It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when it comes to Pride and Prejudice, once is not enough. For acolytes, Jane Austen’s best-selling novel of the early 19th century invites reading again and again – and again. The same applies to the miniseries produced by BBC in 1995 and available on DVD at Whitehorse Public Library. Broadcast in six weekly episodes, the production broke viewing records and made a heartthrob of cerebral Colin Firth.
In Regency, England the Bennet family lives comfortably, but an entailment means the five daughters won’t have any inheritance when Mr. Bennet is gone. Consequently, Mrs. Bennet (Alison Steadman) is preoccupied with settling her daughters in marriage.
Pickings are slim in their village, until Mr. Bingley (Crispin Bonham-Carter) rents the nearby estate. The oldest daughters are more circumspect than their mother, but Jane (Susannah Harker) finds Mr. Bingley quite acceptable, and he is smitten in return.
Unfortunately, his friend Mr. Darcy’s (Colin Firth) “contemptuous indifference” doesn’t go unnoticed, especially when he snubs Elizabeth (Jennifer Ehle). Then there’s Mr. Wickham (Adrian Lukis), a soldier with an ingratiating way about him, who has tales to tell about Mr. Darcy that support the unfavourable first impression that Darcy made.
Pride and Prejudice is a fairy tale – Cinderella, or Beauty and the Beast – but it’s also subversive, with its account of the middle-class Bennets infiltrating the upper classes by way of their charming daughters, who acknowledge the transactional nature of marriage in their society, but share a desire for marriage based on “deepest love.”
Whether it’s Elizabeth’s bon mots, the thawing of icy Mr. Darcy, or sharing Austen’s sharp eye for the characters around them, the adaptation doesn’t miss any of the aspects of the novel that stir such affection in readers and viewers.
Jennifer Ehle embodies Elizabeth’s “pert opinions and fine eyes”, while Colin Firth became the definitive Mr. Darcy with his smoldering gaze and an inexplicably memorable scene where he dives into a pond almost fully dressed.
Firth sent up his iconic portrayal of Darcy in the film version of Bridget Jones’s Diary, which has a plot loosely based on Pride and Prejudice. He plays Mark Darcy, a standoffish lawyer who starts off as a nemesis for Bridget. “Human rights barrister. Pretty nasty beast, apparently,” her father whispers. The parallels to the BBC production extended beyond casting, with Pride and Prejudice screenwriter Andrew Davies contributing to the screenplay of Bridget Jones’s Diary.
Writer Jo Baker follows Pride and Prejudice down another path, centering on the servants in Longbourn, published in 2013 and also available at Whitehorse Public Library. The Bennet family appears, but the Longbourn staff have their own preoccupations, as the world touches them where it doesn’t much intrude on Austen’s characters. But Baker’s perspective allows a more compassionate view of Mrs. Bennet and poor, ridiculous Mr. Collins than Austen does, and lends a tragic dimension to Lydia Bennet’s exploits.
The “big and glossy” figures of Darcy and Bingley are glimpsed briefly, as they tramp their disruptive way through the Longbourn household to wreak romantic havoc on the lives of the gentle Bennet sisters.