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Pride And Prejudice, And A Pandemic by Rosie Willoughby

I have returned to Pride and Prejudice time and time again. I’ve watched its many adaptations on repeat, and its timeless characters have been my constant companions ever since I first read the novel in primary school. From Elizabeth’s impertinent wit to Darcy’s mix of arrogance and awkwardness, Jane Austen gave us real characters to relate to. Their initial dislike of one another blossoms into mutual respect over the course of the book, and is a theme I love to see in other books and films. With the 2005 adaptation being an annual rewatch, I’ve never been far from the story, but in this past eighteen months I’ve found myself turning back to both the book and the film repeatedly: a glimmer of comfort during a time that has otherwise been tumultuous.

And I haven’t been alone! My social media has been filled with people picking up the book for the first time, or returning to it in the same way I have. In 2021, Pride and Prejudice became the oldest book to become a Platinum winner at the Nielsen Bestseller Awards, meaning it sold at least one million copies in the UK over a period of five consecutive years. Countless polls and surveys have highlighted peoples’ love for the story - not least the 20 million copies it has sold since its original publication.

“I would say Pride and Prejudice really shaped the kind of romantic relationships and dynamics I was interested in seeing in other stories,” says Tay, another fan on Twitter, who was first introduced to the 2005 adaptation at the age of 15. Like me, it appears the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy has become hugely inspirational to what Tay looks for when discovering something new. It’s really the first step into the popular enemies-to-lovers trope, and my favourite theme: the discovery that two opposed characters are actually more similar than they ever realised, who understand each other “like others don’t.” The novel, though rooted in uniquely Regency issues such as dowries and entails, still holds relevant and resonant romantic themes: “I was just so intrigued with Lizzie and her attitude towards love," says Tay, "because that was my EXACT attitude.”

"The novel, though rooted in uniquely Regency issues such as dowries and entails, still holds relevant and resonant romantic themes..."

Pride and Prejudice is one of those rare books that can capture the heart of readers the world over, and has held its place as a classic for over 200 years. It has the power to influence what we look for in the future, and maybe even inspire real life opinions on romance. This past year has even displayed slight spikes in searches related to the novel that have approximately aligned with global lockdown and stay-at-home orders: people are turning towards Pride and Prejudice just as much as they always have.

I think I can explain why. Not only are the general themes of the story still relatable to a 21st century audience, but the underlying anxiety of the novel connects a surprising amount to pandemic anxiety. The Bennet family face an uncertain future, with their finances shortly to be in disrepair upon Mr Bennet’s death: an easily understandable concern to audiences today, who are also contending with financial issues and fear of the future during the pandemic. Even the 19th century setting of the novel leads to surprisingly similar behaviours from the characters and how we might act today. In the 2005 film especially, the cinematography emphasises isolation and distance between characters, whether that be in Bingley and Jane’s engagement, which seems to take place six feet apart, or the famous ‘hand flex’ scene as Darcy helps Elizabeth into a carriage. As Keira Knightley (Elizabeth Bennet) said in a behind-the-scenes interview, men and women in that time period “didn’t really touch,” so it feels significant to watch this first moment, as they begin to realise their more complicated feelings towards each other. Viewing this scene nowadays is like we’ve been sent back to 1813: in this century, it’s completely normal to shake hands, hug or kiss as a greeting - but this year all of us have been forced apart, we don’t quite know whether to stand apart or go in for a hug. Seeing the close proximity in this scene suddenly appears much more intimate, and certainly evokes the closest feeling to what readers may have felt about Elizabeth and Darcy’s interactions at the time.

"The cinematography emphasises isolation and distance between characters..."

Even the countryside setting is ripe for comparison to the lockdown era. In recent times when hardly anything was open, I spent most of my time taking walks across hills, fields and farms. I’m not saying Pride and Prejudice has informed how I took my once-a-day exercise, but the romantic framing of walking through the grass in gentle sunlight certainly helped. After all, who hasn’t wanted to look like Keira Knightley striding over a sepia-toned hillside?

I didn’t choose Surrey based on its similarity to the world of the novel, but it was a surprising bonus to arrive in Guildford and feel like I could step into the pages of my favourite novel with every step into the countryside around the university. Jane Austen spent most of her life in Hampshire and Surrey, which inspired the world her characters inhabited. Box Hill, a peak on the North Downs that lies just 20 miles from the University, is used as the backdrop in a scene from her 1815 novel, Emma. Towns close to Guildford such as Leatherhead, Esher and Dorking are thought to have served as the inspiration for the settings of Emma and The Watsons. Having grown up on Pride and Prejudice and similar period stories, it feels like coming full circle to now live so close to the locations that inspired the writing of my favourite one.

It’s a book I can turn to when I can’t seem to read anything else, and a film I could watch endlessly and get something new each time. On a bad day, turning towards this bygone era feels refreshing, like opening the door to a completely new world. “The story is essentially a fantasy but lived out in real life,” says Tay, and I completely agree. It doesn’t need dragons or magic to be a fantasy - a happy ending for a smart woman from the 1800s? It’s every woman readers’ dream. Where the ending could be seen as predictable or traditional to modern audiences, it’s the context of this book being written by and for women that sets it apart. These were women who didn’t dare anticipate their own Darcy on the horizon, but had to consider settling in the same way Charlotte Lucas had to. Pride and Prejudice - its ending, and what it says to women - is revolutionary.

"It doesn't need dragons or magic to be a fantasy..."

It’s easy to dismiss classic novels for their wordiness and I don’t blame you, but Pride and Prejudice has been a story to turn to at all points of my life so far, and to have it has been indispensable. Maybe Miss Bingley says it best: “There is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book!” And if you’re not into books, the 2005 adaptation is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. At times like this, it’s worth knowing where your nearest cheer-up movie is, and I know exactly where I'll find mine.

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