Pride and Prejudice and Popcorn

It’s twenty years since the BBC’s definitive Pride and Prejudice, which launched the stellar careers of both Mr Darcy and Colin Firth, and became for many the gold standard of period drama in general, Jane Austen in particular. And it’s ten years since the ‘other’ version: the Keira Knightley one, with Matthew McFadyen as Darcy, Judi Dench as Lady Catherine, Brenda Blethyn and Donald Sutherland as the Bennets, and a then-unknown Carey Mulligan as Kitty. For ten years, prejudice prevented me from watching it, but this year, for some reason, I swallowed my pride. 

To my own surprise, I enjoyed it. It has nothing like the thoroughness or the stateliness, the grace of the BBC’s, but it has pleasures of its own. For one thing, it’s seductively beautiful. It glows. Indoor scenes are rich as Dutch paintings. Outdoors - where a good deal of the action takes place - woods, meadows and rivers shimmer in gorgeous light. Visually, it’s utterly romantic. It’s also, like Dutch painting, appealingly realist. We see washing and cooking as well as talking and dancing. The family shares Longbourn with their farm animals; as Guardian reviewer Peter Bradshaw put it “there is hardly a footfall out of doors that does not dislodge a hen or a goose.” This is of a piece with the film’s generally heightened physicality. Bodies, energies, even hormones, prevail. The electricity between Darcy and Elizabeth is palpable, especially when they touch. At Pemberley, Lizzy visits a gallery not of portraits but of sculptures. It also goes at a breakneck pace. There's hardly a still moment in the entire film.

There are elements here that ring true that were missing from the BBC’s. Keira Knightley’s strikingly lovely Lizzy is youthful and playful, where Jennifer Ehle, lovely though she was, played the part too soberly. Mrs Bennet is softened here, more silly than shrewish. Rosemund Pike’s angelic Jane doesn’t require any suspension of disbelief. Rupert Friend’s Wickham is believably attractive, if a little too dangerous. David Bamber’s Mr Collins would be hard to out-do, but Tom Hollander turns in a very creditable creep.

But other things are not quite right. Lydia is played as a sweet child, rather than an obnoxious teen. Georgiana is a bubbling extravert. Matthew McFadyen, lovely though he is, seemed more sad than proud. Bingley, for some reason, is played as a wittering fool. The Hursts, and Maria Lucas, were entirely absent. Still other things were definitely not right. Anyone who knows the period would find it jarring for Mr Bingley to pop into Jane’s bedchamber while she’s ill at Netherfield, or for Darcy to stride into Elizabeth’s to deliver his letter. Lady Catherine, oddly, shows up at the Bennets’ in the middle of the night. The scene where Lizzy accepts Darcy’s second proposal has them in their respective dressing gowns, meeting on the misty moors before breakfast. Other things feel even less true: Lizzy yelling "Leave me alone!" Charlotte Lucas yelling "Don't you dare judge me!”

These moments jar more on reflection than they do during the film. That’s because they fit into the film’s raised emotional volume, its adolescence, its romanticism. This film does for Austen what Baz Luhrmann did for Shakespeare: it brings great art to a new audience in a way that says more about the audience than the art.   As a movie, it’s enjoyable, but it’s a different kind of joy from the subtler, more decorous kind Austen usually delivers. It’s as if the director, Joe Wright, found the book insufferably tedious and thought he’d like Austen infinitely better if it were louder, grittier, racier - more romantic. Much more romantic, perhaps, but not near so much like Austen. 

Baby lit

Speaking of the matchless Miss Austen, Olivia has a baby version of Pride and Prejudice which tells the story, more or less, in fewer than 30 words. It's in fact a counting primer: “One English village, Two rich gentlemen, Three houses,” all the way up to “Ten thousand pounds a year.” It's clever and rather sweet, and it looks like this:

Olivia's cousin Elinor has a different baby version of the same novel, told in even fewer words, and illustrated with gorgeous photography. This is less educational for the under threes, but certainly a more faithful rendering of the story. It looks like this (note the muddy hem on Elizabeth's dress):

Both are lovely. I don't know if the babies prefer these classics to more contemporary infant literature, but for parents who like Jane Austen they're a delightful variation in a reading diet that otherwise consists almost entirely of bears. And ducks. So many ducks.

Jane Austen's inward world

There's plenty to read about the 200th birthday of Pride and Prejudice, but I especially enjoyed this piece from the archives of The Atlantic. It was published in 1863, on the novel's 50th anniversary. It's fascinating to read something so old that feels itself to be modern, so removed from its subject and yet so much closer to it than we are. In general the Victorians were not wild about Austen, preferring Dickens' more florid and surreal portraiture, or George Eliot's wider intellectual and social compass. But this reviewer, one Mrs R.C. Waterson, is warm and eloquent in her praise. She puts her finger on Austen's quiet genius: Infinite sameness, infinite variety, are not more apparent in the outward than in the inward world, and the work of that writer will alone be lasting who recognizes and embodies this eternal law of the great Author. Jane Austen possessed in a remarkable degree this rare intuition.” 

She quotes the diary of Walter Scott, who wrote in 1826 of Austen's exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from truth of the description and the sentiment.” And she concludes that though Austen will not be everyone's cup of tea (a nod to Charlotte Bronte, perhaps, who found Austen insipid), yet “while the English language is read, the world will always be provided with souls who can enjoy the rare excellence of that rich legacy left to them by her genius.” I couldn't agree more.

Jane Austen's private world

Pride and Prejudice, the world’s favourite novel, turned 200 last month. And while we’re contemplating its great age, it’s worth remembering that Jane Austen was 21 when she wrote it. It’s hard to name what it is about her novels, this one in particular, that makes them so enduringly appealing. They’re exquisitely observed, of course; nobody skewers a fop, a bore, a ninny, or a flirt like Austen could in one short sketch. They’re comic as well as dramatic and romantic. They’re full of moral marrow, memorable characters, beautifully drawn scenes and finely turned phrases. But I think above all, the reason they delight and intrigue us still is their exploration of a rich and complex inner life. 

Nothing is more often pointed out about Austen than that she turned away from the wider world of history and politics to write about the confined, unvarying world of a small domestic or parochial circle. In fact what she wrote about was not an outer world at all, large or small, but an inner world of immense dimension and substance. Where else but in a fully realised psychological interior do pride, prejudice, sense, sensibility, and persuasion take form? For Austen’s heroines, the stakes are self esteem, personal virtue, rationality and contentment, not the social or pecuniary rewards for which the shallow, morally compromised characters play. Mechanically, the novels resolve in marriages and other social maneuvres, but the real movement of each novel happens in inward reflection, realisation, self-knowledge, and self-command.

Think of Emma’s, (or Marianne’s), blinding realisation of her own error, almost simultaneous with the realisation of her true feelings; Elinor’s bargain with herself to keep Lucy’s secret and prize Edward’s honour above her own happiness. Think of Anne’s tender revelation of her steadfastness to Captain Harville, overheard by Wentworth in that novel’s climactic scene. And think of Elizabeth compulsively re-reading Darcy’s letter: “Till this moment I never knew myself.” The letter is the novel’s turning point, and it’s not Wickham’s shortcomings but her own that shock her, and move her toward knowledge and love. It’s not a world of heroes and cads and dashing romances, but our admission to this private world of deep feeling, long suffering, painful reflection and dawning knowledge that makes these books so endlessly enjoyable. 

Pride and prejudice and portraiture

First Impressions was the title Jane Austen originally gave to her best-loved novel, in which the thread of impressions, reflections, and portraiture runs through the narrative in interesting ways. In one of their early encounters at Netherfield, Elizabeth tells Darcy she’s trying to “take his likeness.” He replies gravely, “I could wish, Miss Bennet, that you were not to sketch my character at the present moment, as there is reason to fear that the performance would reflect no credit on either." 

Disliking Darcy, and falling for Wickham, “whose very countenance may vouch for his being amiable,” Elizabeth is led astray by appearances. When she learns the truth about Wickham, she tells Jane: “One has all the goodness, the other all the appearance of it.” 

Months later, she contemplates the miniatures of Darcy and Wickham at Pemberly. How differently she sees both images, now that her eyes have been opened to the true characters of both men. Seeing them thus side by side she no longer deceives herself about the appearance of either, admitting to the housekeeper that Darcy is indeed very handsome, and nudging her aunt towards the possibility of Wickham's waywardness. When she stands before Darcy’s large portrait in the gallery upstairs, his image and his character come together for the first time. 

“She stood several minutes before the picture, in earnest contemplation, and returned to it again before they quitted the gallery...There was certainly at this moment, in Elizabeth's mind, a more gentle sensation towards the original than she had ever felt at the height of their acquaintance."

This is a turning point, and when Darcy appears in the flesh soon afterwards, she beholds him changed; both from within and in her own perception of him. From this moment she begins to think she could be happy with him, but within another day or two, Wickham has intervened to separate them - in part because she has never unfolded his true character to anyone but Jane. 

This game of hide and seek is the engine of the novel. His pride and her prejudice are the masks they both wear, that must fall away before they can come together. Their first impressions must be replaced by the portraiture of genuine understanding, and patient skill.