When the 2005 film adaptation of Pride & Prejudice was released, it not only unseated Colin Firth as the Mr. Darcy du jour (come at me, Firthheads), but also created a partnership that would go on to delight period drama fans for a decade. Director Joe Wright and star Keira Knightley would later team up to film Atonement and Anna Karenina. In this take on the beloved Jane Austen novel, Wright opted for a break from the Austen adaptation norm, pushing the timeframe back to the late 18th century (he hated the empire waists that were de rigueur in the early 19th), and making the style choice to film a “dirty hems” version of the time period.
In case you skipped out on 10th grade English Lit, here’s the Cliff Notes version. Independent thinker Elizabeth Bennet meets the haughty and aloof Mr. Darcy, isn’t afraid to spit truth at him, and generally determines he’s loathsome. After much Bennet family drama, deliciously passive-aggressive subtext over tea, and heroic antics from our standoffish leading man, Lizzie and Darcy end up falling in love.
B, let’s start off with my biggest question. When conducting a feminist analysis of this film, we can take one of two approaches. Should we 1) look at how the film portrayed women according to when the novel was written in the early 19th century, or 2) view it through the lens of today’s feminism?
B: Pride & Prejudice is by far the oldest story we’ve yet dealt with. Yes, the events of Shakespeare in Love predate those of Pride & Prejudice by a number of centuries, but the story was a modern creation full of winks at the era and clever twists on the Bard’s work. Wright’s adaptation, on the other hand, is not only based on a work published in 1813, it is also extraordinarily faithful to that work. I mean, to properly understand the sizzling tension that bubbles underneath this picture, you have to come in with a basic understanding of British inheritance law and a working knowledge of Austenian language. For that reason, I think we have to weigh Elizabeth and Darcy’s love story based on the norms of the day. Which is to say, though we can complain about the way the patriarchy was, we can’t fault this work for displaying it. However, we can (and will) lavish praise on the ways Austen finds to subvert the expected norms and realize one of the great early feminist characters.
Which brings me to my first and most significant takeaway: This story, in its original form and this adaptation, absolutely acknowledges that women’s lives were made and foiled according to the whims of men. But it is rendered in such a way that we can feel Austen’s criticism, and Wright furthers the commentary with his choices surrounding Elizabeth, Jane, their parents and their lovers. For her contemporary fans, reading Pride & Prejudice must have been something like reading a Bustle article or watching an episode of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: empathetic and oh-so satisfying.
And frankly, watching and agonizing over Elizabeth and Darcy and Jane and Bingley is blissful and relatable, even with my feminist lens firmly attached. I don’t live in a world where I can rank my romantic prospects by how much of the family fortune they are permitted to squander every year, but wondering why a boy hasn’t texted is just the digital version of the analog angst Jane experiences when Bingley ghosts her, 19th century-style.
S, do you agree that we should measure Jane’s vision against her own time period? And if you’re game for that bit of mental time-travel, tell me what you think about each of the sisters Bennet.
S: I concur. Because Pride & Prejudice was originally written in the early 19th century, I think we should compare it to the pop culture of its day. From that standpoint, I completely agree with your analysis. Austen is very clearly using satire to tear down the patriarchal structure of the society in which she lives. But even beyond that, she presents a perspective very rarely seen in the 1800s — a female point of view. Given that, and the fact that she writes fully-formed female characters (a feat that, to this day, still manages to elude many a Hollywood writer), this story is a triumph.
Speaking of fully-formed females, let’s get into the Bennet gals. We’ll go from youngest to oldest.
Lydia: The selfish one. Lydia MIGHT be a sociopath. She’s definitely a narcissist. But hey, who among us was not a narcissistic sociopath at age 15? Austen was ahead of the curve yet again in acknowledging that not all female characters need be likable. Sure, Lydia is a plot device. But she’s a plot device with her own agenda.
Kitty: The silly one. While Kitty might get lumped in with Lydia by some, I find her to be an incredibly sympathetic character. Getting attention as the second youngest sister in a clan of five can’t be easy, so Kitty manages the best way she knows how…by playing lapdog to Lydia.
Mary: The serious one. Desperate to find someone who understands her, Mary struggles to find her place in the Bennet household. In another time, Mary might have found a community in that one coffee shop with the open mic where everyone’s poetry sounds a little too much like Sylvia Plath’s.
Elizabeth: The best one. Elizabeth Bennet does not suffer a fool. She possesses an enviable degree of self-confidence. She loves her family dearly, regardless of the opinions of others. And her quotes read like text on a sign held by a protestor at the Women’s March. She’s pretty much my hero.
Jane: The pretty one. By a lazier author, she could have been written with no depth. Instead, Austen paints a layered portrait of a woman struggling to be strong, even when her heart is torn to pieces.
Now that we’ve explored some of the ladies, talk to me about the men of Pride & Prejudice, B. How woke are they?
B: That’s a doozy. Okay then, let’s start with relations and progress to love interests.
Mr. Bennet: The patriarch of the Bennet family is bound by a family legacy that says his daughters cannot inherit his estate — toxic patriarchal inheritance laws ruin the party again — but he’s not in a rush to marry them off to the first man with an income either. For instance, when our girl Lizzie rejects Mr. Collins, he puts an end to the family drama with style. “From this day on, you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins. I shall never see you again if you do.” Yeah, he’s okay.
Mr. Collins: The supremely awkward heir to the estate is every bit a man of his time. He wants to marry because it will do his parish good and he’s quite happy to accept the best looking one of his cousins he can get. Boring. Unoriginal. Not a villain per se, but not for our girls, Elizabeth and Jane, either.
Mr. Bingley: As Austenian pretty boys go, Mr. Bingley is something of a rare gem. He’s wealthy and handsome, and he’s not a box of rocks either. He’s not in possession of an intellect to match Elizabeth and he’s too liable to trust his friend’s instincts over his own, but Bingley possesses a rare quality for his day. He’s fun. And utterly besotted with Jane. The way he cuts her out is cruel, but the man knows how to admit he’s wrong, and in this time, he should probably be knighted for that. He wasn’t born a woke bae, but he’s on his way to earning the title.
Mr. Wickham: We should take it as some comfort that even in Austen’s day there were bro-y fuckboys, and Mr. Wickham, well he was probably their leader. A self-obsessed liar with a gambling problem, Wickham uses his good looks to sweep women off their feet and free them of the burden of their fortunes. Even Elizabeth falls under this master manipulator’s spell for a period. Fortunately, Darcy eventually gets over himself and fills her in on the truth, proving once and for all that perhaps Wickham really is the man for Lydia. On second thought, no, no woman deserves this guy.
Mr. Darcy: The most iconic Austenian love interest never fails to elicit a swoon when he tells Elizabeth that she’s “bewitched him, body and soul.” But here’s the thing, and this pains me to say, he’s not without his faults. He thinks that women are only worthy of his attention if they’re beautiful and impossibly accomplished (something Lizzie rightly scoffs at). He presumes to tell Bingley that Jane feels nothing for him, even when he knows and understands nothing of the woman about whom he’s speaking. So yeah, Fitzwilliam Darcy has some issues he needs to work on, but like Bingley, he recognizes his own flaws when he meets his match.
S, now that we have the lay of the land, we should explore some of the social complications that keep our favorite lovers apart for so long.
S: The most significant complication is, of course, class. Jane Austen would have it no other way. One of her favorite subjects to explore is the subordination of the lower classes…and particularly, the hardships felt by women of less than noble birth. The Bennets are by no means poor, but thanks to the SUPER FAIR TO EVERYONE, ESPECIALLY WOMEN inheritance laws of the early 19th century, they live a precarious middle-class existence. And the Bennets’ lack of generational wealth is VERY offensive to many people in Darcy’s circle, including:
- His BFF’s sister: Caroline Bingley, in true frenemy fashion, passive-aggressively gets her jabs in whenever she can — and especially when Elizabeth dares to walk to Netherfield to visit her sister.
- His aunt: Lady Catherine de Bourgh straight up forbids Elizabeth from getting involved with her nephew — all for the unforgivable offense of being part of the 99%.
- Mr. Darcy himself: In the most ill-advised declaration of love since “that’s a very nice hat you’re wearing“, Darcy tells Elizabeth, “I have fought against my better judgment, my family’s expectations, the inferiority of your birth by rank and circumstance,” and expects her to swoon. Dude. DUDE! dude.
Eventually, Darcy gets over himself, and he and Elizabeth live happily ever after, but before they do, they face a few more hurdles. So talk to me, B. What else keeps our lovers apart?
B: We could go a number of directions here, but since you’ve already tee’d up Mr. Darcy’s slow path to getting out of his own way, it seems that we’ve come to the point of what I’ll call “The Mr. Wickham Ordeal.” As we’ve already mentioned, Mr. Wickham is a Grade A Austen ass. He’s handsome and uses his good looks, causal social grace and military garb to seduce women up-and-down the country and swipe their riches — and reputations, cause you know, they get played and they are the “ruined” ones. Oh, and there’s that small matter of Mr. Darcy’s father loving him like a son, making him excuses and leaving him a fortune that he wastes away, only to later suggest quite the opposite, and indeed, claim that the younger Darcy cut him out based on jealousy.
Quite unfortunately, our girl Lizzie and the rest of the Bennets are quite taken in by handsome Mr. Wickham and waste rather an amount of time counting him the truer gentleman and better friend than Darcy. In the grand scheme of things, he’s a lustful crush for Elizabeth that passes as quickly as it begins, because our girl has eyes, but more than that she has a brain and the good sense not to trifle with his ilk. Still, her impression that he was wronged by Darcy lingers quite as long as Darcy’s impression that Jane doesn’t care for Bingley. Perhaps, that’s why they make such a great match, but it never fails to astonish that two such verbally accomplished characters cannot manage to communicate for hundreds of pages, or in this case, a number of film reels. Were it not for the dresses and propriety, this story arc might have been straight out of The Hills. Come to think of it, maybe Jane cast the mold for every kind of love triangle we ever needed and everyone else is just putting a fresh coat of paint on this most exasperating dilemma.
S, time is making fools of us again. Let’s scribble down some stray observations with all haste before we make a ruling on this classic.
S: Let’s get into it!
- Were it not for the universal oppression of women, I would be all about the leisurely life (and fashion) of the early 19th-century British gentry. Tea, hot goss and empire waists are my jam.
- One of the best things about Lizzie Bennet is her wit. The girl can clap back like no one else. My personal favorite is doled out to Darcy after 1) he expresses his disdain for dancing and 2) Elizabeth overhears him referring to her as “barely tolerable”:
- Mr. Darcy: So what do you recommend to encourage affection?
- Elizabeth: Dancing. Even if one’s partner is barely tolerable.
- The scene where Elizabeth and Darcy are dancing, and then Joe Wright makes the decision to disappear the rest of the ball attendees to drive home the tension and electricity between the two of them — oof…my heart.
- Caroline Bingley is 100% the model for Regina George.
Alright B, give me your stray observations, and while you’re at it, show us what an accomplished woman you are by getting into the arithmetic.
B: My thoughts about this film are rather numerous, but the lion’s share of them tend toward, “oh, that dress” and “ugh, that house!” so I’ll keep to the true random gems here.
- File this quip to Jane under Lizzie throws a sick burn: “You’re a great deal too apt to like people in general.”
- What does Caroline Bingley do to amuse herself instead of walking around that gorgeous countryside? I’ve never known a greater peace than sitting in the little wood that was my backyard for the few days I lived in a converted mill in the Cotswolds and am retroactively offended at the notion that anyone wouldn’t take strolls, even if it meant getting a dress dirty.
- I’m quite convinced that few things could make me happier than a crossover where Winona Ryder’s Jo March meets Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Bennet.
And now for the numbers.
- +5 cringes for Mrs. Bennet, the mom so consumed with marrying off her daughters that she’s willing to more or less sell Lizzie to the boring cousin she despises on a whim.
- -3 cringes for Mr. Bennet’s generally good sense and own natural talent for a sick burn, case in point: “If Jane does die, it will be a comfort to know it was in pursuit of Mr. Bingley.”
- +2 cringes for Darcy’s general theory that women should meet an impossible standard to even be worthy of his time.
- +1 cringe for the societal norms that force Lizzie to caution Lydia against being an incorrigible flirt and a silly girl.
- -4 cringes for the literary miracle that is Elizabeth Bennet.
- -1 cringe for Austen forever banging the drum that patriarchal inheritance laws ruin the party for everyone.
Yes, S. If my math is correct, that brings us down to zero cringes. This is a story about a gaggle of girls fighting for love in a world that’s dictated by the whims of men. And incredibly, in Austen’s own time, she found a way to tell it that makes clear that Lizzie and Jane and every other woman we meet lives an unfair life because of that. She found a way to make a leading lady who emotes the injustice of every thing women weren’t meant to struggle against then and are still too often confronted with. Who’d have known we would have to look so far into the past to find the best example of female-driven storytelling we’ve yet seen?
What say you, S? Do you agree that Joe Wright’s take on Austen’s classic nets out to our first “perfect” score?
S: Just a few additions from me.
- +3 cringes for Lady Catherine’s classism and internalized misogyny. This is how the man keeps you down, lady!
- An additional -3 cringes for dear Lizzie. She deserves it.
And with that, I agree that we’ve found our second-ever perfect score. The irony, of course, is that Pride and Prejudice was published 205 years ago, yet studios today STILL struggle to get it right when it comes to representation of women. Kudos to Joe Wright for staying true to the source material and letting literary shero Jane Austen’s words shine.
For our next challenge, we’re taking on the seven deadly sins and a creepy serial killer. Are women unfairly victimized by one – or both? We’ll watch Se7en and find out.
Main image: Focus Features
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