Amongst her own contemporaries, Jane Austen was not regarded as a literary phenomenon. The rise of the female novelist in the late 18th – early 19th century is well documented, and Austen’s original readership would already be devouring the popular and often sensational works of Fanny Burney, Ann Radcliffe, Maria Edgeworth and Hannah More. This is not to imply that female writers were ten a penny, or that publishers were welcoming them with open arms – thirty years after Jane’s death, the Bronte sisters were still so fearful of the stigma attached to female authors that they published under male pseudonyms – but the precedent had been set, success had already been achieved by others, and while Jane Austen’s work was praised and admired, it wasn’t regarded as unique. Today however, when it could be said (and has been!) that female writers ARE ten a penny, she is definitely regarded as unique – a literary phenomenon still topping the bestseller lists two hundred years after her death.

The reason? Her characters. Psychologically believable and instantly recognisable, they’re unshackled by their historical context and still make perfect sense to us today. Look at it this way: while many of us may lament the fact that we’ve never encountered Mr Darcy, I’ll bet we all know a Mr & Mrs Bennet with teenage daughter Lydia (‘Pride and Prejudice’), a ditsy Marianne Dashwood convinced she’s met Mr Right when he’s obviously Mr Wrong (‘Sense and Sensibility’), a fussy, nervous, dependent father like Mr Woodhouse (‘Emma’), and a small-minded, manipulative Mrs Norris (‘Mansfield Park’). Austen’s characters, like Shakespeare’s, can and have been played in modern dress and language in present-day settings without having to change a single sentiment expressed or a single reaction to their situations. They’re utterly memorable because they’re utterly believable.

There’s one Austen character who seems to me to achieve this feat without being allowed one single word of dialogue: Anne de Bourgh, Lady Catherine’s ‘spoilt, sickly’ daughter from ‘Pride and Prejudice’. Fussed over by her former governess Mrs Jenkinson, Anne sits silent and lumpen while her mother holds court and Mr Collins pontificates, Elizabeth Bennet sparkles and Fitzwilliam Darcy smoulders and sulks. She is described as ‘pale and sickly; her features, though not plain, were insignificant’. Her mother assures the assembled guests that she would have ‘performed delightfully’ upon the piano ‘if her health had allowed her to apply’. She appears to speak not one word to Elizabeth Bennet or Maria Lucas during the whole of their visit to Kent, though on their final departure she ‘[exerts] herself so far as to courtesy and hold out her hand to both’. We are given no hint of her feelings towards her cousin and supposed fiance, Mr Darcy, who is courting Elizabeth under her very nose; his casual indifference towards her, however, is made abundantly clear.

The first time I saw Anne de Bourgh portrayed with any individuality on screen was by Moir Leslie in the 1980s BBC adaptation starring Elizabeth Garvie and Nicholas Rintoul. When Anne ‘holds out her hand’ to take leave of Elizabeth Bennet for the last time, she actually grasps her by the arm and looks into her eyes with timid longing, as though wishing she’d been able to pluck up the courage to make friends. That brief scene set me wondering – what would Anne’s story be, what perspective might she have on the courtship and eventual marriage of her cousin to this lively, witty usurper? What must her childhood have been like, with such an overbearing mother? What was her relationship with her late father? Why was she so sickly and delicate? What happened to her after Darcy and Elizabeth married? These were the questions that eventually led me to write ‘Before Elizabeth: The Story of Anne de Bourgh’, and which I’ve tried to answer as believably as possible in a writing style as close to Jane Austen’s own as I could make it. It takes the form of a diary, in which Anne looks back at her childhood and early youth, recalls her father, her cousins, her formative years, and tries to gain some insight into her own state of mind and situation. The ending I’ve imagined for her may come as a bit of a surprise … why not celebrate Jane Austen’s bicentenary with a delve into one of her most neglected characters?