miniseries, Pride and Prejudice, almost a generation ago.

But before Firth, the real credit goes to Darcy's creator, author Jane Austen, who lived and wrote more than a century before TV was ever invented.

This day, this week, marks 200 years since readers first clapped eyes on what was to become one of the most memorable first lines in English literature: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

Thus begins the story of Darcy, that single man in possession of a good fortune, good looks, and a good deal of arrogance, and Elizabeth: smart, beautiful, headstrong, and as good as penniless. By all accounts, (for you Downton devotees out there) their love story seems as doomed as Tom Branson and Lady Sybil's.

What unfolds instead is a romance that spans the ages and remains as captivating as anything Shakespeare put his name or pen to. In the last decade, Pride and Prejudice has spawned spin-offs as diverse as Hollywood hit "Bridget Jones' Diary," to Bollywood homage in 2004's "Bride and Prejudice," to best-selling mystery author PD James' 2011 tribute Death Comes to Pemberly to the regrettable Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

What's with the mystique?

Perhaps it's that two centuries after her characters first sprang from Austen's imagination, freshly coifed, wearing figure-forgiving empire frocks, embroidery in hand, we still identify with the heroines of her world.

After all, what could be more contemporary than Elizabeth Bennett's rapier wit, acerbic tongue and her chutzpah? Lizzie has the guts to turn down Mr. Wrong (in the form of a bumbling Mr. Collins) when Mr. Right is nowhere in the picture. And when he does show up, she makes Darcy work for her affections, holding out for love when poverty dictates she really ought to be marrying for money.

Be it 1813 or 2013, seeing the smouldering tension between two lovers who haven't quite figured out they're mad about each other, well that's timeless too.

In some ways, Pride and Prejudice shows how far women have come, or haven't.
Lizzie is censured for her independence, and for being resigned to the fact that she would, as she confided to sister Jane, "end an old maid, and teach your ten children to embroider cushions and play their instruments very ill."

It highlights the desperate conditions of women of the 1800s. Barred by class from earning their own income, barred by law from inheriting property, they lived an anxious, frantic existence, where a proper young lady's full-time occupation was to find a rich husband. You think the bar scene tiresome? That online dating is only for drips? Imagine your only chances at economic security and upward mobility depending solely on your success at making small talk at a few dances every year.

Fast forward 200 years. We have the vote, we have property. We have reproductive rights and laws protecting us from gender discrimination in the workplace. We build careers, buy homes, manage car payments, travel and pursue interesting hobbies on the side.

Sadly, for those of us still single, everyone still wants to know when you're going to settle down.

How pervasive is Jane-Mania? Consider that five years ago, some 550 delegates came to Vancouver to attend a convention of the Jane Austen Society of North America. Or that this anniversary is being marked with a 12-hour Internet broadcast of fans and academics and even celebrities reading the novel in real time to millions around the world.

One wonders what the snarky rich dowager in Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine De Bourgh of Rosings Park, would think about Lady Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham. I think Lady Catherine would seriously disapprove of Lady Violet's practicality. I think Lady Violet wouldn't care.

It's why, when love conquers all, Lady Catherine isn't invited to the wedding of her nephew Darcy to the lovely Elizabeth. And it's why we continue to love Pride and Prejudice, all these 200 years later.

Author's note: this post includes a few passages I first wrote for a column published in October 2007.