Pride & Prejudice: Episode 1

“For a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

In which we meet the Bennets, the Bennets meet the Bingleys and their friend Mr. Darcy, Jane catches a cold, and Elizabeth takes a walk. Contains spoilers.

The 1995 BBC miniseries production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is considered by many fans (including this one) to be the quintessential screen version of the beloved novel. It is perfect, or very nearly so, in every detail.

I can’t speak to the effectiveness of the exposition because I know the story so well, but I believe it’s done subtly and rather briefly. The Bennets’ home situation is established quickly. I love that the first shots of the home are of a shrieking argument over a hat. Life with the Bennets is hectic and none too relaxing. The family hierarchy is shown in a matter of moments. Jane and Elizabeth are the oldest, the most responsible, and the calmest. Kitty and Lydia are the youngest, the loudest, and the silliest. Mary is a stick in the mud who is mostly ignored by everyone. Mrs. Bennet seems to hate the crazed atmosphere of her home, but does nothing to control it, while Mr. Bennet tries to avoid everyone as much as possible. Lydia is her mother’s favorite, Elizabeth is her father’s favorite. Jane and Elizabeth are best friends, as are Kitty and Lydia. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are not quite the picture of marital bliss.

The Bennets’ financial straits are also speedily communicated. Although they are not poor, the entail of the estate means that the Bennets will be poor after Mr. Bennet’s death unless they are provided for in another way, such as by marriage. At the moment, they have as much money as they need for servants, horses, carriages, and new gowns and hats. It is only the future that is in flux. Knowing all this, Mrs. Bennet has become obsessed with marrying off her daughters as quickly as possible and to the richest men possible. While her motives may seem mercenary to us today, there was no other financial recourse for women of that class besides marriage. They were too rich to work and too poor to have very wealthy relations.

Our first glimpse of Miss Elizabeth Bennet is out on a walk. Elizabeth’s walks coincide with several major plot developments, including one in this episode. Her walking also sets her apart from the other characters. The only others frequently shown walking are Kitty and Lydia and they only walk to Meryton to visit the officers. Elizabeth generally walks for her own amusement. Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst are astonished at Elizabeth’s love of walking, and even Jane, the character with whom Lizzy has most in common, seems to prefer to stay indoors.

Elizabeth is an unusual sort of woman for the time. Although she respects society’s rules and edicts and never shows bad manners, she does have a way of pushing the boundaries of society. She is not rude or at all unseemly, but she is playful in the way she talks to others, even her social superiors. This will most clearly be seen in later episodes when she deals with Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Even here, we see her challenge Mr. Darcy and Miss Bingley on their idea of the accomplished young lady and tease Darcy about his resentful temper.

Elizabeth is indeed different. When invited to visit Netherfield, Jane asks to borrow the carriage. When Elizabeth decides to tend to her sister at Netherfield, she is offered the carriage but chooses instead to walk, despite the muddy countryside. While her behavior is not improper, it is just a hair unusual. Her so-called “conceited independence” sets her apart from her peers. One could argue that this is precisely what draws Darcy’s attention to her. Unlike Miss Bingley, who is consistently throwing herself at him, Elizabeth does not seem to care what he thinks of her. He watches her recount his insult of her to Charlotte Lucas with interest. His comment was rude and cruel, but Elizabeth finds it funny and not emotionally devastating.

It is also quickly established that Elizabeth is decidedly not a woman on the hunt for a husband. Her conversation with Jane shows that she is in no rush to get married, nor is she likely to accept just any man who makes her an offer. This is important for the story. Had Elizabeth been more like her friend Charlotte Lucas, her later romance with Darcy would have taken on an entirely different flavor.

The miniseries has a lot to boast about. A huge amount of its dialogue was taken directly from Austen’s pages, for instance. There are parts you can literally follow along in the book. To my thinking, the best thing about the show is Colin Firth. Not just because he’s a solid actor and ridiculously handsome (cf. 30 Rock “The man can wear a sweater”), but because he absolutely nails the character of Fitzwilliam Darcy in a way no actor has done before or since.

It’s true, he owes a lot to the script. Regardless of performance, this Darcy is the closest to Austen’s vision of the character. The show is ungenerous with Mr. Darcy. Other versions omit many of Darcy’s disparaging comments about Elizabeth and her family given during his evenings with the Bingleys. Whether this is done for time or to soften the character is anyone’s guess. The miniseries pulls no punches and, if it weren’t for that handsome face, Darcy would be absolutely detestable for the first half of the miniseries. That is as it should be.

As in other versions, Darcy’s attraction to Elizabeth is clear from early on, but that attraction does not soften his demeanor nor his treatment of her. He’s far from the flirty Darcy we see in 1940 and from the cold but quiet Darcy of 2005. Firth’s Darcy is snobbish and disapproving, or at least he appears so thus far.

Historical Context:

It’s hard to compare incomes in the 1800s to what they are today. The best estimate I could find is that Bingley’s £5,000 a year translates roughly to £150,000-200,00 ($250,00-$300,000). The cost of things has changed so much that this really doesn’t give us much of an idea of Bingley’s wealth. Compare Bingley’s income to that of the mother in Sense and Sensibility, who is able to support herself and her three daughters, maintain a comfortable, if rented, home and employ three servants with £500 a year. In any estimation, Bingley is very wealthy. As for Mr. Darcy, with his £10,000 and lavish estate, he can easily be placed as one of the one or two hundred richest men in England.

The militia was the part of the army responsible for home defense. The novel occurs during the Napoleonic Wars (1800-1815), when an invasion was greatly feared. Militias like the one we see here left their military posts in the winter and took up residence in a town because there was less chance of a French invasion.

Bits & Pieces:

Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth have great chemistry. They actually dated for a short time during production.

Susannah Harper (Jane) was pregnant during filming. Thanks to the empire waisted costumes, her pregnancy is hardly discernible. It is most obvious in the scenes in her bedroom, which were filmed later. There, shawls were strategically draped over her bump.

In my opinion, harlequin Great Danes are by far the classiest of dogs.

Although the American Ehle’s accent is good, she slips a bit when her mother visits her at Netherfield and she asks her if she’s seen Charlotte Lucas.

Anna Chancellor (Caroline Bingley) is a direct descendant of one of Jane Austen’s brothers.

Favorite Moments:

Any time Darcy makes a comment about Elizabeth’s “fine eyes” and Miss Bingley reacts to it.

Darcy’s commenting that truly accomplished women read extensively as he watches Elizabeth read and Miss Bingley loiter. In a later drawing room scene, you can catch her holding (but still not reading) a book. I wonder what inspired that...

The way Darcy looks at Elizabeth. It makes me melt.

Colin Firth in the bathtub. I’m sure you could have guessed that one.

Elizabeth and Miss Bingley’s “turn about the room” and Darcy’s comments about it.

20 comments:

Juliette said...

The exposition is definitely brilliant in this series - I watched it aged 12, with no knowledge of the book or the period, and followed everything perfectly. I genuinely had no idea how it was going to end until the Radio Times spoiled it in the very last week - I realised Jane and Bingley would end up together, but I thought Lizzy might end up with Wickham for quite a while. (Not Mr Collins though).

I think Lizzy is very hurt by Darcy's comments at the ball - she laughs it off because that's what she does (and what quite a lot of we British do in general, stiff upper lipped as we all are!) but deep down she's very, very hurt, especially because she had thought he was quite attractive, and that's the real reason she's mad at him for more than half the story - Wickham and the whole business with Jane rub salt in the wound, but it was how much he hurt her at the ball that made her inclined to dislike him and believe Wickham (despite both her father and Jane telling her she should be more cuatious) and it's why she doesn't realise he likes her.

I didn't know Ehle was American! Her accent is perfect.

CrazyCris said...

Yay! Sunbunny's giving us a chance to relive P&P!!! I actually saw it again for the umpteenth time last month one weekend when I was nursing a nasty cold. Perfect excuse to spend several hours in front of the TV! :p

My issue with this compared to the 2005 movie has always been that this one felt a bit too "neat" or "tidy", and the 2005 movie more alive (down to the messy ribbons etc.). I also felt all the girls a bit too old for their roles... Otherwise yes, this is definitely the best adaptation out there! :o) I have vague memories of the 1940s one (the change in Lady Catherine makes me laugh), but try as I might I've never found it again to give it another shot!

In ANY version Mrs Bennett and Collins always make me cringe! :p


I don't think Lizzie found Darcy's comment "not hurtful", I think she uses comedy to hide how much it bothered her... after all she later tells Jane "I could more easily forgive his pride if he had not injured mine"

Ehle is American?!?!?! I never would have guessed! And the British didn't make a fuss about this at the time (à la Zellweger and Bridget Jones)?! odd... :p

I also didn't know that about Anna Chancellor, VERY cool to have an Austen descendant in the cast! :o)

Just one thing Sunbunny: if by any chance (strange as it may be) someone reading this hasn't seen this miniseries (or the 2005 movie) or read the book (unlikely I know)... you've basically given all the goodies away! :p

sunbunny said...

CrazyCris - I figured everyone would know the basic story or would be uninterested in this review. Still, I added a spoiler warning. Honestly, it didn't occur to me there were people who haven't read the book, obsessed as I am.

"Not hurtful" was probably the wrong phrase. I just meant that she's ready to make fun of it so it's not a huge deal to her. She willingly told Charlotte of the incident, which she didn't have to do. She was offended, yes, but won't be crying herself to sleep at night because of it. :)

Abby said...

I have spent many happy Saturdays rewatching this miniseries. So excited to see it being reviewed and discussed!

I had seen this several times before I ever read the book, and I was impressed, as I read, to realize how faithful an adaptation it is. For me, it really succeeds in capturing the charm, wit, and sly humor that makes Jane Austen such and enjoyable read, and Lizzie Bennet such an engaging character.

a.m. said...

I'm so glad you are reviewing this mini-series! Are you going to do other Austen/classics? And I totally agree with CrazyCris that watching this is the best way to get over a sickness. In fact, I love this story so much that I own multiple versions of the book and DVDs!
I definitely agree with you sunbunny that this version does the best job of showing Darcy's "pride."
I can't wait to read the rest of your reviews...

sunbunny said...

a.m. - ChrisB and I will be tag teaming this miniseries and we have reviews of more versions of P&P coming up so stay tuned! March is going to be an Austenpalooza.

CrazyCris said...

Why am I not surprised ChrisB will be helping you with this??? :p

(I forsee a North & South addition in the future!) ;o)

ChrisB said...

When I do North and South, Cris, you will get a lot of the credit!

:-)

a.m. said...

WooHoo! Austenpalooza with ChrisB and sunbunny! I can't wait...I own all the recent PBS/BBC Austen movies (including multiple versions of Emma), and the 2005 Pride and Prejudice...I look forward to all of the early 19th century madness you have in store:)

a.m. said...

Oh, and are you talking Richard Armitage North and South or Patrick Swayze North and South?

[fingers crossed] please say Artmitage, please say Armitage, please say Armitage [toes crossed too]

ChrisB said...

a.m. -- the plan is to do all things Pride and Prejudice and then see where we go from there. I agree that there is a lot of great Austen and a lot of great 19th century lit to cover. I am especially fanatical about the Ruth Wilson/Toby Stephens Jane Eyre. We'll see how it goes.

But, don't worry. I was, of course, referring to the Richard Armitage version. Only one thing to say about that series -- sigh...

CrazyCris said...

ChrisB: jejejeje! *sigh* indeed!!! ;o)

Lots of 19th century lit?! This is going to be fabulous! My favourite literary period!!! :o)

Anonymous said...

Lovely review of one of my favourite Austen-adaptations..Colin Firth is by far the best Darcy as Ehle is the best Lizzie..Just watch them and feel the chemistry..I had no idea she was American. Good job with the accent.
Love that Jane Eyre with Ruth Wilson too.
Anna

Anonymous said...

oh i'm so glad! you have included all y period piece series/movies: Pride and prejudice, north and south.... Are you only focussing on romance, what about dickens? Such as Bleak House, Nicholas Nickelby....

Thank you for your review Sunbunny, enjoyed it. Always right on point.

ChrisB said...

My favorite adaptation of one of my favorite books. It would be embarrassing to admit how often I have watched these six hours, so we'll just leave it at a lot.

I love the scene at the ball where they spark off each other at once. He's rude; she's taken aback. But, he can't take his eyes off her. As she walks away to her friends, he watches her and he winces when they all start laughing. Not a great first impression.

Great review, sunbunny. You're a tough act to follow.

Anonymous said...

Lovely review. But isn't the opening quote "possession", not "position"? :)

sunbunny said...

Well, that's fairly humiliating. Thanks, Anon. I fixed it. I don't know how I missed that!

shruti said...

This is why I love this site. You take the best adaptation of my favourite book and make me agree with everything on the review :) :)
@Sunbunny.. I saw the series after countless readings of the book too but I made a friend of mine, who hates reading, watch this series and after multiple watchings she could discuss it with me as passionately as if she had read the book. So I suppose the exposition is done well.
LOVE Colin Firth. He is exactly what I always imagined Darcy to be. And the scene at the second ball where he watches her walk away, meditating on her 'fine eyes'..... swooooon!!!

Thanks so much for taking up this series. Cant wait for everything else P&P and eventually everything Jane Austen.

Anonymous said...

For all Mr. Darcy lovers:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2358180/Oh-Mr-Darcy-Giant-version-Jane-Austen-character-wet-shirt-famous-Colin-Firth-emerges-London-lake.html

Annie said...

I was at a craft fair recently that had Colin Firth's outfit from the lake scene on a mannequin (there were a number of other costumes from Austen adaptations too). The mannequin didn't have a head but the build was just right for Colin Firth and I had to try and stifle girly giggles walking past with very limited success.