PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.27, NO.2 (Summer 2007)
Little Women at Longbourn: The Re-Wrighting of Pride and Prejudice

SALLY B. PALMER

 

Sally Palmer (email: Sally.Palmer@sdsmt.edu) is associate professor of English at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, where she teaches writing and literature.  She specializes in nineteenth-century British literature and is a lifelong Jane Austen fan.

 

            The cinematographically beautiful 2005 Focus Features film version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice directed by Joe Wright has presented audiences with a new interpretation of the family dynamics that inform and drive the events of Austen’s novel, first published in 1813.  This re-seeing of the Bennet family resembles an Anglicized version of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, a sentimental 1868 memoir of a family of girls coming of age in Civil War Massachusetts.  In both story lines, the daughters find husbands under the direction of a loving and all-wise mother whose nurturing compensates for an absent father.  One daughter comes to grief, but this obstacle is overcome because of the guiding structure of the family unit.  We even see evidence of Elizabeth Bennet cast as the bookish Jo March, both in the opening scene where Elizabeth is wandering the grounds of Longbourn reading while her sisters are inside at other pursuits, and also at Netherfield when, while visiting Jane, Elizabeth hastily puts down her book in order to avoid being seen as a bookworm. 

 

This conception of Pride and Prejudice as an idyll of the perfect loving family seems to be shared by all who participated in making the film.  In the “bonus” interviews included on the Focus Features DVD, the screenwriter, Deborah Moggach, describes Mrs. Bennet as “a heroic character, trying to save the family.”  Wright calls Mrs. Bennet “an amazing mother. . . . She’d walk across coals for any of her daughters.”  Matthew Macfadyen, the Darcy actor, describes the Bennets as “glorious; a lovely family.”  Donald Sutherland, who plays Mr. Bennet, sees the Bennets as “a wonderful family, embraced and supported and catalyzed by their mother.”  Brenda Blethyn, the Mrs. Bennet actress, speaks of the “idyllic . . . friendship and camaraderie in that house.”  And producer Paul Webster sums up the story by saying, “Underpinning it all is the love that keeps this family together” (“A Bennet Family Portrait”).

 

            This picture of the Bennet family differs from that of the problematical family imagined by many readers and critics of the novel, a family whose troubled relationships give rise to many of the obstacles which must be overcome before the marriage plot can be brought to fruition.  In Austen’s text, significant flaws in Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s characters, marriage, and parenting styles are illustrated so that readers can fully appreciate the difficulties that will arise in finding suitable husbands for their daughters.  Directors of the film have chosen to minimize and even eliminate these flaws, changing and simplifying the parental characters and thus the plot itself.  The story thus becomes a more straightforward coming-of-age or romance tale focusing on the two elder daughters, easily intelligible for young people, like the children’s novel Little Women.

 

The Focus Features changes begin with the character of Mr. Bennet.  Austen’s narrator seems to describe a disengaged Mr. Bennet who is less than the attentive, affectionate, and involved husband Donald Sutherland plays in the film.  The narrator informs us that Mr. Bennet initially married because he was “captivated by youth and beauty,” but when he discovered too late that his new partner had a “weak understanding and illiberal mind,” all his affection, respect, esteem, and confidence “vanished for ever” (236).  Readers such as Ivor Morris have observed that Mr. Bennet has defaulted to finding amusement in his wife’s ignorance and folly rather than attempting to help raise her mind to his own level.  As a result, Mrs. Bennet is “the butt of her husband’s ridicule,” even in front of her children (Morris).  Marvin Mudrick and Paula Bennett agree that Mr. Bennet puts his wife to shame by deliberately humiliating her.  He is careless and negligent of his husbandly duties, ruthlessly baiting his wife (Mudrick 114), insulting her (Morris), and otherwise publicly revealing that he “despises,” is “disgusted” by, and has “growing antipathy” toward his wife (Bennett 134).  In the novel, his daughter Elizabeth sees his husbandly conduct as “reprehensible” “impropriety” (236).  

 

            Sutherland’s Mr. Bennet, however, displays not reprehensible impropriety but kindly indulgence and even solicitousness towards his wife.  We see him kissing Mrs. Bennet and using a smile to soften such aspersions as “‘I have a high respect for your nerves. . . . I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least’” (5), as if to say, “just kidding.”  This cinematically rehabilitated Mr. Bennet does not stay at home in his library during the assembly ball, “hop[ing] that all his wife’s views on [Mr. Bingley] would be disappointed” (12), but instead escorts his wife to the ball, standing next to her and, at one point, assiduously fanning her face to cool her off, to her obvious gratitude and appreciation.  The next day, he offers her a compliment not found in Austen’s novel:  “My dear, your skills in matchmaking are positively occult!”  This compliment neutralizes the originally acid comment, “‘[I]f your daughter . . . should die, it would be a comfort to know that it was all . . . under your orders’” (31).  At one point during the Netherfield ball, we hear Sutherland’s Mr. Bennet call his wife a pet name that sounds like “Blossom.”  His love for his wife is further underscored toward the movie’s end with a bedroom scene tête-à-tête where he confides to her his assessment of Bingley and Jane’s chances of happiness.  In the novel, these remarks are directed to Jane, with Mrs. Bennet within hearing but responding only with expostulations about Jane’s riches.

 

            Many readers see Austen’s Mr. Bennet as not only an appalling husband but a dilatory father as well.  Reuben Brower terms him “a most unnatural father” (64).  Paula Bennett comments, “Unable to confront a wife who disgusts him, Mr. Bennet abandons not only her but their children as well. . . . [A]s a result, the education of the Bennet children is left entirely to each child’s own devices” (137).  Morris remarks that, irresponsibly having withdrawn from family life into his library, Mr. Bennet is content to watch “with enjoyment, and entire absence of embarrassment, the gaucheries and discomfiture of his own family” (Morris).  He allows Lydia to follow the regiment simply out of a desire to be rid of her, and when the tragic upshot is made apparent, his self-blame is short-lived.  “[H]is chief wish . . . was to have as little trouble in the business as possible,” Austen’s narrator tells us (309).  Of his subsequent guilt, he says to Elizabeth, “It will pass away soon enough’” (299), and it does.  As soon as his brother-in-law and Darcy have done his job for him by effecting Lydia and Wickham’s marriage, Mr. Bennet goes back into his library and immediately recommences making fun of his daughters (300).

 

            Sutherland’s Mr. Bennet, however, is anything but a negligent father.  This Mr. Bennet is never heard disparaging his daughters as “‘the silliest girls in the country’” (29).  His assiduous love and concern are shown at the Netherfield ball, where Mary is playing and singing.  In the novel, Mr. Bennet only steps in to put a stop to Mary’s display when Elizabeth makes an agonized appeal that he do so, whereupon he is done paying attention to his family.  But Sutherland’s Mr. Bennet uses his own judgment to terminate Mary’s singing.  Afterward,  witnessing Mary’s embarrassment, he searches for her throughout the ballroom until he locates her, then embraces and consoles her for her hurt feelings.  In another example, this reconstructed Mr. Bennet, unlike Austen’s, is present at the door with his wife and daughters when Lady Catherine visits Longbourn.  In fact, he holds up the light, standing as the protector of his family against this intruder, as his women crowd around him.  He plays the host, offering Lady Catherine tea, and questions Elizabeth about the visit afterward.  At the movie’s end, when tears roll down his face after Darcy asks for permission to marry Elizabeth, we are convinced that here is a father who is fully involved with, and devoted to, his family.

 

            Another newly rehabilitated character in the film is Mrs. Bennet.  Where Mr. Bennet has evolved as a husband from remote negligence to attentive affection, Mrs. Bennet has lost all the selfishness that many readers see in Austen’s character.  Peter Graham notes that Mrs. Bennet is “shallow, self-centered, and unable to understand principles.”  Another critic describes her “vulgarity” and “fixed ideas, untempered by any altruism, circumspection, wit, or intellect” (Mudrick 96).  Mudrick points out that her obsession with material security “overrides every consideration of kindness or solicitude toward her husband and her daughters,” that her only fear is “her own physical discomfort,” and that her “single continuously operating motive” is “to be herself secure and comfortable, and to fortify [that] security by getting her daughters settled” (98-99).  In the novel, we see Mrs. Bennet’s essential lack of real concern for her daughters in her tirade against Elizabeth for refusing Mr. Collins (Bilger 162).  Her resentment of Charlotte’s and Mrs. Lucas’s success in gaining Mr. Collins, which precipitates “many months,” the narrator informs us, of scolding and rudeness (127), reveals that her own social position is paramount in her desire to get her daughters married off.  Her frustration is not for her daughter’s loss, but that “she herself ha[s] been barbarously used by them all” (127).  The primary source of her rancor is that “‘I should be forced to make way for [Charlotte], and live to see her take my place . . . !’” (130).  None of this jealous abhorrence appears in the movie.

 

            A second failing of Austen’s Mrs. Bennet, not seen in the film version, is her instructional negligence.  In Austen’s time, mothers were responsible for their children’s academic, practical, and moral education.  But Mrs. Bennet has completely ignored her daughters’ education, as Lady Catherine rightly ascertains while interrogating Elizabeth at Rosings.  There have been no governess and no mandatory instruction period before sending the Bennet daughters “out” into society.  Mary Margaret Benson notes that Mrs. Bennet’s preening herself because “her daughters had nothing to do in the kitchen” (Austen 65) has also led her to omit another vital part of their education, that of housekeeping.  Davidoff and Hall inform us that overseeing the buying of provisions was an important part of a mistress’s role (385).  And as for moral instruction, Benson sees Mrs. Bennet as “undoubtedly the worst mother a heroine could have, . . . incapable of providing [her daughters] with any moral example” (235).  The only behavioral advice we see her give is on the occasion of Lydia’s departure with Colonel and Mrs. Forster, when our narrator informs us that Mrs. Bennet is “impressive in her injunctions that [Lydia] would not miss the opportunity of enjoying herself as much as possible” (235).

 

            Marvin Mudrick says, “One of Jane Austen’s triumphs in Pride and Prejudice is her refusal to sentimentalize . . . Mrs. Bennet” (100).  Director Joe Wright, however, has accepted that invitation in Austen’s default.  In order for us to see Mrs. Bennet as “heroic,” he downplays her want of propriety.  In the film, no one faults her behavior, not even Darcy; there is nothing in his letter to Elizabeth about her mother.  When, in his first marriage proposal to Elizabeth, Macfadyen’s Darcy mentions “your family’s lack of propriety,” Elizabeth looks incredulous, as if to imply that this opinion is totally unwarranted.  The film version shows Mrs. Bennet conscientious of her duties as chaperone in accompanying her daughters to Meryton, an event that does not occur in the novel.  And at the Netherfield ball, she does not “expose” herself as do her younger daughters.  In the novel, her extended and premature raptures over Jane’s marriage are overheard by Darcy, who is sitting opposite her, but in the film he does not overhear her one expression of satisfaction to her two friends.  Mrs. Bennet’s behavior there is further played down by showing her as carelessly tipsy, rather than intrinsically loud and presumptuous, a characterization reinforced by showing her with a hangover next morning.

 

            Mrs. Bennet’s failings have been further softened in the film by the elision of lines from the novel that show her petulance, lines which have been replaced with more unselfish expressions.  When the news of Lydia’s disappearance is made known, Austen’s Mrs. Bennet indulges in “complaints of her own sufferings and ill usage; blaming every body” but herself and insisting that if she had had her way, all would have been well.  She instantly begins to worry that Mr. Bennet will fight Wickham and that she, as a consequence, will be turned out of her house (287).  Brenda Blethyn’s Mrs. Bennet, however, exhibits true maternal grief on the same occasion by exclaiming, “My baby!”  Her fears are all for her children:  “You’re all ruined.”  When Kitty murmurs, “That’s all you think about,” Mrs. Bennet reproves her, saying, “When you have five daughters, . . . perhaps you’ll understand.”  During Lydia’s visit to Longbourn as a married woman, this new Mrs. Bennet’s true charity is displayed in her expression of loving toleration for Lydia.  When Elizabeth says, “I don’t want to hear about [Lydia’s wedding],” Mrs. Bennet gives Elizabeth a pained look of pleading reproach, exhibiting a sensitivity and empathy during this delicate social situation that Austen makes a point of showing Mrs. Bennet lacks.  Austen’s character feels nothing but “rapture” on the occasion and “could [not] talk fast enough” (316).

 

            The intensity of Mrs. Bennet’s motherly love is further emphasized in the film by three final scenes which have been altered from Austen’s text.  In the first, when the married Lydia departs Longbourn, Mrs. Bennet says, “Nothing is so hard as parting with one’s children; one is so forlorn without them!”  In the novel, Mrs. Bennet says “‘friends’” (330) on this occasion, not “children,” a remark more upon the “spiritless condition” ensuing from loss of company than upon attachment to her daughters (331).  The next scene takes place shortly thereafter when Bingley visits Longbourn.  As Mrs. Bennet is making conversation, she tells him, with great humility and sincerity, “It is very hard to be separated” from Lydia.  In Austen’s version, Mrs. Bennet on this occasion is fatuously bragging about her married daughter, and this remark is a mock complaint.  Lastly, when Elizabeth accepts Darcy’s proposal, Blethyn’s Mrs. Bennet seems not elated but concerned about Elizabeth marrying Darcy.  “But she doesn’t like him!” she cries.  This assumption would not have been a consideration to Austen’s Mrs. Bennet—it certainly didn’t enter into her mind when Mr. Collins proposed.  Austen’s character, in fact, responds to the news only with expostulations about how rich and how great Lizzie will be (378).

 

            The filmmakers’ beatific vision of the Bennet marriage and home life is made complete with a tender scene in which the camera pans lovingly over the windows of Longbourn to sweet background music, showing happy people framed in every window of the house.  We see Mary reading to her sister, the Bennet parents together in their bedroom, and Jane and Elizabeth rejoicing over Jane’s engagement.  This peaceful, sentimentalized picture of the idyllic family home may evoke praise from those involved in painting it, but it does violence to the characters and plot of Austen’s conception, which rely on a problematic if not dysfunctional family unit for their believability and integrity. 

 

            Pride and Prejudice is considered one of the world’s greatest novels in part because its characters so plausibly precipitate the events of the plot.  As Austen conceives it, the Bennet family’s character explains and sets in motion not only the novel’s plot but its central themes.  Paula Bennett says Pride and Prejudice “is about the miseries of marriage—and about the high price children pay for their parents’ follies, inadequacies, and mistakes” (138).  “It is surprising,” Joel Weinsheimer agrees, “that any of the Bennet daughters escape ‘the disadvantages of so unsuitable a marriage’ as that of their parents” (412).  It is precisely because of their ineffectual parents, in fact, that Austen’s younger Bennet characters have developed the personalities that they have.  Peter Graham points out that Jane and Elizabeth have become surrogate parents in the default of their real parents.  As the eldest, Jane has had to substitute for her ineffectual mother in providing the unconditional love and acceptance the family lacks.  Jane has “conditioned herself to resist . . . negative perceptions [because] doing so would confront her with facts too painful to face about her father, mother, and sisters” (Graham).  Elizabeth, for her part, has assumed the role of father in trying to control and limit the adverse behavior of her younger sisters.  In this role, she also shields Jane from knowing how her parents’ and sisters’ follies have foiled her hopes of Bingley.  “Like all children of dysfunctional families, the Bennet sisters have learned to invest emotionally in one another rather than in their parents” (Graham).  In loco parentis, Elizabeth and Jane bring each other up.  Says Glenda Hudson, “Elizabeth instructs Jane in right reason and good sense; Jane teaches Elizabeth the virtues of modesty, tolerance, and tact” (121). 

 

            While the oldest girls parent each other, the younger ones flounder.  Bennett tells us that “Lydia’s hunger for love is a result of her father’s neglect as much as of her mother’s overindulgence” (136).  This hunger makes her defection inevitable as she seeks attention and fulfillment elsewhere.  Uncurbed by either the careful parental warnings Mrs. Gardiner accords to Jane and Elizabeth in their parents’ default, or by the education that should have occupied her time and thoughts before her entrance into mixed society, Lydia with her “high animal spirits” has nowhere to run, like unchanneled water, except downhill (45).  In her turn, Mary, ignored by her mother in favor of her “favourite” Lydia, tries to fill the parental void with misguided accomplishment and moral pretension.  These errors are eventually rectified, Austen’s narrator tells us, when Mary is forced to “mix more with the world” after her older sisters leave, and when she is “no longer mortified by comparisons between her sisters’ beauty and her own” (386).  In the film, the younger daughters, with no familial problems, have no reason for their deviance. 

 

Austen’s plot structure relies on the problems engendered in the Bennet family and dissolves when these problems are eliminated.  Paula Marantz Cohen argues that in English domestic fiction the accepted suitor represents “a positive or improved aspect of the heroine’s family of origin; the bad [suitor] a negative aspect of that family,” so that the central courtship becomes a negotiation toward a reconstituted form of the heroine’s original family (27).  Austen’s Pride and Prejudice illustrates this pattern, where Mrs. Bennet’s support of Mr. Collins as a suitor reflects the family’s failure to promote proper values, and where Darcy’s relationship to his sister Georgiana represents an idealized version of the faulty Bennet father/daughter relationship (Cohen 27).  This pattern is skewed when, as in Wright’s film, the Bennet family relationships are shown to be already faultless.  Without the problems in the Bennet family, the problems in the plot have no precipitating cause other than chance.  Without a remote, uncaring father, Jane would not be as attracted to a warm and open Bingley whose credulousness might give pause to another young woman more wary of being cheated by servants and “‘always exceed[ing one’s] income’” (348).  Without a selfish, vulgar Bennet mother, Bingley would not have been persuaded by Darcy to separate from Jane.  Without a disastrous parental union, Elizabeth would not be so insistent upon marriage to a man whom she could love and respect.  And without a neglectful upbringing, the younger girls would not be so silly and gullible.  Lydia would never have been allowed to follow the regiment nor tempted to throw everything away for Wickham’s false acceptance and love.  Furthermore, Austen would not have had to reconfigure the Bennet family at the end of the novel by essentially discarding some members and substituting them with others.

 

            For, in order to bring Pride and Prejudice to the “‘happiest, wisest, most reasonable end’” (347), Austen finds it necessary during the novel’s close to bring in substitutes for the flawed characters who cannot perform their required functions.  Main characters in well-written novels always change during the course of events, and the Bennet family, as Daniel Cottom observes, is “the dominant character” in Pride and Prejudice (161).  Thus, the family, as the main character, changes in makeup by the novel’s end.  The motherly vacuum caused by Mrs. Bennet’s inadequacy is filled by Aunt Gardiner, a much more sensible woman who has displayed her superior motherly capabilities by cautioning Elizabeth against involving herself seriously with Wickham.  Mrs. Gardiner has also acted as the physical instrument of Elizabeth and Darcy’s reconciliation at Pemberley.  Mrs. Bennet, Tess O’Toole observes, “loses her role altogether—the narrator records that she visits her daughter Mrs. Bingley, but only talks about Mrs. Darcy” (200).  Likewise, Mr. Gardiner and Mr. Darcy have stepped in to take Mr. Bennet’s place in the retrieval of Lydia and Wickham and the brokering of their marriage.  Mr. Bennet therefore subsequently “becomes a visiting uncle” (O’Toole 200).  The Gardiners are rewarded for their parenting in the final paragraph by being awarded “the most intimate terms” with Elizabeth and Darcy in this reconfigured family at Pemberley, in which the banished little sister Lydia is replaced by Georgiana Darcy, and in which Kitty will finally be brought up with “proper attention and management” (385).

 

            None of these final circumstances and arrangements of the novel is mentioned in the Wright film, which has chosen instead to show the Bennet family as an attractive but static entity rather than a complex and evolving character.  The effect of this decision to simplify and flatten the Bennets is to showcase more pointedly the Elizabeth/Darcy relationship as the main focus of change and development, against the scenic backdrop of a uniformly benevolent family.  As an abbreviated and simplified version of the novel, packaged as an adaptation of children’s literature such as Little Women, or as a two-hour romantic “date movie,” this strategy makes sense, like downplaying the villainy of Wickham, in making the story line plainer.  The exemplary Bennet family thus recedes, becoming part of the stunningly beautiful cinematography, like the sunrise and the mist. 

 

            Finally, whereas the conclusion to Austen’s novel addresses and incorporates all the family relationships of the novel, Wright’s ending excludes them.  This omission is significant in reifying the film’s single focus on Elizabeth and Darcy.  The final scene of the U.S. release, an original creation in which the two young lovers face and focus exclusively on each other, serves to emphasize the peripherality of everything and everyone else in this adaptation.  As the credits roll, audiences can sigh with bliss at the unfettered happiness of the two individuals, a happiness uncomplicated by much of the surrounding conflict and texture of the larger novel.  It is perhaps an appropriate elision for our era, given the twenty-first century’s emphasis on the individual.  But is it Austen?

 

 

Works Cited

 

Austen, Jane.  Pride and Prejudice Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1993.

“A Bennet Family Portrait.”  Special Features.  Pride & Prejudice.  Dir. Joe Wright.  DVD.  Focus Features, 2005.

Bennett, Paula.  “Family Plots: Pride and Prejudice as a Novel about Parenting.”  Approaches to Teaching Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  Ed. Marcia McClintock Folsom.  New York: MLA, 1993.  134-39.

Benson, Mary Margaret.  “Mothers, Substitute Mothers, and Daughters in the Novels of Jane Austen.”  Persuasions 11 (1989): 117-24.

Bilger, Audrey.  Laughing Feminism:  Subversive Comedy in Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen.  Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1998.

Brower, Reuben A.  “Light and Bright and Sparkling: Irony and Fiction in Pride and Prejudice.”  Ed. Ian Watt.  Jane Austen: A Collection of Critical Essays.  Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1963.  62-75.

Cohen, Paula Marantz.  The Daughter’s Dilemma:  Family Process and the Nineteenth-Century Domestic Novel.  Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 1994.

Cottom, Daniel.  “The Novels of Jane Austen: Attachments and Supplantments.”  Novel: A Forum on Fiction 14 (1981): 152-67.

Davidoff, Leonore, and Catherine Hall.  Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850.  Chicago: UCP, 1987.

Graham, Peter W.  “Born to Diverge: An Evolutionary Perspective on Sibling Personality Development in Austen’s Novels.”  Persuasions On-Line 25.1 (2004).

Hudson, Glenda A.  “‘Precious Remains of the Earliest Attachment’: Sibling Love in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.”  Persuasions 11 (1989): 125-31.

Morris, Ivor.  “Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet.”  Persuasions On-Line 25.1 (2004).

Mudrick, Marvin.  Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery.  Princeton: PUP, 1952.

O’Toole, Tess.  “Reconfiguring the Family in Persuasion.”  Persuasions 15 (1993): 200-06.

Pride & Prejudice   Dir. Joe Wright.  DVD.  Focus Features, 2005.

Weinsheimer, Joel.  “Chance and the Hierarchy of Marriages in Pride and Prejudice.”  ELH: English Literary History 39 (1972): 404-19.

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