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Illustration by Kagan McLeod
Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Newsmaker: Elizabeth Bennet

The fictional life of Elizabeth Bennet, the main character of the novel Pride and Prejudice.

She was neither the prettiest of the sisters - Jane was clearly "The Family Beauty" - nor the eldest; Jane was that too. Nor was she the cleverest - that was Mary - nor even the liveliest; Lydia took that prize. She was carelessly educated and, due to that chauvinistic sting-in-the-tail, the entail, her fortune amounted to a mere £50 a year. How then, did Miss Elizabeth Bennet come to be the most loved heroine in the history of fiction?

Two hundred years ago this month, a parcel arrived at Chawton Cottage in the English county of Hampshire addressed to Miss Jane Austen. It contained a three-volume novel, Pride and Prejudice by "The Author of Sense and Sensibility".

The work had begun in October 1796 under the title First Impressions when its author, like its heroine, was 20 and attending balls at the nearby assembly rooms and was falling in love (with an Irishman named Tom Lefroy). By August 1797, the story of Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters of Longbourn was complete. That it took 16 years to find a publisher seems incredible. And yet, as recently as a decade ago, a mischievous fan sent out manuscripts of Pride and Prejudice - retitled and with nothing but names and minor details altered -only to find it rejected by three publishers and recognised by a fourth.

While William Wordsworth thought it unimaginative and Madame de StaŽl dismissed it as "vulgaire", others hailed the brilliance of Austen's novel and the charm of her heroine. Sir Walter Scott wore his copy out as he recognised "a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which to me is the most wonderful I ever met with". Annabella Milbanke thought it a "very superior workÖ the most probable fiction I have ever read". She found the "interest is very strong, especially for Mr Darcy". One can only speculate on the effect this had on her; within a year, she had married England's most dashing bachelor, Lord Byron.

What was new and almost revolutionary, as Susannah Fullerton relates in her Celebrating Pride and Prejudice (Voyageur Press, 2013), was a heroine like Elizabeth Bennet. Heroes, such as Tristram Shandy, Robinson Crusoe and Tom Jones abounded, but women, such as Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa and Frances Burney's Evelina, Cecilia and Camilla, were models of deportment and decorum - perfect, passive ciphers, subservient, and sometimes victims of superior men. Fordyce's Sermons called on a young lady hoping for matrimony to "sit quietly, repress her wit and always obey her parents and betters". This is the very book that the ghastly Mr Collins reads to the Bennet sisters when he comes to propose himself.

But Elizabeth Bennet, sometimes known as Lizzie, is made of different stuff. In Chapter Two she contradicts her silly mother: "But you forget, mama, that we shall meet him at the assemblies."

When she does meet Mr Bingley and his friend, Mr Darcy refers to her as "tolerable but not handsome enough". Her reaction is neither to blush nor look crushed; she laughs. This strength, this wit and this charm is the essence of Elizabeth Bennet, as Austen describes her - "a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous". She refuses Mr Collins and defies her mother in doing so. She refuses Mr Darcy on his first tortured proposal, she stands up to Lady Catherine and she learns from her mistakes.

And yet, despite her charms, she, and the novel, fell into a sort of slumber, as it was remaindered after Austen's death in 1817. But Elizabeth Bennet continued to collect devotees. Robert Louis Stevenson fell in love with her. George Eliot and her lover would read the novel aloud to each other. Disraeli read Austen's "darling child" 17 times. A turning point came in 1870 with the publication of A Memoir of Jane Austen by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh. Austen would reach almost divine status during the First World War as Pride and Prejudice found its way into the trenches. Rudyard Kipling sought comfort from it on the death of his son. In the next war, Winston Churchill had his daughter Sarah read it to him in Tunisia as he was planning Operation Overlord. He was comforted by "what calm lives they had".

The sleeping beauty was now wide awake but, as Claire Harman relates in Jane's Fame (2009), it was the 1995 six-part BBC television adaptation, starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth as Elizabeth and Mr Darcy, that made the novel a phenomenon. A real-life, off-screen fling helped fuel the flames. The director Andrew Davies took liberties by having Firth dive into the lake at Pemberley (his country estate) and emerge in a wet undershirt, thus setting off Darcyphilia. Among a marketing frenzy, tote bags appeared: "Dibs on Darcy - you can have Wickham". This was accompanied by Lizzie-mania and together they and the novel went global. Martin Amis, the British novelist, declared Jane hotter than Quentin Tarantino.

Translations - from Albanian to Vietnamese - are now available. It is Trots en Vooroodeel in Dutch; in Italian it's Orgoglio e Pregiudizio. As Fullerton relates, the immortal first line in American Indian Ojibwe reads: "It is true living knowledge that when a man alone has something of value, women may want to walk with him."

Like Oliver Twist, fans have wanted more than a single serving, and to the horror of true fans, sequels, retellings and travesties have mutated. In 1994, Emma Tennant produced An Unequal Marriage. In 2008, Colleen McCullough published The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet. Neither proved very pleasing, and last year, PD James wrote Death Comes to Pemberley, which was six years after Austen saw Elizabeth and Darcy wed. While the tone is for the most part Austenian, with Lady Catherine dead, Mr Collins absent and Mrs Bennet rarely there, Lizzie lacks the foils she needs to shine.

In the 2003 Bollywood film Bride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet dons a sari as Lalita Bakshi. In 2001, Helen Fielding emerged with the loose and inflated novel Bridget Jones's Diary, which was turned into a film that cleverly cast Firth again as Mr Darcy. In 2005, 65 years after Greer Garson's turn, Keira Knightley became the cinematic face of Elizabeth Bennet in a conventional, well-received version.

Intriguingly, Austen never gave a physical description of her heroine (apart from "tolerable" teeth and beautiful dark eyes), leaving it to her readers to provide one for themselves. And yet, according to Patricia Meyer Spacks - the editor of the annotated edition of the novel - Austen once saw a portrait at an exhibition that exactly matched her perception of Elizabeth Bennet in every detail (Spacks tracked it down and believes it was a portrait of one of George IV's mistresses. Surely, an Austen joke).

While purists - Janeites - would prefer this enthusiasm were poured into reading of the novel, the 21st century has harnessed all its e-wizardry to embrace it. Audio books offer the unabridged version of eleven-and-a-half hours - or one of 54 minutes. Elizabeth Bennet's story can be read on Kindle, iPad or Kobo. Google and Twitter offer it free. The BBC has an online social game on Facebook, Jane Austen's Rogues and Romance, dedicated to Mr Darcy and his friend George Wickham. Hank Green, a YouTube blogger, has created The Lizzie Bennet Dairies featuring a modern-day Elizabeth Bennet posting video blogs of her life.

The most audacious adaptation (well, apart from Miranda Pillow's Pride and Prejudice: The Wild and Wanton Edition) is surely Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009), which retains 85 per cent of Austen's beloved text but, with the remaining 15, makes Elizabeth Bennet a deadly slayer of the undead. She is about to behead Darcy when he distracts her by proposing marriage.

That the legend, the imperfect paragon that is Elizabeth Bennet has survived two centuries of neglect, obsession, exploitation and abuse is a testament to her qualities - and her universal appeal.

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