Costume dramas are often seen as escapism. In this celebrated mini-series, I definitely think there is a strong element of that in the beautiful sets, landscapes and music – and, of course, the costumes themselves. I’d love to get away from it all into the sunlit gardens of Pemberley.
However, anyone tempted to turn to Jane Austen to escape from the credit crunch will soon find financial troubles looming in her world too. In Pride and Prejudice, the theme of money is there from that famous first line – which, in this adaptation, has to be spoken by Elizabeth. because there is no narrator and Andrew Davies can’t quite bear to leave it out. Darcy and Bingley might be too rich to worry about money, but most of the other characters have to do so.
In the third episode, money looms especially strongly. Charlotte Lucas agrees to marry Mr Collins in order to get a home of her own, while Wickham gets engaged to heiress Mary King – both in effect selling themselves to the highest bidder. I was interested to see that this adaptation brings out how Elizabeth is more understanding of a man making this kind of deal than she is of a woman. There’s a scene where she argues with Charlotte over her decision to marry the man she herself has just turned down – and, although she accepts her friend’s explanation that she is doing it in order to have a home of her own, she does so reluctantly.
However, she lets Wickham off more lightly, commenting to his face, in a line taken from a letter to her aunt in the novel: “Handsome young men must have something to live on, as well as the plain.” It’s a little clumsy to have her saying this to him direct, but nevertheless I do like the scenes with Elizabeth and Wickham in conversation. I think there is a lot of chemistry between Jennifer Ehle and Adrian Lukis, who is convincing as a smooth-talking rake, making a good contrast with the taciturn Darcy.
Money is also at the root of Bingley’s abandonment of Jane, as the Bennet family is suspected of fortune-hunting and slighted. And money is an element in Darcy’s first proposal, where he assumes that he will be accepted, and is doing Elizabeth a great favour, because he is the one with the country estate and the social position.
I think this scene is brilliantly done in this adaptation, where it is almost as if the two are speaking different languages from one another. Colin Firth, as Darcy, is full of brooding emotion and passion – and yet the whole scene is brilliantly double-edged, as every line he says rebounds on himself. Watching this after Mr Collins’ proposal in the previous episode , it struck me that his proposal might be even worse than that one, and it’s certainly just as self-centred. I wonder if any other author has come up with proposals quite as easy to refuse as these two.
I also love the whole scene where Darcy is writing a letter to Elizabeth explaining his history with Wickham and the story is told in voiceover accompanied by flashbacks – this really brings out the other side of his character, beyond all the haughtiness we have seen so far.
There have been plenty of scenes of Elizabeth outside right from the start of the mini-series, including the walk where she arrives at Netherfield with that mud on her petticoat, much to the disgust of the Bingleys. In episode four, Darcy is shown outdoors and in physical action more, too – fencing, riding his horse, and, of course, taking that famous dip in the lake. Andrew Davies does like to show Austen’s heroes in physical activity, something he did again more recently with Edward in his Sense and Sensibility cutting wood.
With Elizabeth and Darcy, I think showing them both outside, and walking or riding fast through the landscape, gives a feeling of how they are both frustrated by the limitations of the lives they are leading. Maybe even characters in costume dramas sometimes want to escape to somewhere else – and, given the difficulty of covering even a short distance, it isn’t always easy for them to do so.