Jane Austin’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was published in January 1813, 200 years ago. By accident, believe me I’m not obsessive; I have four copies of this favourite book. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t love ‘Pride and Prejudice’ though having said that I’m aware I may be leaving myself wide open for those who will happily disagree. For me it is like a finely manicured garden, each sentence like a blossom pruned of any drooping leaf or faded petal and positioned perfectly to enhance the vista and please the eye of those who view it from whatever perspective.
There is nothing superfluous in Jane’s prose, every word, sentence or dialogue developing the narrative, recording impressions, manners, mores, building characters, expressing tone and texture, odour, flavour, extolling virtue or exposing failings and vices “One has all the goodness and the other all the appearance of it.” Chapter.40. She weaves a rich tapestry, teasing out each thread revealing in the fullness of her plot the warp and the weft of Regency Society. This is an enduring quality that makes us read it again and again and commends it to succeeding generations.
Some describe it as the perfect novel: realistic, elegant and witty and often satirical, it has been adapted for film and TV numerous times but I’ve yet to see for myself or hear someone else say that any film or television dramatization comes near to expressing the depth, and subtlety of Austin’s classic work. “Film is not literature – the image on screen is the information you get” so says British actor John Hurt. Not the most profound statement but true nonetheless.
There have been some good attempts the BBC series staring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. has so much to commend it. To hear Lawrence Olivier’s amazing voice deliver ‘God Bless you Elizabeth’ to Grier Garsen’s Miss Bennet gives me goose pimples, although the 1940’s Hollywood film delightful in many ways is a travesty of the original book, and the Bollywood take-off is colourful, vibrant, funny and amazingly enjoyable and the original story is still recognizable despite the elephants. There are others and no doubt there will be many more.
Some might see this book as merely a love story and on one level it certainly is that but it is also rich in early 19th century values, customs, manners and language: self-control, courtesy and consideration which are less obvious on film than in the written word.
The Austin family stood with the abolitionists, she alludes to the abomination of the slave trade in subsequent books but the horror of the ‘chattel’ aspect of British Society at that time which still remains in many nations today glares at us virtually from the beginning of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ “But I tell you Miss Lizzy, if you take it into your head to go on refusing every offer of marriage in this way, you will never get a husband at all and I am sure I do not know who is to maintain you when your father is dead.” Chapter 20. None of the Bennet girls had a good enough education to be able to make their living as governesses which was, should they not marry, one of the few respectable careers available to unmarried women of that day and with little or no dowry what would have been their chances in real life? For the young woman and their families of her day marriage was seen as the only escape or security and they were traded like cattle; it was described as the ‘marriage mart’.
Miss Austin was born in 1775 in Steventon, Hampshire the daughter of an Anglican vicar. Her schooling would be considered in her day and by today’s standards poor, (after all she was a girl in a time when only boys received a high level of education) but the language that she would hear and read daily would be from the King James bible the structure and vocabulary of which is of a much higher standard than anything written today. She was also an avid reader, favourites Fanny Burney and, Henry Fielding, “I have read [Byron’s] The Corsair, mended my petticoat, and have nothing else to do.” (Letter to her sister) and numerous other publications we now consider the classics.
Her Christian values peep at us in the written word, they were not habit or custom but a real faith which would direct her thoughts and actions, not only of herself but of her characters many of whom are brought to a revelation of their human frailty and vices, and undergo a profound transformation none more so than Elizabeth “She was humbled, she was grieved, she repented,” Chapter 50, and Darcy “What did you say of me, that I did not deserve? For though your accusations were ill-founded, formed on mistaken premises, my behaviour to you at the time, had merited the severest reproof. It was unpardonable. I can not think of it without abhorrence.” Chapter 58. Her Christian ethos is merely seen as the backdrop for the marriage of Darcy and Elizabeth in the theatrical adaptations. Nor did she see the world through rose-tinted spectacles not everyone would learn from their mistakes and have a happy ending; Wickham and Lydia “His affection for her soon sank into indifference; hers lasted a little longer;” Chapter 61, and she exposed the hypocrisy of her age with delightful irony “You ought certainly to forgive them as a Christian but never to admit them in your sight, or allow their names to be mentioned in your hearing.’ “That is his notion of Christian forgiveness!'” Chapter 56.
The problem with film and TV adaptations is that they invariably dumb it down ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is a classic example of this as are adaptations of Jane Eyre turning them into little better than chocolate box romances or Valium books however sumptuously or correct are the locations, costumes, furniture, vehicles and the rest.
Abridgment of the novel or screen plays are dependant on the bias or prejudice of the writer, or director etal which often contradicts the values of the original novel. They strip out what is considered superfluous to the Postmodern World.
We would be outraged if parts of a Beethoven Symphony or a Grieg Concerto were trimmed so why do we accept it with the written word?