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All about Austen for Norfolk lovers of Pride and Prejudice

PUBLISHED: 09:59 28 January 2013 | UPDATED: 09:59 28 January 2013

The Norfolk branch of The Jane Austen Society, pictured at Heydon. Left to right, Julia Gibbs, Kerry Nicholls, Alex Hurrell, Philippa Long and Rita Maslen

The Norfolk branch of The Jane Austen Society, pictured at Heydon. Left to right, Julia Gibbs, Kerry Nicholls, Alex Hurrell, Philippa Long and Rita Maslen

Archant Norfolk 2013

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Famous for its exploration of manners, morals, relationships and disappointments, Austen's masterpiece will be celebrated throughout 2013. STACIA BRIGGS meets some of her Norfolk fans.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” – so begins Jane Austen’s most famous novel, the sparkling tale of the Bennets, their five daughters and a mother desperate to marry her girls to rich suitors.

The tempestuous pairing of the witty, independent Elizabeth and her arrogant but honourable suitor, Mr Darcy, set the gold standard for great couples of the stage and screen.

Few literary romances can hold a candle to Austen’s masterpiece which charts the love story of a couple who, in order to love each other, must recognise their own faults and overcome both pride and prejudice.

Alex Hurrell is a member of the Norfolk branch of The Jane Austen Society, a group which meets several times a year. “We might have a theme to talk about which might be about Austen’s novels, there might be a new book which critiques her work we can discuss or we might be doing dramatic readings from her novels in Empire dresses – well, apart from the men, obviously,” Alex laughed.

“The youngest member of the group is 17 but I must confess that she’s the exception to the rule and there’s probably about a 25-year age gap between her and the rest of us but we all share the same complete passion for Jane Austen and it’s led to a bond that’s produced friendships.”

The Norfolk branch of the UK-wide society has been in existence for around 15 years.

Alex has been a member of the national society for 35 years despite her earliest brush with Austen being somewhat less than a pleasure. “I studied Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey when I was at school and they are my least favourite Austen novels. The language was a slight barrier, they didn’t portray the world of my teenage life and I can see why many people are put off Austen at an early age if they’re force-fed it at school,” she said.

“I remember thinking that I’d far rather go to the pub with Mary Crawford than I would Fanny Price and she’s Mansfield Park’s heroine.

“I think it’s a mistake for schools to choose the books that are the least accessible – Pride and Prejudice would be a more obvious choice because it’s laugh-out-loud funny, it’s energetic and the characters are people you can relate to. Mansfield Park is a novel to come to later.”

Alex believes the enduring appeal of Pride and Prejudice has a great deal to do with the themes it explores which are as relevant today as they were 200 years ago: love, security, marriage, money, pride and the search for a happy-ever-after.

“In many ways, Austen’s novels are timeless: they talk about the human condition and in truth, none of us really vary so very much across the ages and across the classes – we still look for love and happiness,” she said.

“Austen also tells a rollicking good love story. She was groundbreaking and it’s a complete mystery as to how a vicar’s daughter became such a genius – I somewhat selfishly thank the Lord that she never married and didn’t produce children or we’d have never have had these incredible books.

“It makes you wonder how many lost women geniuses there were because their time was eaten up playing the role of wife and mother.”

Jane was born in Steventon in 1775, the seventh child of George Austen and Cassandra Leigh Austen. In her lifetime, she completed six novels: Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion.

Her mother was from a higher social rank than her father, a theme that ran through many of her novels.

Her first love was Tom Lefroy, the Irish nephew of her close friend Anne Lefroy. Realising that Tom would lose his inheritance if he married “a nobody”, Anne hurried her cousin out of harm’s way when their romance came to her attention. The romance inspired the 2007 film Becoming Jane – directed by Julian Jarrold of the famous Norfolk family – and which starred Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy.

The popularity of Pride and Prejudice has seen it re-enacted on screen no fewer than nine times, but it’s the BBC’s 1995 five-hour mini-series which endures in the mind of many viewers, not least for Colin Firth’s portrayal of Mr Darcy and in particular the impromptu swim his character Mr Darcy takes before meeting Elizabeth Bennet.

Tantalisingly, director Simon Langton has admitted that the initial plan was to see Firth stripped naked before leaping into the water but the BBC stepped in and pointed out that nudity might be taking things a step too far for a Jane Austen costume drama.

The plan was then revised to Firth diving into the water wearing only his underwear but this was also deemed too racy and so Mr Darcy entered the water fully-clothed bar his waistcoat.

“Every year I’d go to the national Jane Austen Society’s annual meeting at Chawton [where Austen lived for the last eight years of her life] which is a very, very English affair – we’d have a talk from a guest speaker such as Roy Hattersley or PD James and then tea on the lawn,” said Alex.

“I remember going the year before the TV series with Colin Firth and there were a couple of hundred people there – the year after the series it was absolutely packed and there were TV cameras there!

“I feel a bit sorry for Jennifer Ehle who put in a very good performance as Elizabeth but no one remembers her name, they just think of Colin Firth coming out of the lake!”

Alex’s favourite Austen novels are Persuasion and Emma (“as you get older and the skippity sparkliness of Pride and Prejudice wears off, you might feel past your bloom but these novels offer hope that that wonderful man will come and take you to his bosom, that it’s not too late”), her favourite hero is Persuasion’s Captain Wentworth (“he gives a speech to Anne Elliot that would melt any heart”) and she believes she’d have liked Jane Austen had she met her.

“I’d have been a bit wary of her because she had a way of constantly analysing people, but I know she’d have been really good fun, too,” she said.

A vivid story-teller and narrator of comedy and romance, an ironic social commentator and for many the trailblazer for today’s “chick lit” with her timeless insights on love and marriage, Jane Austen’s appeal looks set to continue long into the future.

Happy birthday, Pride and Prejudice.

t For more information about events happening to mark the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice, visit www.prideandprejudice200.org.uk

t For details of the Norfolk branch of The Jane Austen Society, visit www.janeaustensoci.freeuk.com

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