Every year there’s a ritual in my house: My wife gathers all of her Jane Austen novels from the bookshelf and reads them in chronological order. Once that liturgy is complete, she devours all five hours of the landmark BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, or Bridget Jones’s Diary, the Laurence Olivier Pride, Bride and Prejudice, or one of the many other adaptations of her novels over the course of a long weekend. My wife is either devout or obsessed. I’m still not certain.
Then there’s my dentist. A real bookworm, she nonetheless loathes Jane Austen. In fact, while visiting London, she took a special trip with her eldest daughter—who shares this bitterness, especially after having to write a college essay on all six novels—to Winchester Cathedral, where Austen is buried. There, they both danced on her grave. And she was delighted to hear that had Mark Twain been alive to join them, he would have dug Austen up and, in his own words, “beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
Such passions are common when it comes to the bard of Hampshire and her works. While my wife and the legions of Janeites are in heaven, eagerly anticipating the newest film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, due in theaters this month, my dentist and her daughter (not to mention the spirit of Sam Clemens) must be particularly vexed. For this last decade has seen the cinematic market for Pride and Prejudice explode; with five variations released in the last five years alone, it’s a legitimate phenomenon and one that spans both space and time. If you’re reading an article on Pride then you’ve got to be as familiar with its plot as you are with your morning ablutions. Essentially the story of the mutual misunderstandings betwixt prejudiced Elizabeth Bennet and the prideful Mr. Darcy (or is it vice-versa?), Austen’s 1813 tale reigns as one of the hallmarks of British literature: Its humor and wit make it probably the greatest page-turner from England’s fluffy Regency period. But is that enough to justify so much devotion, and so many different interpretations?
The first major film production of Pride came at the suggestion of, of all people, Harpo Marx. Harpo—the silent one with the flowing blond curls—enjoyed a lively stage production of Pride in London and immediately wired MGM’s Irving Thalberg, urging him to produce it for the silver screen. Thalberg didn’t live long enough to see the film into reality, but MGM hired Aldous Huxley to write it (along with Jane Murfin), and cast Greer Garson and Lawrence Olivier in the starring roles. The Huxley Pride is my personal favorite: the plot, light and perfectly designed as a box kite, is compressed into a swell little production, with added bon mots that Austen herself could have written. It’s brilliantly scored by Herbert Stothart, whose leitmotif for Mr. Collins is delightful, and acted with verve by all parties involved, but containing two particularly impressive performances—of Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins—by two of the most underrated character actors, Edna Mae Oliver and Melville Cooper, respectively.
Watching this Pride, we can see exactly why Austen’s story works so well on the big screen and in modern times. Pride boasts some of the most memorable characters ever set to paper: the Bennet girls, from the intelligent older sisters Elizabeth and Jane to the flighty Lydia and Kitty to the brainy Mary, hovered over by the matrimony-mad mother, Mrs. Bennet; Mr. Darcy, the haughty rogue whom female readers (and viewers) hunger for; Mr. Collins, a cousin come to take his pick of one of the girls as his bride, and one of the finest comic creations I’ve ever read; Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mr. Darcy’s aunt and the dowager who screams to be portrayed by a Dame like Judi Dench (and who does so in the new film); and Mr. Bennet, the father of the clan and the cynical soul of the book whom Martin Amis once called the “the dark backing behind the bright mirror” of Austen’s work. All of these people mill about the cozy confines of Meryton, an idyllic village so far removed from politics and strife it could be heaven itself. But in Pride Austen accomplished in three hundred featherweight pages what it took Tolstoy, in Anna Karenina, nearly a thousand somber ones to do: Pride is not simply about falling madly in love, but about what it means to be married. Her light tone allows the story to shine even in truncated forms. In the space of a two-hour movie, we see not one marriage begin, but four, each one simultaneously a prototype, a warning, and an example. And with Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, Pride and Prejudice captures, in the words of art critic and historian Robert Hughes, “the microcosm of marriage, an Ideal Republic of two.”
These Republics were on treacherous ground when Huxley set to work adapting the novel in 1940. With the Luftwaffe threatening London, he wrote Pride as a subtle summons to urge American involvement in the war, to show exactly what would be lost without our participation. The story was moved forward in time just a few years, in order to include a reference to the defeat of Napoleon—a victory that would not occur for another twenty years after Pride was written, but England’s last great military victory. Austen’s Meryton, olde England, and marriage itself would soon be lost under Hitler’s bootheel if we Americans did not act.
Pride fell out of favor for some time after that—there were a few television productions catering to England’s insatiable appetite for dry costume drama, unmemorable versions virtually unwatched today. But in 1995, the BBC took a chance on a Simon Langton and Andrew Davies production that once again reflected current tastes. Their first triumph: casting Colin Firth, who took what is arguably the strongest and most complex male character in all of Austen’s work and shaped him into a vibrant human being. Firth is outstanding: seething throughout most of the film, haughty, and then just right as his arrogance melts away and he falls for Elizabeth Bennet (Olivier’s Darcy is fine, but far from brilliant). Cinematically, Firth made Darcy just as Brando made Stanley Kowalski.
Langton and Davies’ second triumph: having the selfsame Mr. Firth’s Darcy take a dip in a pond. He emerged dripping wet and climbed into the fantasies of Janeites forever. This Pride was not explicitly sexual, but unabashedly erotic. Thus, it took only fifty-five years (in film time) for Pride to acknowledge that married couples have sex.
Austen’s examination of the complexities of marriage, weaved into a seemingly effortless plot, makes Pride a story that can be perfectly adapted throughout the ages, even in different countries. Since 1995 we’ve seen Pride in more than a half-dozen adaptations: Furst Impressions, a children’s television show starring Wishbone, a Jack Russell terrier; the two Bridget Jones movies, starring Firth again in the Darcy role, once again dampening his shirt but not his sexuality; a modern-day production by, of all people, the Mormons; an English-Indian Bollywood musical Pride set in latter-day Amristar, India, featuring the sexiest Bennet sisters yet; and, coming full circle, this newest Pride, which is supposedly a “muddier, cloudier” version, in contrast to the sunny ’95 vintage. Mormons embrace it, Indians dance to it, and even dogs wear the roles like gloves. That is quite a ride for an almost two-hundred-year-old novel, and it is unparalleled in movie history. I’m just waiting for the gay Pride.
Detractors hate Austen in part because of her focus on marriage and the mistaken belief that she is reinforcing the idea of a woman’s dependence on a man. There are also the silly manners and the sunshine and happy-ending world of Meryton. I’d like to think that Twain hated her for the same thing that bugs me the most: Austen’s is a world of the upper classes, where to be destitute is to have “only” a yearly income of a few hundred pounds and but one servant.
However, if you can cast your eye past these differences, you discover a story unlike any other, one that so richly reflects the possibilities of marriage. The Bennets are not dependent women: Lizzy rejects the wealthy Mr. Darcy because he seems to look down upon her family—though his sentiments match her own more than she would admit. She also refuses to consider his money as a source of happiness. If she fails to marry, we don’t doubt that this Elizabeth Bennet will nevertheless succeed in her life. In the end, it is her strength and intelligence that reunites them. Austen covers the other bases—the relationship between Mr. Collins and Charlotte is one of convenience and economy, and silly Lydia and Wickham’s elopement is an example of the perils of reckless love—but Jane’s and Lizzy’s pairings are the ideals of wedlock.
I imagine that I used to resemble Mr. Bennet, harrumphing behind my newspaper while my wife swooned over Colin Firth. But we’ve also sat and watched the various Prides together over the years, and I enjoy the story more and more as time goes on. When we’re through watching one of the movies, I like to reflect on our marriage—I can’t think of another story that challenges me on that sometimes delicate subject. My wife and I are older now, and though we like to be inflamed by the likes of Keira Knightly (Elizabeth in the newest adaptation) and Colin Firth, we also know there’s a lot more than just wet shirts and muddy stockings: Like Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, we’ve grown to have a profound respect for one another. Over the years, marriages are bound to lose some of the fire you’d find raging throughout Wuthering Heights, but a slow burn over time, a loving endurance—isn’t that what we all hope to find in this type of union?