Published anonymously as “A Lady” during her lifetime with limited success, and later to become the ever-increasing darling of amorists and college and university English Lit classes, Jane Austen and her self-possessing humor and social annotation would finally receive the kind of broad popularity long deserved thanks to the 1995 BBC/A&E miniseries Pride and Prejudice. Often but inaccurately referred to as the originator of the “modern novel,” she was the emerging genre’s most dedicated early disciple, and indisputably its most giddy romantic fantasist: using then-contemporary settings, with character profiles based on her family, distant relations, friends and less-than-favored associates, she concocted swooning chivalric reveries in which idyllic love trumped her own reality. (Now, of course, her novels are histories of manner, custom, propriety.) In spite of a lifetime relegated to living with her family, which included six brothers and one sister, and being educated at home and traveling relatively little, Austen the voracious reader dared to offer up her spinster energy to trenchant distaff observations of social behavior and to equally scorn its offenders, no doubt nettling not only the real people on whom her characters were based but also the arbiters governing traditional literature. You can imagine the horror the real personages, characterized by the Sisters Bingley, Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, might have endured when reading Austen’s devastating roman à clef sketches. (While libel not a concern, her alleged “immodesty” was and when objected to by her publisher, she responded by requesting that cover of anonymity.) Through her characters, Austen seldom hesitated to cast initial judgment on others—hence the original title of Pride and Prejudice, “First Impressions.” Understanding the universal human weaknesses to use one’s pride as armament and prejudice as rationale, she conjured embarrassing social ordeal as means to rectify the failings. Moralist she was, due in large part to her father being a rector (and her mother was a daughter of one) but, unlike Dickens, no badgering critic: her stories don’t indict society, only the scoundrels and venomous gossips in it. Directed by Simon Langton, and adapted by Andrew Davies, this Pride and Prejudice most likely sparks so responsive a cord because there’s a powerful longing for Austen’s civility and beauty of language. As our own society dives into hatred, as we watch our culture sink into an “it sucks” cesspool abetted by a 140 character limitation, listening to the cultivated banter between Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy and Jennifer Ehle’s Lizzie Bennet is an oasis of verbal rejuvenation. It’s the restoration of politeness: Darcy and Lizzie raging at each other, even while dancing at a ball, is the art of melodious accusatory discourse in the wars of attraction. It’s in the rich exaltation of the way words have been designed to inflict wounds and self-righteous opinion, impart venom, to reverberate with humor and passion, never more marvelously volcanic in an English-language entertainment than during Darcy’s proposal of marriage. And the venom is highly polished: Lady de Bourgh claws at Lizzie with the demand that she “universally contradict” the “report of an alarming nature” that Lizzie is about to be engaged to her nephew Mr. Darcy. She accuses Lizzie of using her “arts and allurements” to snare him, and that if her “final resolve” is not to refuse any proposal from him, because her social status is less than desirable, the vexed Lady de Bourgh would be “most seriously displeased.” The gossip is comically self-censored, especially when the mother Mrs. Bennet is informed of a future son-in-law’s “drunken rots, debauches, intrigues, seductions.” (The indictments are enunciated to enhance every damning syllable.) Who’d have guessed Colin Firth an iconic Darcy? Looking taller than usual, employing an aristocratic butch gait (the Napoleonic coats and chimney hats help), having gained some fleshiness in the face, which is covered with advantageous collars and hair, he brings a bit of Laurence Olivier’s Darcy to the brooding snob-loner as tribute but he’s no clone: this is Firth’s first real masculine romantic and he’s absolutely first rate. (John Kenway’s camera also aids enormously by emblemizing Darcy’s “first impressions” when he’s virtually stalking parlors and dance floors and when he’s frustrated by the challenge of the object of his affection.) A puffy Barbara Parkins crossed with Mary McDonnell and a smidgen of Meryl Streep, Jennifer Ehle’s Lizzie, the second oldest of five Bennet daughters, has a curiously courteous objurgation that both attracts and repels: the attention she gets for her various sentiments, notions and social position (which is always in danger of ebbing) are also the sins used against her by the upper class bitches—Lady de Bourgh, Bingley’s sisters (in hilarious Eleanor Bron get ups they sneer acid putdowns). This Lizzie, however, has the kind of searing smarts that keeps enemies at bay and she has wonderful moments of self-recognition about her family, acquaintances, and her early faulty views, and the audience shares in the most revealing—when she takes in Darcy’s mansion, we can “see” her envisioning herself as the Mistress of Pemberly. Suggesting what Alistair Cooke might have been like as an actor, Benjamin Whitrow very warmly plays the Bennet patriarch who’s never above calling three of his five “the silliest of girls”; Alison Steadman’s Mrs. Bennet is the epitome of excessive exasperation, lace and hypochondria; the youngest silly Lydia, who almost causes a fatal social calamity, gets the Tracey Ullman treatment by Julia Sawalha (Edina’s daughter on Absolutely Fabulous); Lucy Scott disarming as the decidedly unromantic, common-sensed Charlotte Lucas; and Barbara Leigh-Hunt’s Lady Catherine as another hybrid: Lillian Gish as Pamela Brown. As the effete pompous ass-kissing Mr. Collins, David Bamber provides what may be TV’s most amusingly churlish use of the language of condescension. Some readers have carped that the miniseries has unduly expanded the novel, though the scenes written that are not in the book (like the opening and conversations between male characters), and the moments of visual sweep the book can only hint at, are so lovingly integrated by Davies, who brings care and reverence to the material to provide full-bodied reverberation, that the objections seem petty. With sense and sensibility, the cast and crew set out to make the definitive version and have come close to displacing the source.
The 2014 Blu-ray of Pride and Prejudice is resurrection. BBC’s old preferred Super 16mm format, originally used to record this series and Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown, has been very problematic when transferred to DVDs. Colors were washed out and definition blurry due to having to rely on deteriorating HD prints because the preferred HD negatives had inherent glitches heretofore unresolved. In the special features section of the Pride package is a segment on the restoration process explaining how the negatives have been made usable. The technology does much more than bring eye-catching resolution to the production values, restore color and sound. Austen’s bucolic universe now envelopes as never before.
Text COPYRIGHT © 1998 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.