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More pride, more prejudice: Jane Austen given new life as sequels thrive

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Jane Austen in Boca: A Novel substitutes Regency Era England for a modern-day retirement community in Florida. (Jill Peterson)

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Jane Austen's classic novel has inspired an endless variety of sequels and spinoffs. (Jill Peterson)

At the end of Jane Austen’s "Pride and Prejudice," Elizabeth is married to Mr. Darcy, and Jane is married to Mr. Bingley. In the book’s closing sequence, Austen writes, “Jane and Elizabeth, in addition to every other source of happiness, were within thirty miles of each other.”

And then what happened? Austen published the novel in 1813 and died four years later. But fans who can’t get enough need not worry. The sequels and spinoffs keep coming.

"Pride and Prejudice" is the story of the courtship between clever Elizabeth Bennet and dour Fitzwilliam Darcy. The book puts readers into the center of English village life in the Regency era. Austen’s descriptions of her characters are so dead-on that readers today recognize themselves, their annoying relatives and their nosy neighbors in her work.

Books and series like the "Fitzwilliam Darcy Gentleman" trilogy by Pamela Aidan drop readers back into the settings they adore. Aidan began retelling "Pride and Prejudice" from Darcy's perspective 10 years ago. She posted chapters on a fan fiction site for fellow Austen lovers. Aidan's stories were so popular that she decided to publish them herself and sold 40,000 books in two years.

Writers are legally permitted to sell work using Austen's characters, because her books have long been out from under copyright restrictions.

Simon and Schuster picked up Aidan's series in 2005, after having had success with Elizabeth Aston's "Mr. Darcy's Daughters." Austen mania "is a steady thing," said Amanda Patten, the editor who acquired the Aidan books. "People can't get enough. It doesn't seem like there is any end in sight.”

The surge began after the 1995 BBC/A&E six-part miniseries of "Pride and Prejudice" (which starred Colin Firth as Darcy). More than 100 sequels, spinoffs and parallel novels have been published, and countless others are up on fan sites and in newsletters. The movie "Becoming Jane," a biopic about Austen’s life starring Anne Hathaway, will be released this summer.

In one book series, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy solve mysteries. Other sequels follow the adventures of minor characters like Georgiana Darcy, the hero’s younger sister, or the snobbish and controlling Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Still others place Austen’s story lines and characters in contemporary settings.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s 2002 "Jane Austen in Boca: A Novel" takes place at a retirement community in Florida and revolves around elderly Jewish widows. One character (named Pixie Solomon) declares that she relates more to Mrs. Bennet's struggles to marry off her five daughters than she does to the romantic leads.

Cohen followed that book with "Jane Austen and Scarsdale: Or Love, Death and the SAT’s."

“There’s enough in Jane Austen to fill a universe,” said Diana Birchall, author of "Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma."

Birchall, 60, said she knew "Pride and Prejudice" practically by heart and sometimes set it aside for a year so she could come back and re-read it fresh. “Anyone can read it and find something in it--from the smartest people to ‘Lydias,’” she said, referring to Elizabeth’s ditzy younger sister who nearly ruins her older sisters’ chances to marry well.

Birchall is a story analyst at Warner Brothers. For the past 35 years she has read up to three novels a week to see which ones would make good movies. “She is the sanest writer I’ve ever read,” Birchall said of Austen. “I think she makes her readers saner.”

Birchall, who described herself as a loud-mouthed New York lady, said she learned manners from Austen and how to be a better judge of character.

Rachel Brownstein, the 2006 Goucher College Jane Austen scholar, said she wasn’t entirely a fan of the sequels. “I can’t tolerate them for long because they’re not the real thing,” she said. “It’s like eating second-rate chocolate.”

One thing everyone agrees on is that fans cannot get enough of Mr. Darcy. “Darcy is the gentleman of gentlemen,” Brownstein said, “which is not to be confused with a gentleman’s gentleman,” which in Austen’s times was a manservant.

“If it has Darcy in the title they go crazy,” said Maggie Sullivan, the creator of AustenBlog and author of "The Jane Austen Handbook.” “I do think it goes back to Colin Firth” in the miniseries."

Sullivan started AustenBlog in 2005, the year the "Pride and Prejudice" movie starring Keira Knightley came out, because she saw a need for a clearinghouse for all related Austen news. The site gets 1,200 visitors a day.

Sullivan said sometimes she used Darcy in the title of her posts just to see how many more hits the name garners.

True Austen aficionados don’t only read "Pride and Prejudice," though. There are three coming movies based on the other Austen novels--"Sense and Sensibility," "Persuasion" and "Northanger Abbey"--and information about them is constantly updated on AustenBlog and elsewhere in Jane land.

“I’m hoping to see more books related to the other novels,” Sullivan said. “But I don’t know if they’d be as popular.”

E-mail: mrk2105@columbia.edu