Enkomputiligis Don HARLOW

Pride and Prejudice

by Jane Austen and Andrew Davies

reviewed by Don Harlow

There is nothing, IMHO, quite so annoying as being awakened in the morning by the bedroom TV. But if this is one of the crosses you have to bear in life, then it becomes far less annoying when the scene on the TV to which you wake is Lady Catherine de Bourgh's angry interview with Elizabeth Bennett in the "prettyish kind of a little wilderness" out in back of Longbourne house. If this is the case, then instead of rolling over and trying to go back to sleep, all you can do is prop your head up, lean back and enjoy it.

I'm not talking now about the 1940 discussion between Edna May Oliver and Greer Garson, which was a joke (and whose result showed a Lady Catherine whose humor was so widely at variance with that of The Magnificent Jane's original character) but the one from the 1995 six-hour A&E production between the genuinely snippy and snotty Catherine Leigh-Hunt on the one hand and hard-nosed (and exasperated, though unfailingly polite) young Jennifer Ehle on the other.

I don't suppose there is much one can say about Jane Austen's now almost 200-year-old novel Pride and Prejudice. It is probably the prototype of both the romance and the Regency genres; yet it is very distant in atmosphere from the books that Harlequin publishes today, and it is certainly not a Regency novel in the current sense. Lois McMaster Bujold probably approaches the atmosphere of Austen's book as closely as anyone today can in A Civil Campaign ("A comedy of manners and biology"), which is set more than 1000 years in our future, and that is not very close (though "Jane" is one of the four women to whom Bujold dedicates her book). Is there anyone out there who hasn't read Pride and Prejudice? I suppose that, this one time, I must confess that I've read it at least six times (shame! shame!), though my tastes run more to Heinlein's Rocket Ship Galileo ("Let's blast those Nazis off the moon!") and George Lucas's Star Wars ("Use the force, Luke!") with its nifty planet-destroying explosions. I've even tried my hand at translating a bit of it -- you can find Darcy's proposal of marriage to Eliza, and her angry rejoinder, in Esperanto guise on-line. (At that, I'm well behind Rob Hardy, who has translated the entire novel, though he keeps his "manuscript" hidden away somewhere on an old floppy disk...)

Hopefully, the story needs little description to anyone here. Starting with "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife," we follow Miss Elizabeth Bennet, the second -- and certainly the most practical -- daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet of Longbourne through a number of early-18th-century crises her first encounter with the excessively proud and unlikeable Fitzwilliam Darcy; her desire to nourish the growing affection between her older sister Jane and the somewhat unassuming Charles Bingley; her proposal of marriage from her odious cousin the clergyman Mr. Collins; her relationship with Mr. Wickham -- who is not all that he would prefer to seem; her visit to Rosings Park, the domain of the Lady Catherine, an aristocrat of great "condescension"; her trip through the Peak District with her aunt and uncle Gardiner, culminating on the grounds of Darcy's huge estate at Pemberley; Lydia Bennet's elopement with Wickham; and eventually Eliza's marriage to a Darcy now revealed as perfectly amiable (or perhaps converted by his love for Eliza to a state of perfect amiability).

The 1995 miniseries (unlike the 1940 black-and-white movie with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier) follows the story with much faith and attention to detail. Most of the dialogue is lifted straight out of the book. Some very few scenes are omitted; there are three or four additional ones that were not invented by Jane Austen (one or two additional in camera discussions between Eliza and Jane; Darcy in his London salle d'armes; Darcy in his bath at Netherfield; Darcy swimming -- fully clothed -- in a pond outside Netherfield). A few conversations have been invented where Austen simply describes an encounter, but these never deviate from the general tone of the dialogue in the book. Most notable of the latter, I think, is the conversation between Eliza and Darcy when they unexpectedly meet on the grounds of his estate at Pemberley; Austen simply writes "He ... spoke to Elizabeth, if not in terms of perfect composure, at least of perfect civility," a description totally appropriate for the explicit miniseries conversation, in which a perfectly civil Darcy -- still dripping water from his short swim -- shows his flusterment by inquiring after the health of her family twice, stammering slightly the second time. A kudos to the scriptwriter!

Most of the casting was inspired. Benjamin Whitrow's Mr. Bennet, an essentially ineffective gentleman who means well but suffers from always feeling himself an outside observer rather than a participant in the human comedy (even to the point of spending most of his time hiding himself away from the human race in his library), is someone with whom I found it extremely easy to identify, though these days my computer has taken over to a great extent from my books. Alison Steadman's Mrs. Bennet lets us have all the pleasure we want from her "nerves," which seem to give her fits right on schedule. Colin Firth does the stern-faced Darcy extremely well, in the six hours of the series never cracking so much as a smile until the very final scene when, driving off in a carriage with his new bride, he breaks into the widest SEG I've ever seen on an actor. Julia Sawalha -- she was Saffron Monsoon in AbFab, right, Esther A.A.H.??? -- does a creditable job as the irrepressible Lydia. And casting Jennifer Ehle as Eliza was inspired -- she's "plain" enough to have attracted Mr. Darcy's indifference at their first meeting, but when she smiles, if she were in the right place she could cause a thousand ships to slip their moorings and slide down the ways into the water. (Such people do exist -- I've known at least one in my life.) Anna Chancellor as Charlotte Bingley shows that she knows how to sneer to just the degree that the situation demands of a supercilious sister. You'll love David Bamber as the sycophantic and obsequious clergyman cousin Mr. Collins. Perhaps less inspired are Susannah Harker as Jane Bennet -- she is too self-posessed for Austen's less-than-practical Jane, and even gives Eliza good advice from time to time -- and Crispin Bonham-Carter as a Charles Bingley who occasionally seems to be struggling to get off Darcy's apron strings.

On A&E the series was split into three parts. The first part shows the growing acquaintance (and affection) between certain members of the Bennet household and certain members of the Netherfield party during what seems an endless round of parties, assemblies and balls, which should, over two hours, become boring, but somehow doesn't. The second part takes Eliza first to Rosings Park and then to Pemberley. The third part involves the search for Lydia and Wickham, and then the return of the Netherfield party to Netherfield and the final reconciliation between the two couples. The breaks between the three parts are quite natural, really part of the original story; perhaps Austen had a three-part miniseries in mind when she wrote the book.

In passing, this is one of four enjoyable Austen audio-visual presentations that have come out in recent years, the others being Sense and Sensibility (notable for having the villainous Alan Rickman of Die Hard and Quigley Down Under in one of his first genuinely sympathetic roles, as the semi-tragic Colonel Brandon), the version of Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow, (1) and most recently Mansfield Park. The recent series of "Jane Austen mystery" novels by Stephanie Barron -- in which Austen is the protagonist -- is less inspired; a more astute Barron would have realized that (a) handing Austen the solutions to her mysteries on a platter is not the way to go about putting her into a book effectively, and (b) providing a novel with copious footnotes is something she should leave to Jack Vance, who knows how to do it.

The A&E Pride and Prejudice is available on both tape and, I believe, DVD for around $60 (it started, a couple of years ago, at the usual $99.95, if I remember correctly). Fortunately, I taped the whole series myself, but -- who knows! -- maybe soon I'll want a DVD version so that I can watch the series on my computer while I type...

If you reading this haven't yet seen it, though, and if you like Jane Austen -- try to catch it. If you have to pay to do so ... it's worth the money.


(1) There have been at least two other versions of Emma in recent years, one of them -- under the title Clueless -- considerably updated to attract the attention of modern youth...

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