Pride & Predjudice: A 19th Century Romance

By Cherisse Davis

It is a generally accepted fact that movies can never completely capture a story in the same manner as the book does. There will always be certain difference between the movie and book which send the book-fanatics writhing with irritation and frustration; but then again, every once in a while you come across an exception to the rule. The BBC production of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is one such movie. Put out as a TV mini-series in 1995, the story aired every Sunday evening in one-hour episodes and very quickly captured the hearts of people across the globe, launching the public into a Jane Austen frenzy. This is an excellent film which accurately captures the social and historical aspects of the time period as well as the humorous wit and the charming love-story between a prideful man and a prejudiced woman.

The movie opens and focuses upon the biggest dilemma of the Bennet family: a house of five poor young sisters with no prospective husbands and no large dowries to seduce men towards them. The oldest sister is Jane, a quiet sweet woman; then Elizabeth, our main character and a sharp, witty woman. The younger sisters: Mary, the studious, ugly-duckling in the family and then Kitty and Lydia, the younger, frivolous and empty-headed sisters who seem inferior to Jane and Elizabeth. A young, rich man by the name of Mr. Bingley causes a stir when he leases a grand home in the Bennets’ home village of Meryton; Mr. Bingley arrives with a small company of family and friends and immediately captures the heart of the town – and of Jane. Their ensuing romance is frowned upon by Mr. Bingley’s closest friend, a more sullen man named Mr. Darcy. As Darcy works to prevent the marriage of Mr. Bingley and Jane, he himself slowly begins to fall in love with Elizabeth who, judging him carelessly by her first impression, cannot stand him. The most touching part of this romance is the slow change in Darcy and Elizabeth as they each separately realize, social standing and first impressions aside, they really do love one another. Over the course of this six-hour series you cannot help but get deeply wrapped up in the characters, hoping and waiting with each surprising turn of events and new dilemma that Elizabeth and Darcy will come together in the end. Rather than being staged and camera-happy, this sweet love story deals with very realistic people and problems, and the ending is a satisfying conclusion to all the ballroom-dancing, horse-riding, biting conversations and embarrassing family functions. As a movie, this version of Pride and Prejudice is a little overwhelming. Because it was produced as a TV mini-series it is altogether six hours long – but with some stamina it is completely worth sitting through. In fact, I am of the opinion that the story actually needs six hours to completely cover all of the details of the plot and to accurately record the story.

The series was released as a movie in January of 1996. Colin Firth takes the leading role as Darcy, playing next to Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet. Pride and Prejudice has really been the high point of both of their careers, especially Colin Firth’s. Although he has continued to appear in a number of current movies he will always stay in the hearts and minds of the public as the sad-eyed Mr. Darcy. Pride and Prejudice received an Emmy Award for “Outstanding Individual Achievement in Costume Design for a Miniseries or Special,” as well as number of other awards and nominations.

When Jane Austen wrote the story in the early 1800’s she set the story in her contemporary world; the challenge then for the director Simon Langton was to take the movie back to that time period in a believable way. He had to cover the historical aspects of the time and the social nuances involved, as well as the story line and personalities of each character. In every aspect he did an excellent job. The historical aspects, clothing styles, settings, and social rituals all sweep the viewer away immediately into the world of Elizabeth Bennet and the troubles of her family.

From a historical standpoint, the political events of the time period of this movie are very interesting. England in the early 1800’s had established itself as a world power and, led by Prime Minister William Pitt, was busy fighting France in the Napoleonic Wars. Those events hardly play into the movie though – primarily because Jane Austin never included them in the story line. When you think about the context she wrote it in, targeting her contemporary audience, it is not too surprising that she didn’t try to explain or narrate current events. The fact that there is a war going on is certainly important to the story though: a key plot twist in the movie is the arrival of a camp of soldiers to the village. While the accomplishments and the war stories of the soldiers seldom play into the plot of Pride and Prejudice, and while the Napoleonic struggle is hardly significant to the reader or the viewer, this by no means detracts from the story.

In all other respects, the movie does an incredible job in staying close to historical detail, particularly with the costumes and hair styles. The women in the movie are dressed in simple, loose dresses with a high waistband beneath the breast. A number of styles that were popular in that time period make a debut in the movie, such as dresses with square necklines or small puffed sleeves. Another interesting wardrobe item popular in that time also seen in the movie is the “Spencer jacket”, a short jacket cut high to reach only as far as the empire waist on the women’s dresses. The men of the movie are less elaborately dressed in breeches, ruffled shirts and solid colored high-collared jackets. It is interesting to watch how the social standing of each character increases the decoration and finery of the clothing: the Bennet sisters dress in simpler material and patterned dresses, while Mr. Bingley’s sister, Caroline Bingley, appears in expensive-looking elaborate dresses with a lot of jewelry. Caroline even wears large feathers in her hair a few times, a touch amusing but faithful.

Clothing and hairstyle mean nothing if the setting of the movie doesn’t reflect the time period as well. The green rolling hills and pastoral beauty of the English countryside quickly absorb the viewer into the world of Pride and Prejudice, but the villages and homes also seem very realistic for that time period as well. One of the greatest challenges in period movies is to find buildings which both accurately suit those in the story as well as represent the time period. For the making of this movie the crew and actors traveled to a number of different sites across England, but the over-all effect is seamless. Nothing in the setting seems forced or re-created; it all appears very natural, even when, in the movie, there are horses and carriages in the streets, it doesn’t feel like anything out of the ordinary.

Setting is also a method used to illustrate the differences between the levels of society. After becoming accustomed to seeing Elizabeth Bennet in her simple, slightly decrepit home, we are absolutely swept away by Mr. Darcy’s beautiful castle-home, Pemberley. Even more elaborate, the Lady Catherine De Bourgh’s offensively grand home is a reflection of her character and accurately captures her higher placement in the social structure. Setting is crucial towards making a film believable; in Pride and Prejudice I think the movie does an excellent job in using setting to pull viewers out of our current world into that of England during the early 1800’s.

Society and the social rules of the time play largely into the conflict in the movie: in it there is a lot of bowing, presenting, and stiff every-day formalities that in our day and age I cannot imagine going through. The most famous line from the book appears in the movie when Elizabeth quips, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” illustrating the unspoken ideas which permeated nineteenth century society. Marriage – and a good marriage – was the highest goal of a woman in this period and, indeed, any marriage was better than no marriage at all. This dilemma becomes the main conflict of the story. All five of the Bennet sisters have been “introduced” to society, meaning that they are allowed to attend social functions and are considered fair game for wooing. This was probably too soon for the susceptible and immature Lydia Bennet, and she runs away and elopes with one of the soldiers, not only disgracing herself but also placing a stigma on her family. Elizabeth mourns to Jane, “[D]o you not see that more things have been ruined by this business than Lydia’s reputation?” meaning that no respectable man would wish to associate himself now with such a family. This realization only makes it all the sweeter when both Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy, respectable and wealthy men who could easily choose any woman as a wife, return and declare their love for Jane and Elizabeth. Those social rules are certainly still in place, but they were not binding, and as most movies teach us, love conquers all.

Pride and Prejudice is a fantastic film. It quickly captures its audience, combining an accurate portrayal of that time period from a historical and a social standpoint. It really is merely a fictional story, with hardly any actual historical truth to it besides the fact that it is set in nineteenth century England. Yet, the movie does a wonderful job of depicting life for the characters in that time: in the dress, the setting and even in illustrating the social restrictions of the era. Combining all that with the human emotion and suspense of the story creates a well-crafted love story, so it is no surprise that Pride and Prejudice has been a favorite, first in literature and now in film form, for over two centuries.

(All images are taken from the 1995 film Pride and Prejudice)