Jane Austen: Pride & Prejudice

June 24, 2020

4154mFOeD9L._AC_UY218_     Lockdown entertainment has been a little thin on the ground as far as we are concerned, and so we seized the opportunity to re-enjoy the famous BBC-TV production of Pride and Prejudice which was repeated over six weeks recently. It remains a superb adaptation of the novel which has stood the test of time, a tribute to the skills of Andrew Davies’ screenplay, and yet, it is just that – an adaptation – and it sent me back to re-read the novel itself, which I hadn’t done for quite a number of years, with a view both to evaluating Davies’ skill and detecting what he inevitably had to strip away to get Austen’s novel down to six fifty-minute episodes.

He retains as much of her dialogue as possible; this shows. And what we inevitably lose is Austen’s narrative style, in particular the difference between actual speech and Austen’s particular variety of reported speech, which at once feels like we’re inside the speaker’s mind or consciousness, but upon closer reflection makes us notice that Austen is actually commenting and shaping our response to the character and events. There are places where you have to recreate the dialogue yourself, to imagine actual words, from the slanted account Austen is actually giving of a conversation… this is very subtle and very clever, and easy to miss completely if you read too quickly, without reflecting.

Jane Austen was a good deal funnier than I remembered, and there was so much more depth and detail in the key conversations between Elizabeth and Jane, and between Elizabeth and her friend Charlotte Lucas. It became evident that the crucial development of Elizabeth, her coming slowly and maturely to greater self-knowledge and self-understanding cannot possibly be articulated on screen, and yet is perhaps the most important strand of the story. It is presented through her thoughts, whereas the similar growth in self-awareness of Darcy is revealed in dialogue, conversation between the two of them.

Then there is the difference between a novel, written to be read, consumed, enjoyed at one’s own pace, and a television adaptation, to be shown as a continuous episode (yes, I know you can pause and come back and rewind and all that stuff, but it isn’t the same!). There is a greater intensity of emotion and feeling which comes from reading the story, no matter how skilful an adaptation is for the small screen. You can pause and reflect, flip back to an earlier conversation, have a discussion with someone else about the situation…

I found myself looking out for and noticing small things as I read. There is the ‘will she get her man or not?’ which is paralleled in both Jane’s and Elizabeth’s stories, a trope which is brought to perfection in the later novel Persuasion. There is the cynical question, is it Darcy or Pemberley that Elizabeth falls in love with? This time, I felt convinced that it was Darcy at Pemberley, on his own home territory that she falls in love with. The place makes the man: Darcy is a fish out of water in other settings, along with other faults which Elizabeth clearly enumerates. Had she wanted to, surely Jane Austen could have had a character we liked less than Elizabeth fall in love with a place rather than a person, but it’s not what happens here… at least that’s my opinion this time around.

Proposals are done privately in Austen’s novels: we don’t hear Bingley put the question, nor Darcy. The happy outcome is reported, obviously, but this will not do for television, so dialogue (and a kiss) has to be scripted, and this is where screen adaptations inevitably (but briefly) fall down for me.

A final note: I was much more aware, this time around, of Mrs Gardiner as the matchmaker though her conversations with Darcy when Elizabeth is not around – subtly done. And ironical, in that it’s Mrs Bennet’s sister who helps to bring about what she herself singularly fails to do, her daughter’s happiness. There’s always something new in a Jane Austen novel, even at the n-th reading!

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