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Pride and Prejudice
A Historical Analysis
by Sandra Marek
Pride and Prejudice , a classic novel by Jane Austen, depicts the life and society of England during the eighteenth century. Though she writes to critique the lifestyles and culture of her time, Austen creates characters that are beloved by her readers. In the past twelve years, Hollywood has made two major productions of Pride and Prejudice; each proved popular. Both the 1995 and 2005 productions of the movie have gotten high approval ratings from both viewers and critics, and fortunately the producers of these two recent Pride and Prejudice films appreciate the sophistication of historical accuracy in incorporating music, displaying society, and designing costumes and sets true to the time period.
In Pride and Prejudice , a rich young man named Bingley buys an estate near the local town of Meryton and falls in love with Jane Bennet, the eldest daughter of the Bennet family that lives nearby. The Bennet family consists of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and their five daughters: Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia. Mr. Bingley's friend, Darcy, persuades Bingley to give up any hopes of a marriage between him and Jane Bennet due to her relative poverty and inferior birth. At the same time, however, Darcy falls in love with the next eldest of the Bennet girls, Elizabeth Bennet. After Elizabeth Bennet refuses to marry her distant cousin, a Mr. Collins, in order to keep entailed estate in the family and becomes infatuated with Mr. Wickham, Darcy proposes marriage to Elizabeth. She flatly refuses the offer due to her anger at his impolite manner and improper treatment of Mr. Wickham, a long-time acquaintance. Darcy seeks to refute these accusations against him by explaining the reasons for the hostility between himself and Wickham: Wickham had sought to elope with Georgiana, Darcy's younger sister, in order to inherit her dowry. Furthermore Mr. Darcy reunites Mr. Bingley and Jane Bennet and patches up an ill-conceived elopement between Mr. Wickham and the youngest Bennet, Lydia hoping to reconcile himself to Elizabeth Bennet. Learning of these compassionate acts by Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet falls in love with Mr. Darcy and marries him.
One of the subtlest aspects of a film is the music. In many films, music adds depth and dynamics to a scene; in Pride and Prejudice , the music brings the audience back to the eighteenth century with the delightful scene of late baroque and early classical music, particularly seen in the pianoforte. Music in eighteenth-century England did not play an important role in society; thus to some extent it was disparaged and poorly developed.. A high point of English music of the period occurred under Handel, a German composer who moved to England to compose music. Thanks to George II's support, Handel's greatest and best known oratorio is "The Messiah", and one of the choruses in that score, the "Hallelujah Chorus" is the most popular. England's limited enthusiasm for music by English composers such as Henry Purcell and John Marsh did not allow those native composers to become as well known as composers of classical music from the continent.. The main composers of the eighteenth century, Bach, Haydn, and Mozart, received much more acclaim. Nevertheless, the music played at balls and on the pianoforte in Pride and Prejudice , has detached melodic and counter-melodic lines or fugue-like compositions typical of the era.
In addition to the period music in Pride and Prejudice, the musical instruments played also represent eighteenth century chamber ensembles. John Brewer notes in Pleasures of the Imagination that John Marsh, a struggling English composer from 1752-1828, recognized that "English chamber music retained the traditional baroque form of two violins, cello and harpsichord until very late in the century...[with] little place ever for woodwind instruments, apart from the flute." In the film, various gentlemen, including Mr. Bingley, hold balls at their homes, and at the balls, musical ensembles provide music for entertainment usually by means of dancing. The 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice portrays an ensemble containing a violin, flute and bass viola da gamba, which later transformed into the modern-day cello. In the 2005 production of Pride and Prejudice, this same ensemble consists of two violins, a flute, a bass and a viola de gamba (or cello). In addition to ensembles, both Pride and Prejudice movies include several instances of women playing the pianoforte. Adding richness to the scene are fugues which are one of the main forms of compositions played. This type of music layers melodies on top of melodies, creating an intricate and beautiful piece of music.
In both productions of Pride and Prejudice , no man is ever shown playing the pianoforte. There are only three women in both movies who do play: Mary Bennet, Elizabeth Bennet, and Georgiana Darcy. In the eighteenth century, most people downplayed music education, except as a subtle way for the ladies to show sophistication. When the haughty Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the benefactor to the clergyman who is a cousin of the Bennets, proudly says to Mr. Collins, "there are few people in this world who really appreciate music as much as I do," she has little idea of how true her words ring out. In the eighteenth century, music was considered too trivial a pursuit for boys and young men to engage and to be educated in. For women, however, music such as singing and playing the pianoforte is permissible, even expected. Women in high society were expected to have numerous talents, and a musical education was considered a lady-like gift in society as long as it was not taken too seriously.
In both films there are distinctions between different levels of eighteenth century society as well as between genders. In Pride and Prejudice , Mr. Darcy initially separates Mr. Bingley from Jane Bennet because of her lack of money and connections. Mr. Darcy does not consider Jane Bennet high enough in society to warrant Bingley's affections. Again when Darcy initially confesses his love to Elizabeth Bennet, clearly he does not consider Elizabeth Bennet a plausible candidate for marriage due to her want of connection and money; thus his condescending proposal of marriage angers Elizabeth. Similar sentiments are also felt about by Bingley's and Darcy's relations. During the eighteenth century, most marriages were marriages of convenience or profit that benefited one or both parties. Marriages between families were often arranged at birth, such as that between Darcy and Lady de Bourgh's daughter in Pride and Prejudice .
Both films accurately represent fashion in the eighteenth century. The sign of a good historical film is shown by the costumes' consistency with the era being filmed. Women's fashion consisted of dresses with low-cut V-neck or U-neck bodices, high waists and long, flowing skirts and hats with different forms of decoration on them. All the women in the film showed a consistently fashionable form of dress, but, of course, the wealthier the lady, the more lace, frills, and decoration on her dress. Often the gowns were copied from the fashionable gowns of Napoleon's court. Likewise the hats that women wore to balls usually displayed flowers, ribbon and/or feathers on top of them. Caroline Bingley, for example, often had the largest feather or more feathers on her hat or more lace on her dress than the other ladies at the balls, signifying her higher status and wealth.
Men's fashion during this time period was also very formal, consisting of several layers. The first layer was a white, high-necked collared shirt with ruffles on top; next was a high-necked collared vest providing the base for a coat or a waistcoat, which was always colored, unless the man was in mourning or was a clergyman. Once again, more gold and silver fringe and brocade on a coat showed the richer and higher status of the gentleman. A gentleman also wore pants, which were usually colored, cropped and buttoned at the knee with buckled shoes and knee-high stockings, unless the gentleman was riding, in which case he wore boots. In addition men of the time period had adopted, perhaps from the French court, the habit of carrying walking sticks. Darcy best represents this in the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice. At almost any time in the movie, he is typically wearing a white, ruffled shirt, a colored vest, and a dark blue or green coat with cropped pants, riding boots, and a walking stick. Because Darcy is such a solemn, detached character, he always dresses in a gentlemanly manner, presenting the best representation of upper-class eighteenth century dress.
In addition to the fashionable attire that people wore in the eighteenth century is the very important fashion attribute of a gentleman's estate. In the eighteenth century ,it was a mansion, generally an elegant, elaborate country house, sparsely furnished with perhaps a table and a few chairs in the center of the room and a bookshelf or clock at one end. Yet the decorations in a house gave tribute to the wealth of a person. In Pride and Prejudice , a simple home like the Bennet dwelling had a nice pattern on the walls with a few pictures scattered about. In a rich mansion like that of Darcy, the ceiling was covered with a lavish classical painting while the chimney breasts and walls were decorated with ornate carvings, often very gaudy and colorful, and the room was filled with replicas of Greek and Roman statues. People of the eighteenth century remained infatuated with the fabled French Versailles and its decoration, so they attempted to copy it in their own dwellings with refinements.
Both the 1995 and the 2005 productions of Pride and Prejudice reflect a significant amount of historical detail of eighteenth century England. The 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice won numerous awards, including an Emmy going to Dinah Collin for best outstanding individual achievement in costume design. It also had Emmy nominations to Jane Gibson for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Choreography, Andrew Davies for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Writing for a Miniseries or a Special, and Michael Wearing and Sue Birtwistle for Outstanding Miniseries. In turn the 2005 production was nominated for numerous awards, including Academy Award (USA) nominations for Sarah Greenwood for best achievement in art direction, Jacqueline Durran for best achievement in costume design, Dario Marianelli for best achievement in music written for motion pictures, and Keira Knightley for best performance by an actress in a leading role. Pride and Prejudice (2005) also won many other outstanding awards from other outstanding organizations. Though both films are enjoyable to watch, the earlier production of Pride and Prejudice adheres to a more historical eighteenth century England. While neither movie shows the society of eighteenth century England more fully than the other, the music in the 1995 production better follows a baroque-style of music, and the fashions better represent the characters of the time period.