by Laurie Viera Rigler, author of Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict
[This post continues my ongoing series of guest posts for About.com's Classic Literature blog]
There's something terribly exciting about taking part in a national event, be it the presidential debates or the weekly Austen-related offerings from PBS's Masterpiece. And although we Austen addicts love grumbling about the film renderings of our beloved author's work almost as much, or perhaps more, than we adore grousing over the incivilities of presidential hopefuls, one would be hard-pressed to find fault with the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice, which airs in three parts beginning Feb. 10, 2008.
Yes, my friends, there is much cause for rejoicing, for not only is the 1995 P&P longer than any of the new upstart adaptations (five hours as opposed to the scant 90-plus minutes allotted to Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion, and even those were lopt and cropt for the US broadcast), it is gratifyingly faithful to text. Of course, this beloved version of P&P has five hours to do so. And let's not forget the famous Wet Shirt Scene (though truth be told, I find the Fencing Scene infinitely hotter).
Some have posited that Colin Firth and Keira Knightley (in the 1995 and 2005 P&P films, respectively) have done more to fuel these two decades-worth of Austen-mania than the books themselves. In all fairness, we must consider the relative positions of books and movies. The books, like Anne Eliot in Persuasion, live at home, quiet and confined, on shelves and nightstands, while their cinematic pretenders preen on red carpets and grab the headlines. Nevertheless, Emma Thompson said it best when she accepted the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay (Sense and Sensibility): "Everybody involved in the making of this film knows that we owe all our pride and all our joy to the genius of Jane Austen." Indeed. Were it not for the genius of Austen, there would be no Darcy and Elizabeth to play.
Pride and Prejudice is the most famous and popular of all the Austen novels. It is also arguably the most adaptable to the screen. The reasons are manifold.
On a surface level, Pride and Prejudice is a fairytale. Poor (relatively speaking) girl ends up, against all odds, living happily ever after with the rich, handsome prince. This fairytale attribute is universally appealing, as is the brilliant wit with which Austen delivers her story.
Those who see only a light comedic romance in Pride and Prejudice do, alas, miss the most important reasons for its enduring appeal. Jane Austen herself, in a letter to her sister Cassandra following the publication of P&P, comically presaged this popular misconception: "Upon the whole... I am well satisfied enough. The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story: an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparté, or anything that would form a contrast…"
A discerning reader will find that this story is also a story of empowerment, of control over one's destiny, and of an emerging meritocracy. For the heroine of P&P and her hero, their rewards come not merely through any advantages of birth and inherited wealth, but rather through the hard work of self-examination, revelation, and voluntary shifts in attitudes and behavior. Imagine the appeal of such a story back in Austen's class-stratified day. Consider its appeal today, in our world of make your own destiny, re-invent yourself, and hard work wins the day.
For if we, like Elizabeth Bennet, see that the very flaws that annoy us in others (in her case, the vanity and pride of Mr. Darcy) are merely reflections of our own failings, we will be rewarded. Elizabeth's vanity causes her to trust the wrong man. Her pride makes her blind to the merits of the right man. Her ultimate self-revelation and humility are painful but highly rewarding. If we, like Elizabeth, engage in the hard work of honest self-examination (as in her famous line, Till this moment, I never knew myself), the rewards are immeasurable, though they may not necessarily take the form of Mr. Darcy and Pemberley.
As for Mr. Darcy's hard work and consequent reward, is there anything more satisfying than watching "the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world" humbled by the realization that it would take a lot more than a big bank balance to win the girl? Says Darcy to Elizabeth, "You shewed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased." Hearing his confession gives us hope that maybe, just maybe, there is justice in the world.
So yes, we can let the Mr. Darcys of the world waltz into town and buy their way into our heart or business or country, or we can own our power to make them prove that their worth goes deeper than their wallet. We can be like Elizabeth's best friend Charlotte Lucas, who sells out for money and security by marrying a man she does not love. Or we can be like Elizabeth Bennet, who, like Jane Austen herself, held out for more. Did Austen regret accepting, then turning down, the proposal of Harris Bigg-Wither, a man who was, according to JASNA past-president Joan Klingel Ray, three times wealthier than her fictional Mr. Darcy? Could Austen have seen herself in Elizabeth Bennet's thoughts when, after turning down Mr. Darcy's first proposal, she tours his great estate with her aunt and uncle? "And of this place," thought she, "I might have been mistress!"
The recent PBS offering, "Miss Austen Regrets," has a great deal to say on that score. I believe that if Austen had any regrets, they were of short duration. I believe that the satisfaction of sending four of her six great novels into the world (two were not published till after her death) and maintaining a close, lifelong relationship with her sister Cassandra more than compensated for the wealth and social consequence she gave up. As Claire Bellanti, Coordinator of JASNA-Southwest points out, it is unlikely that being the mistress of Harris Bigg-Wither's great estate (well, actually three great estates) and the mother of his children would have left any time for writing.
There is something else about Pride and Prejudice that gives it timeless resonance: the human propensity to make snap judgments (and often erroneous ones) about our fellow creatures. In the novel, Darcy's coldness and reserve at a public dance results in universal agreement on the part of Elizabeth and her neighbors: He is the proudest, most disagreeable man that ever was seen.
By the time Wickham appears in the story with his tale of ill-usage at the hands of Mr. Darcy, everyone, including the reader, is eager to believe it. But like all "truths universally acknowledged," this one tends to be as false as the rest.
The parallels between the prejudices in Pride and Prejudice and our enduring predisposition to prejudge individuals and entire races of people are staggering. From our eagerness to believe gossip overheard by the school lockers to our willingness to take as received wisdom the latest rumors in the break room, we are voluntary dupes of our own, and others', false judgments. We hear about the latest celebrity meltdown or trip to rehab, and we decide we know everything there is to know about that person. We hear one presidential candidate accusing another of misconduct, and we decide we know the whole truth.
Pride and Prejudice, and its creator, Jane Austen, know better.