Jane Austen’s England: Visit Bath as ‘Pride And Prejudice’ Turns 200

The first edition of Jane Austen’s “Pride And Prejudice” hit bookstore shelves two centuries ago this week. Since then, this quintessential novel has been spun into everything from a Bollywood flick to postage stamps, Jane Austen bandages and a Regency romance with ultra-violent zombie mayhem.

Even the Sundance Film Festival got into the swing this year, screening “Austenland,” a movie based on the enduring obsession with Colin Firth's star turn as Mr. Darcy. Just to recap, that’s a rom-com riffing on a 1995 BBC miniseries of a book published in 1813. Clearly, ripples still radiate from the stones Austen lobbed into the reflecting pond of the middle-class English soul.

Happily, plenty of exploration remains for ardent fans who go against the author’s feeling that “there is nothing like staying at home for real comfort.”

Bath, England — 120 miles west of London — celebrates its most famous (if reluctant) resident with the Jane Austen Centre at 40 Gay Street. Visitors can don bonnets and top hats as they tour an exhibition about the writer’s time in the city and how her surroundings influenced her work. They may also nibble crumpets and sip champagne in the Regency Tea Room, open year round, or bow and twirl at the Summer Ball on June 22.

Each Saturday and Sunday, Austen-themed walking tours perambulate through this Georgian spa town, named a World Heritage Site for its Roman-era thermal pools, signature golden-stone buildings and elegant sweeps of neoclassical architecture. The 90-minute stroll passes houses where the author lived, as well as her settings for the novels “Persuasion” and “Northanger Abbey” (about $9, departing from KC Change Visitor Information Centre in Abbey Churchyard).

Guests can also wander at their leisure with an iPod/iPhone app (about $3) or a free 15-chapter MP3 guide, “In the Footsteps of Jane Austen.” Visit Bath, the city's official tourism agency, also supplies a wealth of tips on experiencing the “Pride And Prejudice” lifestyle.

Still can’t get enough of Austen’s social satire and the pangs of disappointed love? Don’t despair: Bath hosts an annual Jane Austen Festival, running from September 13-21 this year, which includes a Mr. Darcy-lookalike contest.

Sure, it’s a long way to go for a cravat, a smoldering glance or even a re-enactment of Firth’s now-legendary wet-shirt scene at the lake. But the “P&P” hero did top the Orange Prize’s list of literary dream dates in a 2003 poll — and the fervor shows no sign of slowing as Darcy and other beloved characters hit their bicentennial.

As Austen herself once said, “distance is nothing when one has a motive.”

Getting there: British Airways flies from various cities in the States to London. Catch a National Express bus from Heathrow or Gatwick airports — or hop a domestic route into Bristol, 20 miles southeast of Bath.

by Amanda Castleman