The 2005 Focus Features adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, directed by Joe Wright, is an insightfully Romantic interpretation of Austen’s novel. Wright’s Pride & Prejudice takes as its central focus Austen’s concern with exploring the nature of the Romantic self and the possibilities for women and men to achieve individual self-fulfillment within an oppressive patriarchal social and economic order. Pride & Prejudice foregrounds this aspect of Austen’s novel in its narrative and thematic concerns and in its representation of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy as Romantic figures, presenting Austen’s novel as a Romantic text. Pride & Prejudice selectively identifies and highlights the Romantic qualities of Elizabeth and Darcy’s respective personalities and functions within the novel, particularly in terms of their relationships as individuals to the social worlds in which they operate. Wright also uses the capabilities of film in visualizing Elizabeth’s character, and in the extensive use of natural settings and landscapes, to present Austen’s treatment of the conflict between individual desire and the social order in terms of Romanticism.
Jane Austen’s relationship to Romanticism—in terms of her treatment of elements of Romantic ideology in her novels and her connection to the six male poets who were until recently considered to constitute the entire literary movement in England—is an issue which has challenged and often troubled scholars of Austen’s work. Austen’s novels have predominantly been read in isolation from the works of her Romantic contemporaries, and her novels have been interpreted as critiquing, resisting or rejecting elements of Romantic ideology rather than as participating in or endorsing it. Recent studies of Austen in relation to Romanticism and her contemporaries have established more connections between Austen and Romanticism than have hitherto been acknowledged.1 This essay considers Austen’s exploration of the Romantic conception of the self in Pride and Prejudice, particularly as it is articulated through the characterization of Elizabeth and Darcy, and how Joe Wright emphasizes this aspect of the novel in his film adaptation.
In Pride & Prejudice, Wright characterizes Elizabeth and Darcy as Romantic figures by presenting them in terms of the Romantic conception of the self. Traditionally, Romanticism has been considered as reflecting and endorsing a conceptualization of the individual self as autonomous, all-consuming and socially detached or isolated. This approach to the self is reflected in both the personalities of the male Romantic poets and in the representation of individual characters within their poetry. Marlon Ross, for example, has commented that “Romantic poets are driven to a quest for self-creation, for self-comprehension, for self-positioning that is unprecedented in literature” (26). Peter Thorslev has related the Romantic poets’ concern with self-understanding to the role and function of the artist: “one article of faith in every Romantic’s creed was that the artist was solitary and superior, a hero and a leader above the common herd” (18). This conception of a socially detached self was also represented in the characters, usually men, who feature in Romantic poetry. Garber has summarized constructions of the self, particularly in the figure of the Romantic hero, in the following terms: “self-awareness, a recognition of the demands and complexities of his own private being, is, as we know, basic to the position assumed by the romantic hero” (321). Thorslev has similarly explored the poetic representation of Romantic heroes, and argued that they “stand firmly as individuals outside of society. Thoroughgoing rebels, they invariably appeal to the reader’s sympathies against the unjust restrictions of the social, moral, or even religious codes of the worlds in which they find themselves” (22). Particularly focusing on the poetry and personality of Lord Byron, Thorslev argues that Romantic heroes “are solitaries . . . by birth, by nature, or by breeding; because of the acuteness of their minds and sensibilities—but most of them are solitaries also because of conscious moral choice” (66). Frequently, the characters of Romantic poetry turn from the social world to seek self-fulfillment in nature.
In recent years, Anne Mellor and other literary critics have persuasively argued that the traditional Romantic conception of the self as individualistic, socially detached and autonomous is a specifically masculine approach, and they have worked towards creating an understanding of Romanticism which incorporates representations of the self from women’s texts and constructions of femininity. Mellor has argued that rather than viewing the self in terms of autonomy and social detachment, women writers of the Romantic period instead embraced a “relational self,” which “has no firm ego boundaries, and experiences its place in the world as an entanglement in shifting relationships, with family members, friends, lovers” (186). This relational self not only was more ideologically available to women writers but also was a more accurate reflection of their lived experience than the autonomous self endorsed by male Romantics. Throughout her novels, Austen works to valorize a relational over a detached conception of the self and demonstrates that both women and men benefit from developing a relational rather than an isolated self. Pride and Prejudice, however, is exceptional in this regard: rather than endorsing a relational model of the self, Austen is instead concerned with exploring the traditional Romantic conception of the self as solitary and socially detached, and the effect of gender difference on the power of individuals to realize and fulfill the self through the autonomous pursuit of individual desire.
Austen’s treatment of the traditional conception of the Romantic self and its gender complexities is the central narrative and thematic focus of Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice. Wright’s film focuses on Elizabeth and Darcy’s mutual struggles to achieve self-fulfillment through the pursuit of individual desire within an oppressive patriarchal social order. Dramatized using Romantic natural settings and landscapes, the journey of Elizabeth and Darcy is presented in Wright’s film as the struggle of two Romantic heroes to achieve self-realization independent of the social world they inhabit. Wright’s interpretation is, I argue, firmly grounded in Austen’s novel, particularly with regard to the representation of the two protagonists and their functions within Austen’s broader commentary on the nature of the Romantic self; however, the film’s concern with promoting a Romantic interpretation of Austen’s novel overshadows other available readings. Additionally, Wright’s use of the visual capabilities of film attributes to Austen a greater investment in Romantic imagery than can be supported by the novel itself (which does not, for example, celebrate Elizabeth’s desire for individualism by positioning her atop a windswept cliff face in the Derbyshire landscape). Although the film does at times depart from Pride and Prejudice in its use of Romantic imagery to reinforce its interpretation, Pride & Prejudice remains true to Austen’s novel in its treatment of the conflict between individual self-realization and the demands of society. Further, its characterization of Elizabeth and Darcy accurately reflects the novel’s concern with the complicating factor of gender in the pursuit of Romantic individualism.
“‘What are men to rocks and mountains?’” asks Elizabeth Bennet, anticipating with delight her tour of the “‘[l]akes, mountains, and rivers’” of the Lake District with her aunt and uncle Gardiner, and expressing her intention to absorb the landscape authentically and unlike “‘the generality of travellers’” (154). Elizabeth’s inquiry into the comparative value of men, rocks and mountains can be interpreted in two different ways which turn on her use of the word “men.” If we read Elizabeth’s use of “men” as relating to humankind generally, her question engages with the contemporary Romantic inquiry into the value of the social and natural worlds and their respective capacities to enable the realization of the individual self. The fact that her question occurs during a discussion of a tour to the symbolically Romantic landscape of the Lake District lends support to this interpretation. As it proceeds from her conversation with Mrs. Gardiner regarding the recent deficient behavior of Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy, however, Elizabeth’s use of the word “men” can also be read as specifically applying to the male sex, an interpretation which reflects her disillusionment with these representatives of contemporary masculinity.
Elizabeth’s inquiry “‘[w]hat are men to rocks and mountains?’” recurs in Wright’s Pride & Prejudice (once spoken by Mary Bennet, and once by Mr. Gardiner), and the dual interpretations of the question inform this adaptation of the novel. Pride & Prejudice is deeply concerned with Austen’s treatment of the tension between the pursuit of individual happiness and fulfillment, celebrated by her Romantic contemporaries, and its potential to rupture the social order. This conflict is evident from the film’s selective foregrounding of this issue within the narrative; its use of the visual capabilities of film to construct Elizabeth and Darcy as social outsiders; and its extensive use of natural settings, which are presented as fundamentally in opposition to the social world in which Elizabeth and Darcy operate. On another level, however, Wright’s Pride & Prejudice responds to Elizabeth’s disillusionment with the male sex by constructing Darcy in the image of masculinity embodied or endorsed by male Romantic poets and their poetic heroes, one aspect of a public debate on the nature of ideal or appropriate English masculinity which dominated the Regency period.
Wright’s characterization of Darcy particularly draws on the image of masculinity associated with Lord Byron, in both his personality and his poetry, which not only stressed the autonomous and socially alienated conception of the self but also developed a particular masculine type which has become known as the “Byronic hero” or “Byronic masculinity” (Lutz 7, MacCarthy 558, Thorslev 10-12). The Byronic hero, as Atara Stein has argued, is characterized by “ambition, aspiration and aggressive individualism” (1); he is arrogant, contemptuous of others and bad-tempered, and “lacks social skills and an ability to relate to other people” (10). According to both Stein and Lutz, however, the Byronic hero achieves redemption through the strength and fidelity of his love, often a love “for one who is perpetually inaccessible to him” (Stein 10). As Lutz has commented, “in the Regency, true Byronism lies in the man who, although failed and deeply wounded, can be redeemed by love” (Lutz 19-20).
Several critics have recently noted these Byronic aspects of Darcy’s personality. Lutz has commented that Darcy “influenced the creation of many later dangerous lover figures in his powerfully aloof stance as the rich misanthrope who stands apart, sneering at the vanity and silly folly of those around him” (43) and argues that his redemption lies in “love overpowering considerations of class” (44). Sarah Wootton has extensively examined Darcy as well as Captain Wentworth of Persuasion in terms of Byronic masculinity, arguing that Darcy’s pride, demeanor, and “Romantic need for self-expression” reflect distinct aspects of the Byronic hero (35-36). In Pride & Prejudice, Wright similarly foregrounds the Byronic features of Darcy’s personality, as he is constructed in Austen’s novel, to present him as a Byronic hero who is driven solely by his love for Elizabeth and whose love can enable Elizabeth to achieve the independent selfhood she so desperately seeks.
Austen’s treatment of the tension between the desire for self-realization and the difficulties of achieving it within a social order is central to Pride and Prejudice and recurs throughout her work. Scholarly readings of Pride and Prejudice frequently focus on Elizabeth, an intellectually independent heroine who needs to find a path for herself within the restrictive social and economic order that confronts her, and tend to conclude that Elizabeth’s marriage to Darcy signals Austen’s endorsement of the establishment over the potentially disruptive individualism associated with Romanticism, Jacobinism, and the culture of sensibility.2 Such readings, however, simplify Austen’s treatment of Romantic individualism, which is much more complex with respect to Elizabeth and which also strongly influences her characterization of Darcy. Throughout Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth faces the real possibility of social isolation, and while Austen frames such an outcome as disastrous for a woman in Elizabeth’s socio-economic position, she clearly privileges Elizabeth’s individualist stance over the contrary approach adopted, for example, by Charlotte Lucas. With regard to Elizabeth, Austen leaves this tension unresolved: while Elizabeth’s assertions about marriage for love and not for financial security are authentic, her pursuit of her own individual happiness eventually leads her to the most eligible man in the novel. Elizabeth is ultimately not forced to pursue individual desire despite social and economic obstacles, so her assertions regarding the rights of the individual at the expense of social cohesion go untested.
Unable to wholly endorse the pursuit of Romantic individualism by women such as Elizabeth, who are so vulnerable to the vagaries of patriarchal society, Austen instead uses her heroine to highlight the difficulties for women in realizing the autonomous and socially detached self celebrated by traditional Romanticism. Rather than endorsing a relational approach to the self for her heroine, however, Austen constructs the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy as in fact enabling Elizabeth’s individuality and self-fulfillment. With regard to her heroine, Austen can effectively have her cake and eat it too, and Wright’s Pride & Prejudice effectively and convincingly captures this complexity in Elizabeth’s character.
While Austen leaves the tension between individualism and social harmony unresolved in Elizabeth’s character, however, through Darcy she decisively endorses the pursuit of individual desire and the realization of an autonomous self, even at the expense of social rupture. Unlike Elizabeth, Darcy does have to choose between individual happiness—fulfillment of his sexual and emotional love for Elizabeth through marriage—and maintaining the social and familial order. Darcy’s choice to privilege his individual happiness despite this disruption embodies Austen’s endorsement of Romantic individualism, and the pursuit of personal desire even where it causes social rupture, and reflects the Byronic nature of his personality. In contrast, Claudia Johnson argues that Darcy reflects the essential conservatism of the novel and its privileging of the social order over the individual:
Pride and Prejudice corroborates conservative myths which had argued that established forms cherished rather than prohibited true liberty, sustained rather than disrupted real happiness, and safe-guarded rather than repressed individual merit. Its hero accordingly is a sober-minded exemplar of the great gentry, a dutiful son and affectionate brother. (74)
Johnson states that “Darcy may conform to conservative requirements for one of his rank and sex, but Elizabeth emphatically does not” (75) and suggests that the reader’s pleasure in the story lies in the fact that it is this “sober-minded exemplar of the great gentry” who “secures the happiness the novel celebrates” (73). According to Johnson, then, the world of Pride and Prejudice allows men simultaneously to support the establishment and pursue their individual happiness.
Johnson’s analysis of Darcy’s role in the novel’s exploration of this issue, however, rests on two assumptions: first, that because Darcy is a man within a patriarchal social order, external pressures such as social and family expectations do not affect him; and second, that his choice to pursue individual happiness instead of bowing to such pressures cannot by definition be disruptive of the social order because, as a man, he embodies it. These assumptions are unsustainable either within Austen’s novel or the broader context of early nineteenth-century gentry masculinity. Of all Austen’s protagonists, Darcy is the only one whose marital choice is allegedly bespoken and whose marriage causes a social and familial rift. Rather than advocating the maintenance of the social order, Austen uses Darcy to assert the individual’s right to pursue happiness according to his or her own free will. Clearly, the fact that Darcy is male (and is therefore endowed with the power of choice) and wealthy (and therefore can afford his choice) makes possible his marriage to Elizabeth: a poor woman of lower social rank (Elizabeth Bennet, in fact) would certainly face considerably more obstacles to pursuing this kind of individualism. But the patriarchal economic and social structures of Austen’s world not only affected women: they also had a profound impact on the lives of men, and to suggest otherwise is to ignore a fundamental aspect of gender relations that historians of masculinities are gradually bringing to light as well as one of Austen’s central concerns in Pride and Prejudice.
The first section of Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice establishes Elizabeth and Darcy as Romantic figures through their individual isolation in an uncongenial social world. Elizabeth is presented as socially isolated through her repeated associations with the natural world and her depiction alone within social settings, and Darcy through his inept social performance. The film opens with the sun rising over a glistening landscape and cuts to the viewer’s first image of Elizabeth. She is reading a book, a solitary task that symbolizes both her intellectualism and her desire for self-sufficiency, and she is walking through a rural landscape, immediately signaling her connection with the natural world. Elizabeth’s position as a Romantic figure is particularly strongly emphasized by her walk from Longbourn to Netherfield when Jane is ill. Wright uses a distant shot to silhouette Elizabeth against a white sky: she and a solitary tree are the only two figures in a rural landscape. The fundamental opposition between the natural and the social worlds, and Elizabeth’s association with the natural world, become starkly clear when she arrives at Netherfield: the highly formal and ornate interior of the Netherfield breakfast room visually clashes with the natural world outside, and Elizabeth, with her muddy boots and hemline, her unfashionable brown coat and her long hair blown about, is plainly incongruous within this social space. Miss Bingley’s comment that “she looked positively medieval” highlights Elizabeth’s disregard for modern social forms and practices, emphasizing her association with Romantic individualism.
Elizabeth’s incongruity within the social world is presented not only through her association with the natural world but also through the film’s visualization of her within social settings. After she verbally disarms Darcy at the Meryton assembly, she walks alone down the center of the assembly hall and out the door: the camera focuses exclusively on Elizabeth and blurs the other figures in the shot, visualizing her separation from the society in which she lives. Wright also uses the camera to this effect at the Netherfield ball, using long camera shots which move between rooms, focusing on different characters, to privilege Elizabeth’s visual perspective and present her as an external social observer rather than a social participant. The image at the end of this sequence of Elizabeth alone, leaning against a wall in a darkened room, having apparently escaped the party and especially her family, strongly and sensitively conveys to the viewer her incompatibility within this social world and the complexity of her position, particularly in relation to the possibility of her long-term social exclusion.
In contrast to Elizabeth’s association with the natural world and her visual separation within social settings, the first part of the film establishes Darcy’s position as a social outsider through his social performance. Initially, Wright’s representation of Darcy departs from Austen’s method of constructing his character in the novel, as the viewer learns about Darcy only as Elizabeth’s knowledge and experience of him increases. Jennifer Preston Wilson has identified this process of verisimilitude as operating in the novel; I argue, by contrast, that the process of verisimilitude does not operate in the novel (the reader’s access to Darcy’s interiority provides the reader with information about him that is unknown to Elizabeth, particularly regarding his attraction to her), but that it does operate within the opening scenes of Wright’s film. Wright’s use of verisimilitude—through which the viewer learns about Darcy through Elizabeth’s increasing knowledge of him—is a result of the film’s almost exclusive focus on Elizabeth’s subjectivity and its privileging of her visual perspective. The process of learning about Darcy through Elizabeth’s subjectivity proves particularly effective later in the film when the viewer comes to understand Darcy’s characterization in terms of Byronic masculinity.
Wright’s introduction of Darcy to both the Meryton neighborhood and the viewer cleverly reflects Austen’s concern with the commodification of men in the early nineteenth-century marriage market. Following the “truth universally acknowledged” of her famous first sentence, Austen states that “[h]owever little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters” (3), clearly establishing that men, as well as women, are vulnerable to the power of the socio-economic order in the world of Pride and Prejudice. When Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley and Miss Bingley arrive at the Meryton assembly in Wright’s film, the dancing and music stop immediately and the company turns to stare at the newcomers; the assembly parts as they walk to the other end of the hall; and they continued to be observed in silence by the neighborhood gentry until the music begins, and the dancing recommences. The scene strikingly dramatizes the Meryton neighborhood’s response to the arrival of these two eligible men, emphasizing the social perception of men as marriage commodities and highlighting the fact that men, as well as women, are subject to social and family expectations and pressures in their marital choices.
It immediately becomes clear that Darcy, like Elizabeth, is not a social performer and only a reluctant social participant. Whereas the novel attributes Darcy’s social reluctance—particularly to make conversation and to dance—to his snobbery, the film presents it as a result of his dislike of social forms and practices. This aspect of his personality is present but not prioritized within the novel, and Wright’s decision to foreground it reflects his desire to construct Darcy in terms of Byronic masculinity. During the Meryton assembly, Elizabeth comments that “he looks miserable, poor soul,” and his body language and facial expressions suggest discomfort and unhappiness rather than hauteur or disdain. Miss Bingley, rather than Darcy, takes on the role of elitist snob at the Meryton assembly, in her attempts to embarrass Elizabeth at Netherfield, and at the Netherfield ball: on each of these occasions, Darcy pointedly refuses to participate in her criticism of Elizabeth, her family and her neighborhood (indeed, his reluctance to criticize the Bennets also reflects his isolation even within his own social class). It is not that Darcy does not hold these proud and prejudicial views—his conduct in separating Bingley and Jane, and his insulting behavior toward Elizabeth during his first proposal, both remain essential parts of the narrative. Rather, the film does not foreground these aspects of his personality because it is more concerned with presenting him as a socially alienated Romantic figure. Darcy’s unhappiness throughout his time in Hertfordshire indicates that, like the Romantic hero, he finds the forms and practices of social interaction offered by his society unfulfilling, laying the foundation for his later characterization as a Byronic hero.
Darcy and Elizabeth’s dance at the Netherfield ball visually encapsulates both their respective determination to maintain the integrity of their individuality, even from each other, and their mutual positions as social outsiders. At the climax of their heated discussion about Mr. Wickham, they stop in the middle of the dance and closely face each other. The camera focuses exclusively on them, and the other couples disappear from the shot. This moment visualizes Darcy and Elizabeth’s isolation from their social world, both as individuals and as a couple, and forecasts the film’s resolution by suggesting that it is this social isolation that will ultimately unite them. The fact that they recommence the dance alone indicates that they genuinely are just going through the motions of social performance. The film’s narrative becomes a question of how these two Romantic figures will maintain their individual integrity and also achieve personal happiness and fulfillment within a fundamentally incompatible and highly regulated social world.
Elizabeth and Darcy’s next meeting at Rosings provides greater insight to the viewer, if not to Elizabeth, of the difficulty of Darcy’s social position. His love for Elizabeth becomes obvious in his conversation with her at dinner when he is drawn to her playing the piano and in his awkward and apparently pointless visit to her at Hunsford. Lady Catherine de Bourgh, her daughter, and the interior of Rosings represent the social expectation of marriage for wealth and status, and the pressure on men’s marital choices within a patriarchal social order, which Darcy himself has internalized and will need to overcome to achieve personal happiness. When we first see Darcy at Rosings, he is framed by a window and standing adjacent to a caged bird, signifying his enclosure within a social order which seeks to control not only women but also men. The potential of this social order to subjugate men is reflected in the murals on the wall behind Lady Catherine. These scenes were shot in Burghley House, and while in their totality the murals may assume a different meaning, the paintings that form the backdrop to these scenes feature men laboring under tyrannical conditions, symbolizing the oppression of the social order that Lady Catherine represents as well as its capacity to repress individual men as well as women. By depicting Darcy within this interior, Pride & Prejudice represents the conflict between the pursuit of men’s individual desires, particularly in terms of their sexual and emotional feelings, and the roles and responsibilities which are imposed upon them by a patriarchal social order.
The episode at Rosings continues the film’s earlier use of contrasting interior and outdoor settings, emphasizing that not only Elizabeth but also Darcy finds self-realization in the natural world. In contrast to the beginning, and the end, of the film, virtually all of the scenes at Rosings and Hunsford are shot indoors, reflecting the uncomfortable social confinement of Darcy and Elizabeth. The notable exception to this pattern is Elizabeth’s use of the natural world as a means of escape and emotional release after she learns of Darcy’s role in separating Jane and Bingley: she runs alone through the park in the soaking rain, indicating the strength of her emotions and the impossibility of physically containing them within a social setting. This outdoor scene culminates in Darcy’s first proposal, suggesting that the natural world similarly provides him with escape and freedom from the oppressive Rosings interior.
Darcy’s first proposal strongly reflects his own personal torment resulting from the tension between marrying in accordance with the social and economic pressures that have colored his view of the world and acting on his sexual and emotional love for Elizabeth. While he insultingly elaborates on the social and economic barriers between them, his passion for her is clear when he says, “I came to Rosings for the single object of seeing you. I had to see you.” This statement from Darcy—that he traveled to Rosings for the sole purpose of seeing Elizabeth—is an important departure from Austen’s novel, which presents Darcy’s visit to Rosings as a routine family event. Wright uses this change to present Darcy in pursuit of Elizabeth, and driven specifically by his love for her, which reinforces his characterization as a Byronic hero. Darcy’s passion for Elizabeth is further dramatized by their physical intimacy even after she has rejected him. For the first time in the film, Darcy’s physical appearance during the first proposal scene suggests that he is more than a stiff upright gentleman: he is soaking wet and disheveled, reflecting the strength of his love for Elizabeth and his (albeit reluctant) willingness to shirk social forms to fulfill it. This scene allows the viewer to see Darcy as a man driven by passionate love who is fundamentally alienated from his social world, an embodiment of the Byronic hero, in fact. This new understanding of Darcy as a man of flesh and blood and, above all, passionate feeling is reinforced when he later delivers his letter to Elizabeth and swiftly rides out the gates and through the forest, escape into the natural world similarly providing him with an emotional release.
While it effectively utilizes contrasts between interior and outdoor settings, Wright’s film also draws distinctions between different landscape and gardening styles, which are sensitive to aesthetic developments throughout the eighteenth-century and Romantic periods. The first proposal scene was shot at the Temple of Apollo in the garden at Stourhead, now considered a masterpiece of eighteenth-century English garden design, the taste and aesthetic principles of which the Romantics sought to debunk in preference for wilder, more natural and rugged landscapes. It is appropriate that Darcy’s unsuccessful marriage proposal should occur in a setting that symbolizes the social and aesthetic order that both characters clearly find so oppressive. The fundamental incongruity between Darcy and Elizabeth, and the interior and grounds at Rosings, is particularly striking in comparison with their later meeting in Derbyshire. Wright’s extensive use of landscape throughout this section of the film highlights an aspect of Austen’s novel that is frequently overlooked by scholarship: her decision to locate Pemberley in Derbyshire not only indicates its parity with estates such as Chatsworth, but also characterizes Darcy in terms of the symbolically Romantic landscape of the Peak district. Wright uses a long camera shot to depict Elizabeth standing atop a cliff, placing her as part of this wild and rugged landscape; the film then cuts to a close-up of her face to allow the viewer to see her emotional response. Later she sits on the gnarled and moss-coated roots of a tree, an image which could have been drawn directly from a Romantic landscape painting. As she approaches Pemberley, deer run through the open spaces of the Derbyshire countryside, reminiscent of her own physical freedom in nature. Darcy’s connection with this Romantic landscape, and his characterization as a Romantic hero, is consolidated through Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberley.
As in Austen’s novel, in Pride & Prejudice Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberley is central to her understanding of Darcy’s character. Throughout this section of the film, Wright represents Elizabeth’s changed view by privileging her visual perspective and by specifically focusing on her eyes. As she travels into Derbyshire, the camera presents Elizabeth’s gaze into the sun through her closed eyelids. It later follows her visual perspective around the murals of the Pemberley interior, which contrast with the murals at Rosings by depicting men and women in pastoral, almost utopian settings. Elizabeth’s tour of the gallery, so significant to her understanding of Darcy in the novel, is reconfigured in the film as a walk through a sculpture gallery, which features works of classical Greek sculpture, reflecting the interest of several Romantic poets, including Byron, in ancient and modern Greek culture and mythology (Graver 42-43). Elizabeth’s gaze falls first on a sculpture of Achilles, another figure of flawed yet heroic masculinity, before reaching Darcy’s portrait, here presented as a Grecian-style sculpture rather than a painting. This substitution specifically associates Darcy with the image of the Romantic hero developed by the Romantic poets, and particularly with Byronic masculinity. The camera again takes Elizabeth’s visual perspective as she looks out the window at the Pemberley gardens: the change in focus from translucent to clear glass reflects her new clarity of understanding of Darcy’s character. In its extensive use of Elizabeth’s visual perspective, Wright’s film reflects the visual nature of Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberley in Austen’s novel, and, like Elizabeth, the viewer increasingly comes to see Darcy as a Byronic hero. The Pemberley estate, within the Derbyshire landscape, is presented in the film as a Romantic oasis from an alienating social world, which can provide these two social outsiders with a means of coexisting while also retaining their individual integrity.
Such a resolution seems impossible, of course, after the absconsion and then marriage of Wickham and Lydia. Darcy’s psychological development throughout the narrative—which enables him to mend this situation—and his changed views about the importance of class, wealth, status and the pressure of social expectations are clear from the encouragement and assistance he provides to Bingley in proposing to Jane. After their engagement, Elizabeth sits alone under a tree, and Darcy walks across a field by himself: both the characters, and the viewer, wonder whether such an outcome will be possible for these solitary individuals. Elizabeth’s social alienation, even at Longbourn, is heightened toward the end of the film: after her confrontation with Lady Catherine, she yells, “for once can you just leave me alone,” as she runs upstairs to escape her ever-present family. As viewers, we realize that only Darcy and Pemberley can safely resolve the conflict between Elizabeth’s desire to maintain her individual integrity and the demands of her social world: as a woman deprived of economic and political power, she cannot achieve it on her own.
Darcy’s second proposal, appropriately, occurs where the film begins: in the countryside around Longbourn at dawn. That proposal, particularly his statement that “you have bewitched me body and soul,” affirms Darcy’s characterization as a Byronic hero: he is a man driven by passionate feeling, whose love is eternal and who pursues his desire for Elizabeth despite its disruption of the social and familial order. That neither Darcy nor Elizabeth is properly dressed and that this meeting would be socially considered as clandestine reinforce the fact that their relationship has been negotiated exclusively on their terms, largely in separation from social forms and practices. Wright presents the union of Darcy and Elizabeth as enabling these two Romantic figures to co-exist as individuals in a society with which they are both fundamentally incompatible.
Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice is an essentially Romantic interpretation of Austen’s novel. Pride & Prejudice is narratively and thematically focused on the capacities for men and women to achieve self-realization within a social and economic order and on the demands that order places upon them. Wright uses the visual capabilities of film as well as natural settings and landscapes to position Elizabeth and Darcy as Romantic figures and present their relationship as a union of individuals that enables mutual self-fulfillment rather than as a social integration. Although Wright’s use of visual imagery moves beyond Austen’s novel, the basis of his interpretation of Elizabeth and Darcy as Romantic figures—in terms of their defiant individuality, their social isolation, and the nature of their relationship—lies in Pride and Prejudice itself, in Austen’s endorsement of the pursuit of individual desire and happiness despite social rupture.
1. On feminist revisions of the Romantic canon which address Austen’s works, see Anne Mellor Romanticism and Gender (New York: Routledge, 1993) and Elizabeth Fay A Feminist Introduction to Romanticism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998). Deresiewicz, Lau, and Tuite have recently established new links between Austen and Romanticism.
2. See for example Duckworth (115-43), Johnson (73-78), Monaghan (64-92), and Tanner (125-40).
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Deresiewicz, William. Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets. New York: Columbia UP, 2004.
Duckworth, Alistair M. The Improvement of the Estate. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1971.
Fay, Elizabeth. A Feminist Introduction to Romanticism. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.
Garber, Frederick. “Self, Society, Value and the Romantic Hero.” Comparative Literature 19 (1967): 321-33.
Graver, Bruce E. “Classical Inheritances.” Romanticism. Ed. Nicholas Roe. Oxford: OUP, 2005. 38-48.
Johnson, Claudia L. Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel. Chicago: UCP, 1988.
Lau, Beth. “Placing Jane Austen in the Romantic Period: Self and Solitude in the Works of Austen and the Male Romantic Poets.” European Romantic Review 15 (2004): 255-67.
Lutz, Deborah. The Dangerous Lover: Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-Century Seduction Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2006.
MacCarthy, Fiona. Byron: Life and Legend. New York: Farrar, 2002.
Mellor, Anne K. “Feminism.” Romanticism. Ed. Nicholas Roe. Oxford: OUP, 2005. 182-98.
_____. Romanticism and Gender. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Monaghan, David. Jane Austen: Structure and Social Vision. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1980.
Pride & Prejudice. Dir. Joe Wright. Focus Features, 2005.
Ross, Marlon B. “Romantic Quest and Conquest: Troping Masculine Power in the Crisis of Poetic Identity.” Romanticism and Feminism. Ed. Anne Mellor. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988. 26-51.
Stein, Atara. “Immortals and Vampires and Ghosts, Oh My!: Byronic Heroes in Popular Culture.” Romanticism & Contemporary Culture. Ed. Laura Mandell and Michael Eberle-Sinatra. Romantic Circles Praxis Series Feb. 2002. 3 May 2007 http://www.rc.umd.edu/praxis/contemporary/stein/stein.html.
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