Rowyn (rowyn) wrote,

Pride and Prejudice

I have been on a big Austen kick lately, re-reading all of her books -- I'm in the middle of Emma now, having already re-read Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbeyand even Lady Susan, an Austen novella almost entirely in the form of correspondence between characters, which I'd not read before. I will probably draw the line at re-reading Mansfield Park, which is my least favorite of Austen's books. I'm not sure why this sudden renewed fascination with Austen, except that I am in the mood for romance and Austen is in the public domain, making her work very accessible: a few clicks of my phone and another free Austen novel is there for the reading. But I've even been indulging myself in Austen fanfic: I put the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries on my Netflix queue and watched it over the last week.

The production is very faithful to the novel, to the point where it was notable whenever they weren't. I found myself surprised that they had Jane Bennet riding to Netherfield through the fateful but anticipated rain; in the book she walked. I suspect the reasoning was to make a sharper contrast with Elizabeth Bennet's decision to walk to Netherfield the next day, to visit her sister (who had taken ill from the rain and was remaining there until she was better.) And because modern audiences would not appreciate the distinction between walking on dirt paths and through fields the day before and the day after a rain.

One thing in particular that strikes me about Pride and Prejudice is the frequent characterization of Mr. Darcy, the male protagonist, as "brooding". This has always seemed off to me. "Brooding" implies an inner unhappiness: that Mr. Darcy is troubled by dark thoughts or dwelling upon some unpleasantness. If you want a brooding protagonist of the era, allow me to nominate Jane Eyre's Mr. Rochester: now there is a man who broods.

Mr. Darcy, on the other hand, does give the appearance of brooding, and this is nowhere more evident than in Colin Firth's interpretation, where he looms about in parlors and balls like a great dark crow, his countenance unsmiling, scarcely speaking to anyone.

But the thing of it is -- I never get the impression of a character haunted by his past or caught up in private misery. I mean, yes, he dislikes Wickham and with good cause. His parents have passed away, but he's a grown man and seems content in his independence and happy to have joint guardianship of his younger sister.

About half way through the story, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth are talking about his behavior. Elizabeth is playing the pianoforte, and is provoked by Mr. Darcy looming over her while she plays, to the point that she retaliates by teasing him over his unwillingness to dance at the ball where they first met. Darcy defends himself by saying he didn't know anyone except the two women who were members of his party. Which leads her naturally to tease him about his refusal to be introduced to anyone.
"I certainly have not the talent which some people possess," said Darcy, "of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done."

"My fingers," said Elizabeth, "do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women's do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I would not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman's of superior execution."

Darcy smiled, and said, "You are perfectly right. You have employed your time much better. No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you, can think any thing wanting. We neither of us perform to strangers."

I've always felt like this captures Mr. Darcy's character. His manner is naturally and unconsciously off-putting. It's not that he's trying to loom about like a great dark crow and intimidate young women, or that he's preoccupied with grim ideas. Occupied with his own thoughts, yes, but as likely to be happy ones as not. But his outward appearance doesn't reflect his inner state. His first dreadful proposal to Elizabeth is almost as surprising to the reader as it is to Elizabeth, because his manner never indicates that he particularly likes her, never mind loves her.

That he could change his manner to make a better impression is clear -- implicit in Darcy's reply to Elizabeth is that even he knows that if he made an effort, he could be more pleasing to people. But he thinks it's not worth his trouble to do so. Just as he thinks Elizabeth's time is better employed elsewhere than in practicing at music (for the record, the book generally backs Elizabeth's self-assessment of her level of musical skill), he thinks his own would be wasted in considering how he looks and sounds to others.

And one of the reasons I love Pride and Prejudice is that Darcy actually does change. Elizabeth, of course, rebuffs Darcy's first proposal, which has to be one of the worst proposals in literary history. (It's really, really bad. Jane Austen loves to write dreadful, awkward proposals, but she outdid herself on this one. It's like a case study in How Not to Propose to someone. Even Mr. Collins's proposal in the same book, which is awful in a very different way, is not quite so terrible as Darcy's). Darcy's not-inconsiderable pride is initially wounded, but the fact is that he's not actually a conceited ass. He takes her criticism to heart. He writes a surprisingly civil if not always charitable letter explaining some of the points on which Elizabeth was being unfair and goes off still in a bit of a tizzy. But when they meet again much later in the book, you get to see him trying -- really trying -- to be not just polite, but kind to both her and her relations. He's not always very good at it. But you can tell he's trying, and that's what makes it touching. That, and that one has the sense he's doing it out of a sense of it being the right thing to do, not because he's specifically hoping to change Elizabeth's mind about marrying him. Although he then goes and relapses when he visits the Bennets later a Longbourne, and he's back to looking stern and not talking. But I still don't think he's brooding, as such: he's wrapped up in his thoughts and intentions and not aware of how he appears.

I'll admit, one area of the production where I was disappointed was Darcy's second proposal. In the bonus features on the DVD, the screenwriter said that scene was one of the ones he wished he'd done differently, and I had to agree. It's not the strong point in the book -- Austen has an annoying habit of summarizing the denouement conversations that I really want to have written out as dialogue. I was hoping the screenplay would do better, but it didn't add much by way of elaboration (the production made a generally commendable effort not to add dialogue) and took out some parts that I liked. The final scene of the miniseries is the wedding, and Colin Firth -- for pretty much the first time in the entire nearly six hours of the series -- is finally allowed to smile as they're leaving the church, which is quite a transformation. In the book, Austen describes how happy Darcy looked when Elizabeth accepted him, and I couldn't help but feel that Firth ought to have been allowed to smile then.

Despite these few quibbles, I did love the series as a whole. Jennifer Ehle, who played Elizabeth Bennet, was magnificent. It's funny, because I keep hearing about Darcy and Colin Firth in conjunction with the series, but Elizabeth is the story's center and Ehle does such a wonderful job of capturing her spirit. What I like about Elizabeth as a character is that she'll laugh over things other characters will take offense at be humiliated by. Not that she's insensible of an insult or unfeeling, but she refuses to be cowed or put out of spirits by others. I don't know that Darcy is my favorite Austen protagonist, but Elizabeth Bennet is definitely my favorite Austen heroine. Seeing Ehle play the part made me love the character even more.

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