“What an excellent father you have, girls.”
(Pride and Prejudice 8)
In the 1940 Pride and Prejudice starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, the Bennets contemplate leaving Meryton to escape the shame of Lydia’s running away with Wickham. The two eldest daughters characteristically try to cheer their overwrought mother: “What does it matter where we go as long as we go together,” asks Elizabeth, and Jane is optimistic about “a world of our own.” Mr. Bennet, in turn, teases his family with the vision of a “Bennet utopia, a domestic paradise, a world where no one shall ever talk more than is strictly necessary, where no one shall ever play scales on the piano, where no one shall ever think of bonnets, or tea parties, or gossip, or . . . .” Mr. Bennet’s dream of a world freed of bonnets, tea, and gossip does not materialize in any of the filmic treatments of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, but a utopia of another kind does: the patriarchal family. Families in Austen’s novels, of course, are hardly utopian and, as Claudia Johnson has shown, a significant part of Austen’s political critique lies in her interrogation of the supposedly benevolent institution of the family; in Austen, “fathers, sons, and brothers . . . may be selfish, bullying and unscrupulous” (Johnson 10).1 While critics have commented that recent adaptations (such as the 1995 Pride and Prejudice) foreground heterosexual romance at the expense of feminist critique in what Deborah Kaplan describes as the “harlequinization of Jane Austen” (178),2 the two most recent adaptations of Pride and Prejudice by Joe Wright and Gurinder Chadha, I wish to argue, do quite the opposite: they foreground family over heterosexual romance. Both recent films significantly recast the Bennet family, in particular its patriarch, presenting Mr. Bennet as a sensitive and kind father whose role in the family’s misfortunes is continually downplayed.
Despite my attention to differences in the portrayal of Mr. Bennet, the point of this essay is not to measure varying degrees of fidelity among the adaptations. As explained by Brian McFarlane, the discourse of fidelity is problematic in its privileging of the literary text above the film, in its “depend[ing] on a notion of the text as having . . . a single, correct ‘meaning’” (8), and its limiting of the film’s intertextuality to the literary text. Nevertheless, “the language of criticism dealing with the film adaptations of novels has often been profoundly moralistic, awash in terms such as infidelity, betrayal, deformation, violation, vulgarization, and desecration” (Stam 54). Linda Hutcheon’s recent A Theory of Adaptation (2006) challenges the “negative evaluation of popular cultural adaptations as derivative and secondary” (31): “multiple versions exist laterally, not vertically” (xiii) and stories “evolve and mutate to fit new times and different places” (176).3 This essay looks at the changes made to Austen’s text not in order to devalue the films but to examine them from an ideological perspective. As Christopher Orr argues, “lapses of fidelity . . . are of interest . . . as a means of reconstructing the film’s . . . ideology” (73). It is in this light that the essay explores the ways in which Wright’s and Chadha’s films “lapse” from the written text in their depiction of Mr. Bennet, and that it situates these films in the comparative context of the 1940 adaptation. “Other earlier adaptations,” Hutcheon states, “may, in fact, be just as important as contexts for some adaptations as any ‘original’” (xiii). There are striking similarities among the three films: all revise Mr. Bennet’s financial mismanagement; all downplay his parental shortcomings; and all three foreground a loving bond between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. These changes to Austen’s text produce a family which serves as an image of the nation: united, affectionate, and headed by a benevolent and wise father figure who knows best. In the novel, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner play an important role as uncle and aunt, for they give the heroine advice, comfort, and practical assistance that ought to be forthcoming from her parents, but are not. In order for the films to maintain their idealization of the Bennets, they have to reduce the significance of the Gardiners, and indeed all three films do. This essay explores the implications of the films’ presentation of a triumphant Bennet family. A number of critics have read the 1940 film in its historical context of military conflict; I wish to extend the analysis of the ideological function of family unity in the wartime context of 1940 to its function in our contemporary context of globalism and the “war on terror.”
An assessment of the films’ “lapses in fidelity” first requires a return to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Even though Mr. Bennet’s refusal to cooperate with his wife’s attempt to force Elizabeth to marry Mr. Collins initially wins the hearts of many readers, Elizabeth “had never been blind to the impropriety of her father’s behaviour as a husband” and the “continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible” (236). Elizabeth describes her father’s “‘little attention . . . to what was going forward in his family’” as “‘indolence’” (283), a judgment later repeated by the narrator (309). In the novel the Bennets’ marriage serves largely as a negative example: “Had Elizabeth’s opinion been all drawn from her own family, she could not have formed a very pleasing picture of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort” (236). Mr. Bennet’s “philosoph[y]” (236) consists of being “contented with laughing at” (213) his wife and children, “enjoying the scene” (103), and even staging scenes that will increase his mirth. For example, when he announces that “a gentleman and a stranger” will be visiting Longbourn, he “amus[es] himself some time with their curiosity” (61) before identifying the guest as Mr. Collins. Waiting up for his family’s return from the first Assembly ball, he “had a good deal of curiosity as to the event of an evening which had raised such splendid expectations. He had rather hoped that all his wife’s views on the stranger would be disappointed” (12).
Lest we gloss over Mr. Bennet’s delight in his family’s foibles, Austen also includes scenes of thoughtlessness which border on callousness. During the anxious days of Lydia’s disappearance,
the whole party were in hopes of a letter from Mr. Bennet the next morning, but the post came in without bringing a single line from him. His family knew him to be on all common occasions, a most negligent and dilatory correspondent, but at such a time, they had hoped for exertion. They were forced to conclude, that he had no pleasing intelligence to send, but even of that they would have been glad to be certain. (294)
And when the report of Lydia’s marriage finally reaches Longbourn, Mrs. Bennet is the last to know:
It now occurred to the girls [Elizabeth and Jane] that their mother was in all likelihood perfectly ignorant of what had happened. They went to the library, therefore, and asked their father, whether he would not wish them to make it known to her. He was writing, and, without raising his head, coolly replied,
“Just as you please.”
“May we take my uncle’s letter to read to her?”
“Take whatever you like, and get away.” (305)
All three films, I will demonstrate in this essay, edit scenes such as this in order to maintain their picture of “‘an excellent father’”(8). Furthermore, the films are united in erasing Mr. Bennet’s role in his daughters’ financial plight.
By not holding Mr. Bennet accountable for his family’s finances, all three films elide a significant part of Austen’s feminist critique. Part of this refashioning of Mr. Bennet is the simplification of the nature of the entail. Bride & Prejudice omits the entail altogether; the Bakshi family’s financial situation is a function of the global economy and Mr. Bakshi’s commitment to India, which is contrasted with his cousin who left India for the U.S. and now has “three Subway franchises.”4 In the 1940 film Mr. Bennet explains that Longbourn “must by law go to a male heir. The estate was entailed when I inherited it.” Joe Wright’s adaptation similarly reduces the complexity of the entailment; “[t]he estate passes directly to him [Mr. Collins] and not to us poor females,” Elizabeth explains in passing, and the viewer is left to interpret this fate as one of the injustices of history. Yet, as Robert Irvine explicates clearly, the entail “is not a state of affairs simply imposed on the Bennet family out of nowhere” (18).5 Further, the novel is explicit that Mr. Bennet has neglected “his duty” (308) of financial management: he “had very often wished . . . that, instead of spending his whole income, he had laid by an annual sum, for the better provision of his children, and of his wife, if she survived him. He now wished it more than ever” (308). There is no indication of poor financial choices in any of the films. Similarly, the 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility simplifies economic matters: as Kristin Samuelian points out, when Elinor “explains . . . that ‘houses go from father to son, dearest—not from father to daughter. It is the law’ . . . [the] closing emphasis on ‘law’ simplifies to the point of obliterating the complicated history of the disposition of the Norland estate given in the first two pages of Austen’s novel” (149). Filmic treatments of Austen’s novels tend to remove the patriarchs from direct responsibility for the poverty of women and, thus, remove a key point in Austen’s novels. In the films women are protected by the family structure, whereas in the novels women’s economic disenfranchisement happens precisely through the patriarchal family system.
While the three films are similar in their depiction of the Bennets, their motivations for the celebration of family differ. The 1940 film’s context of World War II has been illuminated by Ellen Belton, Elisabeth H. Ellington, and Robert Lawson-Peebles. These critics argue that the film supports an Anglo-U.S. alliance by presenting an England with democratic values which would appeal to American viewers.6 The film’s rewriting of Lady Catherine into Darcy’s “ambassador” is a case in point. Her insults and confrontation of Elizabeth are merely a test; once she is certain that Elizabeth truly loves Darcy for himself, not his money, Lady Catherine delivers the good news to her nephew, who is waiting in the wings. This revision also contributes to the celebration of family: no longer an obstacle, Lady Catherine brings hero and heroine together. In the novel, Darcy’s relationship with Lady Catherine is much more vexed: “in her reply to the letter which announced . . . [Darcy’s marriage], she sent him language so very abusive, especially of Elizabeth, that for some time all intercourse was at an end” (388). Belton’s detailed reading of the film’s opening and concluding scenes convincingly demonstrate the film’s emphasis on family unity (184-86) as “a powerful subliminal argument for Anglo-American solidarity in times of crisis. . . . By sentimentalizing the British family, the film . . . underscores the importance of subordinating individual self-interest to the common good, thus countering the arguments of the defenders of isolationism” (Belton 186). Interestingly, the only time we see a solitary Mr. Bennet is at the very beginning of the film when Mrs. Bennet and the daughters return from shopping in Meryton. For the rest of the film Mr. Bennet is shown as part of the united front of the family. The film’s ideological commitment to the war effort, demonstrated by Belton, is further shored up by the rewriting of Mr. Bennet into a figurehead who deserves respect and loyalty.
In the 1940 Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bennet’s culpability in Lydia’s fate is erased. In Austen’s novel, Mr. Bennet permits Lydia to go to Brighton, even after Elizabeth “could not help secretly advising her father not to let her go. She represented to him all the improprieties of Lydia’s general behaviour.” Mr Bennet’s flippant response is shown to be a serious parental failure: “‘Lydia will never be easy till she has exposed herself in some public place or other, and we can never expect her to do it with so little expense or inconvenience to her family as under the present circumstances’” (230). Instead, the film’s Lydia and Wickham simply “run away” from Longbourn. Furthermore, Mr. Bennet’s wit is softened; for example, when interrupting Mary’s piano performance, he does so by gently pulling her away with a public compliment: “Very good, Mary, dear, very good.” The comic line “You have delighted us long enough. Give other ladies a chance to make exhibitions of themselves” in the 1940 film is spoken to Mary privately. In the novel, the emphasis is on the public nature of Mr. Bennet’s statement (100-01). Austen’s Pride and Prejudice presents us with the doubled irony of Mr. Bennet’s primary interest in exhibiting his own wit, rather than protecting his daughters from social embarrassment.
Given its project of rehabilitating Mr. Bennet, the film also undoes the novel’s final privileging of aunt and uncle over the heroine’s parents. Beth Lau argues that “Austen’s happy endings feature utopian communities, much like those in other Romantic texts, in which a perfectly matched couple and a handful of like-minded friends create an ideal society, with the unworthy kept at bay” (264). Pride and Prejudice is a case in point. Darcy and Elizabeth establish their life away from the Bennets, and Mr. Bingley and Jane soon follow suit: they “remained at Netherfield only a twelvemonth. So near a vicinity to her mother and Meryton relations was not desirable even to his easy temper, or her affectionate heart. . . . [H]e bought an estate in a neighbouring county to Derbyshire, and Jane and Elizabeth, in addition to every other source of happiness, were within thirty miles of each other” (385). In the final paragraph we are told that “With the Gardiners, they [Elizabeth and Darcy] were always on the most intimate terms. Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them” (388). That uncle and aunt take over the place of father and mother is important to the novel’s critique of the patriarchal family and in the way it reimagines community. In the 1940 film, the significance of the Gardiners is reduced. They never appear on screen and do not assume the important mentor role. Instead, their function is kept to one of plot: they are mentioned as Jane goes to London as their guest, and Mr. Gardiner finds Lydia and Wickham in London. The film ends with a focus on Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, looking out of a window together at the united Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. Whereas in the novel, of course, one couple is a foil for the other, the visual logic of the filmed scene invites an equation between the two couples. And, rather than ending with the Gardiners the way the novel does, the film closes with Mr. and Mrs. Bennet.
Gurinder Chadha’s Bride & Prejudice, set in present-day Amritsar, London and Los Angeles, shares surprising similarities with the 1940 film. When Mrs. Bakshi laments having four unmarried daughters, Mr. Bakshi teases, “perhaps we should have drowned one or two at the time of their birth.” This line, having no basis in Austen’s text, does occur almost word for word in the 1940 film.7 Both adaptations, I think, use this line in their attempt to retain something of the original Mr. Bennet’s humor but to separate it from sarcasm. The comment is so clearly outlandish that it is easily dismissed as a harmless joke; in the novel, Mr. Bennet’s wit is much more subtle and pointed, and it often leaves a sting. While the 1940 film idealizes the patriarchal family to support an Anglo-U.S. alliance, Chadha’s 2004 film celebrates the family in order to critique the West. Chadha’s focus on family unity is, in part, due to Bollywood conventions.8 Bollywood films emphasize “social life” and “placing characters in a web of social relation of which kin are the most significant” (Ganti 77) in contrast to Hollywood films which tend to valorize individualism (one of the reasons why they do not enjoy much success in India); as film director Anjun Rajabali asks, “Who were James Bond’s parents?” (qtd. in Ganti 182). Further, the depiction of family is part of Bride & Prejudice’s post-colonial critique. In interviews, Chadha has made explicit that her film “touches on American imperialism, the way the West looks at India and what people regard as backward or progressive” and “question[s] the audience’s Eurocentric attitudes” (37). Contrasting the cohesive Indian family (the Bakshis) with the fragmented Western family (the Darcys), the film makes the point that in its quest for material success the West has lost its sense of family.9 The closeness of the Bakshis is part of the film’s challenge of U.S. superiority, and, to sharpen this point, the film cuts Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, who in the novel are an implicit critique of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet.
Bride & Prejudice also presents a critique of Western feminism from a post-colonial perspective. Western feminism posits the nuclear family as one of the primary sites of women’s oppression, but this assumption does not necessarily apply cross-culturally: according to Sylvia Walby, “since the family is a site of resistance and solidarity against racism for women of colour, it does not hold the central place in accounting for women’s subordination that it does for white women” (qtd. in Brooks 17). Many critics have seen the popularity of the Austen adaptations as symptomatic of postfeminism in its popular meaning of backlash against feminism, but Chadha’s film can be seen as participating in postfeminism in the postmodern sense of “facilitat[ing] a broad-based, pluralistic conception of the application of feminism, and address[ing] the demands of marginalised, diasporic and colonised cultures for a non-hegemonic feminism capable of giving voice to local, indigenous and post-colonial feminisms” (Brooks 4). Lalita’s angry comments on U.S. imperialism dissuade Darcy from purchasing a hotel in Goa and turning it into a resort “with five-star comfort and a bit of culture thrown in”: “India without having to deal with Indians,” as Lalita puts it. The film’s two skeptics of globalism are Mr. Bakshi and Lalita, suggesting that Lalita’s ability to see through the false promises of globalism is connected to her love and respect for her father.
Bride & Prejudice dramatically improves Mr. Bennet. While he consistently amuses himself at the expense of his wife in the novel, there is only one such instance in the film. Mrs. Bakshi lectures her daughters on how to behave during Mr. Kholi’s visit: “It’s very important to make a good impression. Stand straight. Smile. Don’t talk unnecessarily, and don’t say anything too intelligent.” Mr. Bakshi mutters under his breath, “It’s a shame she only practices selectively what she preaches,” with a conspiratorial wink at one of his daughters. Apart from this one instance, he is consistently kind; instead of exposing his wife to laughter, two scenes are invented where he attempts to shield her from public embarrassment. Mr. Bennet’s lack of “exert[ion]” (213) in parenting is rewritten as gentleness, and his affection is clearly evident. The prospect of Jane’s marriage to a rich husband in England saddens him: “I would hate to have my daughters so far away.” For the role of Mr. Bakshi, Chadha cast Anupam Kher, a well-known Bollywood actor, who also played the father in Bend It Like Beckham. There, too, Chadha creates a positive picture of fatherhood: it is Jess’s father who allows her to sneak out of her sister’s wedding to play in the all-important final football match where Jess is scouted and wins a scholarship to the University of California. As he puts in an emotional speech about pursuing your dreams, “I didn’t have the heart to stop her.”
Bride & Prejudice, like its 1940 predecessor, minimizes Mr. Bennet’s culpability in Lydia’s alliance with Mr. Wickham. In Austen’s novel, Lydia’s fate is the result of her education. “[C]ontented with laughing at them,” Mr. Bennet “would never exert himself to restrain the wild giddiness of his youngest daughters” (213), and Elizabeth “acutely” felt “[t]he mischief of neglect and mistaken indulgence towards such a girl” (280). Wickham remains a permanent fixture in the family circle. Lydia visits Pemberley, and both Lydia and Wickham stay at Netherfield, “frequently . . . so long, that even Bingley’s good humour was overcome, and he proceeded so far as to talk of giving them a hint to be gone.” Darcy “for Elizabeth’s sake . . . assisted [Wickham] farther in his profession,” and both Elizabeth and Jane are regularly “applied to, for some little assistance towards discharging their bills” (387). In contrast, Bride & Prejudice neatly removes Mr. Bakshi’s responsibility for Lydia’s fiasco. Lucky falls prey to Wickham during a family trip to London, and if anyone is to blame, it is Mrs. Bakshi who allows her to go “shopping” one afternoon. Lucky also is presented as much more innocent; Wickham’s moves don’t quite work the way he wants them to—Lucky is more interested in the sights of London and a Bollywood film. The relationship remains chaste, and Johnny Wickham disappears after receiving a good beating from Darcy and a slap each from Lalita and Lucky. That nothing really happens to Lucky is important for Chadha’s project of recuperating Mr. Bakshi and presenting an upbeat family comedy. By renaming Lydia as Lucky, Chadha slyly admits that her film does not incorporate the “shade” amidst Austen’s “light & bright & sparkling” novel (4 February 1813).
Like the 1940 adaptation, Bride & Prejudice present us with a family utopia and emphasizes Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in the final scene. The film closes with the double wedding; the camera focuses on Jaya (Jane) and Balraj (Bingley), then Lalita and Darcy, but pride of place is awarded to Mr. and Mrs. Bakshi, whom we see in a joyous dance and an affectionate embrace. Again, the visual logic links all three couples, rather than carefully distinguishing between them. Despite the film’s post-colonial perspective, Bride & Prejudice is not immune to the conservative implications of the benevolent Mr. Bakshi. Part of the appeal for some Western audience members may well be its foregrounding of family values. Bride & Prejudice, as Wilson puts it, “is and is not Jane Austen, is and is not Bollywood, and is and is not Hollywood” and thus “can reach the ‘multi-national’ audience Chadha identifies as her target by providing each viewer with something that is familiar and something that is not” (324). The closeness of the Bakshi family, indeed, would be familiar to any viewer of previous adaptations of Austen’s novel, and Chadha uses the depiction of family life both as a critique of the West and as a way of bridging the East-West divide by emphasizing common values.
Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice, released in 2005, shares much common ground with Chadha’s film in terms of family. In Joe Wright’s adaptation, Mr. Bennet, played by Donald Sutherland, is sensitive and involved in family life. The first time we see Mr. Bennet, he is carrying a plant; his library is for books as well as plants, thus linking him to Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s association with nature. Gone are the comments about “‘silly and ignorant . . . girls’” (5), as is the favoritism of the elder sisters over the younger: “‘our two youngest daughters [are] uncommonly foolish’” (29). Instead, this father, in Donald Sutherland’s words, “has a great deal of affection for his family. That’s for sure. I love those girls.” In the novel, Mr. Bennet shows no concern for Mary’s feelings and only Elizabeth was “sorry for her, and sorry for her father’s speech” (101). In the film, Mr. Bennet’s interruption of Mary’s embarrassing musical performance at the ball (“‘You have delighted us long enough’” ) is followed up with the invented scene of his comforting and hugging a crying Mary.
The film’s most emotional scene is Elizabeth’s conversation with her father about Mr. Darcy’s proposal. Mr. Bennet tearfully says: “You really do love him. I cannot believe that anyone can deserve you, but it seems I am overruled. I heartily give my consent. I couldn’t have parted with you for anyone less worthy.” This scene concludes the British version of the film, rather than the kiss between a blissfully happy Mr. and Mrs. Darcy that concludes the American version (and to which British test audiences objected). While it could be argued that the objection is similar to the negative response to Wentworth and Anne’s kiss at the end of Roger Michell’s Persuasion, it also speaks to the film’s assigning of primary value to family. When I attended several screenings of the North American version of the film in Canada, I was struck by how audience members audibly were moved to tears by the scene between Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth. In the novel, this scene is unlikely to elicit such a response. Elizabeth does have “tears in her eyes” (376) as she assures her father of her love for Darcy, but Mr. Bennet maintains his ironic detachment. Told of Darcy’s arranging of Lydia’s marriage, he quips:
“So much the better. It will save me a world of trouble and economy. Had it been your uncle’s doing, I must and would have paid him; but these violent young lovers carry every thing their own way. I shall offer to pay him to-morrow; he will rant and storm about his love for you, and there will be an end of the matter.” (377)
The interview is hardly a comfortable one for Elizabeth: “He then recollected her embarrassment a few days before, on his reading Mr. Collins’s letter; and after laughing at her some time, allowed her at last to go” (377, emphasis added). The film presents a Mr. Bennet who, rather than laughing at his daughters, feels for them.
Wright’s Mr. Bennet is an attentive husband as well as a loving father. There are scenes of affection, such as when he fans the tipsy Mrs. Bennet at the ball. It is noteworthy that the film is the first to present Mrs. Bennet in a sympathetic light. This Mrs. Bennet, to quote Wright, is “an amazing mother” who “would walk across hot coals for any of her daughters.” While this may be an overstatement, the film deserves credit in acknowledging that Mrs. Bennet’s “business to get her daughters married” is a serious one: as she retorts to Elizabeth, “When you have five daughters, tell me what else shall occupy your thoughts and perhaps then you will understand.” Moreover, this husband and wife are both in the business of getting their daughters married. When the family eavesdrops on Bingley’s proposal to Jane, and Lady Catherine’s interrogation of Elizabeth, the camera includes Mr. Bennet. When Mrs. Bennet plans to send Jane on horseback to Netherfield in the hope that she will have to stay overnight, Mr. Bennet comments, “Good grief, woman, your skills in the art of matchmaking are positively occult.” And Mrs. Bennet chuckles. This exchange creates husband and wife as a team; they share laughter. The film frames the Bennets as a unit rather than drawing attention to the separation between them by making Mrs. Bennet the butt of jokes.
Unlike Leonard’s 1940 or Chadha’s 2004 version, Wright’s film does not cut the Gardiners. Even here, however, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner do not operate as a critique of the nuclear family as they do in the novel. While Elizabeth enjoys the company of her aunt and uncle and although they provide her with the opportunity to travel, there is no indication in the film that they are superior in understanding to Mr. and Mrs. Bennet or that they assume a surrogate parental role. Instead, the Gardiners are an extension of the Bennets. Whereas in the novel, Elizabeth’s “raptur[es]” (154) for the Lake District distinguish her from her sisters, the film attributes her enthusiastic “‘What are men to rocks and mountains?’” (154) to Mary Bennet and, later, to Mr. Gardiner, thus creating a harmony of feeling not only among the sisters but also among the Bennets and Gardiners.
The unity of the Bennets is explicit in the Longbourn window sequence: as the camera lets us peek through the first window, we see Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in bed, laughing happily about the prospect of Jane’s marriage; the second shot shows the younger sisters reading and conversing; and the third vignette shows Elizabeth and Jane. It is instructive to compare a similar scene in Simon Langton’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice. In that adaptation, the window views emphasize the lack of family unity: the first window reveals Mr. Bennet alone in his silent worry over bills, while we hear Mrs. Bennet’s voice from the adjacent room, lamenting the prospect of Wickham’s marriage to Miss King, “I feel sorry for Lizzy. She has done nothing to deserve it.” The second window shows Mrs. Bennet, Lydia, and Kitty, who “wish[es] someone would leave me 10,000 pounds.” And the third window reveals a solitary Elizabeth reading a letter from Jane. The contrast in the window sequences highlights one of the key differences between the 1995 and the more recent adaptions. In the earlier version, Elizabeth, like her novelistic counterpart, is acutely aware of the failings of her parents’ marriage. When Jane reflects that “a marriage where either partner cannot love or respect the other can hardly be agreeable to either party,” Elizabeth adds, “as we have daily proof.” We are reminded of this characterization in the 1995 film’s concluding scene of the double-wedding of Elizabeth and Darcy, and Jane and Bingley. During the wedding ceremony, the clergyman cautions that matrimony is “not to be enterprised in lightly or wantonly by anyone to satisfy man’s carnal lusts and appetites but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, and soberly,” and the camera lingers pointedly on Mr. and Mrs. Bennet.
The 2005 adaptation’s focus on family over romance is made explicit in “A Bennet Family Portrait,” included in the DVD Bonus Features. The featurette opens: “Lizzy and Darcy are two of literature’s most loved romantic characters, yet the foundation for Austen’s fantasy is based on reality. . . . The Bennet Family is at the heart of Pride and Prejudice, and it’s the real, everyday concerns of eighteenth-century family life that give the story such timeless and universal appeal.” As the closing words of the film’s producer, Paul Webster, emphasize, “Yes, it’s a great love story between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, but underpinning it all is the kind of love that runs this family.” Sounding like a modern-day Edmund Burke, Brenda Blethyn (who plays Mrs. Bennet) comments, “Society as a whole starts with the family. And if the family unit is not treasured and nourished, you know everything is going to go to pot. So, I think we should take a leaf out of their book.” This book surely is the screenplay, not Austen’s novel! Joe Wright acknowledges that there is conflict among the Bennets but naturalizes it as realism and redefines family secrecy (us versus them) as family closeness: “I like the idea that behind closed doors they are a like a real family—they squabble, argue and talk over each other—but then when anyone else comes to the door, you close ranks.” The choice of military metaphor is telling in the context of the rhetoric of the “war on terror”: you are with us or against us. Presented in period costume replete with the “red coat[s]” (29) so admired by Mrs. Bennet, the film offers a “timeless and universal” patriarchal family that fits into current conservative discourses of family and offers a nostalgic image of Western heritage.
The film’s project of presenting an ideal family is extended to Austen’s own. The bonus features included with the DVD attempt to give the film’s portrayal of the Bennets credibility by presenting them as version of Austen’s family. This reading, of course, requires some revision of Austen’s history. The featurette claims that the Bennets are based on Austen’s family: “One of seven siblings herself, Austen builds on her own experiences of family life to give huge depth and color to the relationships within the Bennet family.” It comes as no surprise that Austen’s brother George, excluded from family life due to his physical and mental disabilities, is unmentioned. In the second featurette, entitled “Jane Austen, Ahead of Her Time,” Webster insists that Austen “only wrote of her direct experience,” a view seconded by Wright: “in a Jane Austen novel you never see a scene that she, Jane Austen, wouldn’t have seen.” These comments, interspersed with clips of the Bennet family, further the biographical argument, and echo Henry Austen’s “Biographical Notice”: “Her power of inventing characters seems to have been intuitive, and almost unlimited. She drew from nature” (7). Like the film, the “Biographical Notice,” described by Mary Poovey as one of the “efforts . . . to beatify ‘Aunt Jane’ for Victorian readers” (173), emphasizes family, depicting Austen as living “in the bosom of her own family” (7) and “in the circle of her family and friends” (3). Further, just as the “Biographical Notice” associates Austen’s novels with “entertainment” (3) and “amusement” (4), the featurette foregrounds the novel’s entertainment value at the expense of the other aspects of Austen’s art: “Jane Austen was not writing for any worthy reason. . . . She wanted to entertain people. That’s the whole point about her books. The books aren’t there to make people lead better lives. They are there to give people fulfillment, happiness, and pleasure.” It is telling that the image shown of Austen three times in the featurette is not Cassandra Austen’s watercolour of 1810, but the adaptation by Mr. Andrews of 1869, which enhances the prettiness of the original.
So too does the film give Mr. Bennet an extreme make-over. Austen’s critique of the patriarchal family is recast into a cozy family portrait. “‘[H]ow can you abuse your own children in such a way?’” asks Mrs. Bennet after Mr. Bennet comments that his daughters do not “‘have . . . much to recommend them. . . . [T]hey are all silly and ignorant like other girls’” (5). Given the contemporary awareness of domestic violence, it is not surprising that only the 1940 adaptation includes this part of Austen’s dialogue.10 Mrs. Bennet’s question resonates in a way that is inconsistent with the benevolent Mr. Bennet we see on film.
The recent adaptations by Wright and Chadha, then, have stripped Mrs. Bennet’s pronouncement—“‘What an excellent father you have, girls’” (8)—from its ironic context and instead present a head of the household who is indeed loving, kind, and engaged. This is not to suggest that the films are wholly anti-feminist. Devoney Looser cautions us that the adaptations are not “simply tolling neoconservative bells”: she argues that “Austen’s reemergence demonstrates progressive, feminist elements at work in popular culture” (159). Both films certainly value Elizabeth Bennet for her intelligence, outspokenness, agency, and unconventionality, and both honor her demand for an equal relationship. In Bride & Prejudice’s memorable “No Wife, No Life” dance sequence, Lalita sings: “I don’t want a man who ties me down / Does what he wants while I hang around / I want a man with real soul / Who wants equality and not control / I want a man who is good and smart / With a really sharp mind and really big heart.” Both films offer ample evidence of the “‘mainstreaming’ of feminism” (159) described by Looser, but, like the 1940 film, they undo Austen’s feminist critique of the patriarchal family.
1. Paula Bennett calls the Bennet family “dysfunctional” (134) and details the effects of inadequate parents—Mrs. Bennet’s “overindulgence” and Mr. Bennet’s “neglect” (136)—on their daughters.
2. Ellen Belton, for example, writes that the 1995 Pride and Prejudice “privileges the individual romantic relationship” and “undertakes the postfeminist project of activating the central female character’s unique sensibility and linking her achievement of a greater degree of autonomy with a sense of personal entitlement” (194). Kristin Flieger Samuelian argues that the 1995 Sense and Sensibility “reflects . . . [a] postfeminist consciousness” (149) that “demands a reconciliation between female independence and marriage. In Thompson’s project, courtship serves both. In Austen’s, economic conditions set them at odds” (151).
3. In a similar vein, Jocelyn Harris uses eighteenth-century discourses of imitation to interrogate fidelity; John Dryden, for example, defined Imitation as “an Endeavor of a later Poet to write like one who has written before him on the same subject: that is, not to translate his words, or to be Confin’d to his Sense, but only to set him as a Pattern, and to write, as he supposes, that Author would have done, had he lived in our Age, in our Country” (qtd. in Harris 51). For Harris, the success of Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park, and Amy Heckerling’s Clueless lies in the liberties they take.
4. Further, as Cheryl A. Wilson points out, in Bride & Prejudice “the future does not hold the same threat of poverty and displacement” as it does in the novel: “without the framework of the entailment and with the clear articulation of Lalita’s ability to take care of herself (and, potentially, to take care of the whole family), the economic stakes are lower” (329). The film’s opening establishes Lalita’s and Mr. Bakshi’s active involvement in the management of the farm, and a subsequent scene shows father and daughter engaged in account-keeping. The joint father-daughter efforts also remove Mr. Bakshi from sole responsibility for the economic future.
5. Austen’s Pride and Prejudice “mystifies the Longbourn entail by obscuring the exact nature of the legal settlement that has created this situation” (17): it “is not a state of affairs simply imposed on the Bennet family out of nowhere, or nature, or history, the product of some impersonal and implacable determining force. . . . [T]he exclusion of his daughters from the entail is an arrangement to which Mr. Bennet agreed, in exchange for the short term benefit of an income on which he (and perhaps a young wife) could survive” (Irvine 18).
6. Also see Mary Favret’s discussion of the 1940 film in the context of Austen’s “rising appeal in the United States”: “To the extent that white American readers identified with Austen and found consolation in her fiction, they also were willing to imagine themselves rid of the legacy of racial slavery, the trauma of Civil War, and the difficulties posed by mass immigration” (179). Favret discusses the visual echoes of Gone with the Wind in the 1940 Pride and Prejudice.
7. In the 1940 version, Mr. Bennet jokes, “perhaps we should have drowned some of them at birth.”
8. See Cheryl A. Wilson’s article for a detailed reading of Chadha’s use of Bollywood conventions.
9. I would like to thank Fraser Easton for suggesting this point to me when I presented “Bride & Prejudice: Imitation and Invention on the Silver Screen” at the 2005 Annual Conference of the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies.
10. Neither Cyril Coke’s 1979 nor Simon Langton’s 1995 adaptation includes this line of Austen’s dialogue.
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_____. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1988.
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_____. Bride & Prejudice. Miramax, 2004.
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