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.
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.
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.