The most interesting revelation from the fascinating documentary “Andrew Davies: Rewriting the Classics” broadcast over Christmas was his explanation about how he chose to portray Mr Darcy in his blockbuster 1995 BBC adaptation.
The 90’s he explained, had seen the rise of ‘the new man’. Sensitive, considerate, not afraid to show his feelings or pose for a picture with a I baby. A Mr Bingley type.
Mr Darcy was not ‘a new man’. Reserved to the point of rudeness, proud and unconcerned about causing offence (“I am no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.”), Davies brought him to life in a way which delighted the country and made Colin Firth a household name. 1990’s viewers it seemed, had not lost their appetite for ‘the original man’.
Davies was quite right in his analysis of Austen’s Darcy. Yes, he does become the ultimate desire of Elizabeth Bennet and his physical appearance is ‘fine, tall, handsome and noble,’ but his behaviour at his first dance at Meryton soon leads the main characters to dislike him. Like those characters, Austen suggests that her reader too should find him difficult to like.
So great is ‘Darcy hysteria’ that almost no reader will come to a reading of Pride and Prejudice ‘unprejudiced’. They see past Darcy’s rudeness, surliness and pride because they know and expect his redemption. This is even harder in film or TV adaptation, with lingering, brooding shots of bathing, fencing and hard riding. Austen allows us only the rarest of glimpses into Darcy’s mind, such as this after their Netherfield dance:
“In Darcy’s breast there was a tolerable powerful feeling towards her, which soon procured her pardon…”
Pride and Prejudice is much more than a courtship story between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy. It takes an unflinching look at the consequences of making judgements before you know the truth, and the moral strength of being able to admit that you were wrong.
At a crucial moment in the book Elizabeth realises that she has not just made an error of judgement, but that her behaviour has been far from what it should be, especially with regards to George Wickham. There are many reasons to admire Elizabeth Bennet, her sparkling wit, her confidence in taking on the horrible Bingley sisters or Lady Catherine de Burgh, but it is her ability to reflect on her own behaviour and choices and to identify her pride, her vanity and her folly that makes her such a wonderful and inspirational character.
It might seem, from this example, that the work of Jane Austen is one long moral lesson, but this is far from the truth. Her books are hilariously funny, brilliantly plotted, full of characters that cover the complete spectrum of human behaviour. The constrained social conventions meant that you cannot just run after somebody and tell them that you love them, you can’t just see somebody whenever you want, or not talk to somebody you don’t want to, or leave the room because you are about to cry. The brilliance of Jane Austen’s work is that high emotion happens within social rules and when the rules are broken, there are consequences.
For over two hundred years, Jane Austen has entertained, surprised, educated and humbled millions of people across the world, and her work has reached millions more through theatre, television and film. However even the most faithful television adaption or film will always have its own agenda, and I also feel that as the adaptations understandably focus on the romantic aspect of the plot, the struggles and moral conflictions that go on inside the heads of the characters are often lost.
It is these struggles to admit when you are wrong, to reassess people that you judged too quickly, to not be afraid to stand up for what is right even when other people are saying you are wrong that make Jane Austen so brilliant. Pride and Prejudice has its romantic moments, but it is for this quote it should be remembered, when Elizabeth begins to realise the truth about Mr Wickham:
“But vanity, not love, has been my folly. — Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment, I never knew myself.”