Austen is often hailed as the master of drawing-room realism; the symbolic power of her physical settings offers a range of readings, from comparing inside and outside conversations to tracking characters’ physical movements in conjunction with their psychological and emotional development. Physical setting has been a particular focus of various adaptations; the special-edition DVD release of the 1995 A&E Pride and Prejudice includes a “making of” book that spends a substantial chapter discussing the challenges of finding just the right locations for the key settings of the story, from the grandest of parks and exteriors to the detailed, domestic interiors. But setting of course includes not only place but also time, and this aspect of setting has been largely taken for granted in Austen scholarship and adaptations. Recent cinematic productions of Austen’s novels (barring, of course, such radical revisions as Amy Heckerling’s Clueless) have invariably set them firmly in their Regency dates of publication through both dress and interior design. The A&E “making of” book includes costume notes referencing 1813 fashions for men and women. The 2005 Focus Films Pride & Prejudice, directed by Joe Wright, diverges from this pattern, setting the novel instead in 1797, when Austen wrote “First Impressions,” an early version of Pride and Prejudice; thus we see in this production a generational shift, with the younger (and more fashionable) characters reflecting a sort of proto-Regency style of hair and dress, and the older generations still dressing to an earlier, mid- eighteenth-century mode.
This setting of the film in an earlier time provides, I argue, an alternate way of understanding the tensions in the story among Miss Bingley, Elizabeth and Jane, between Lady Catherine and Elizabeth, and most importantly between the haughty Mr. Darcy and the family of the woman he is coming to love. In adaptations and readings of the novel, this tension has typically been understood as resulting from differences between the cosmopolitan world of the Darcys (and, more recently, the Bingleys) and the provincial world of the Bennets and their smaller, less refined country estate. “You’ll find the society something savage,” Mr. Darcy warns Mr. Bingley at the beginning of the 1995 production when Mr. Bingley is expressing his delight at Netherfield and the surrounding community. “Country manners?” Bingley replies; “I think they’re charming.” Mr. Darcy’s remark echoes Miss Bingley in the novel itself, when she describes Elizabeth (to Mr. Darcy) as having “‘an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country town indifference to decorum’” (36, emphasis added). But by presenting the story in the context of a generational shift, the 2005 production enables us additionally to understand this tension as a generational one, hinging particularly on shifting definitions of gentility and expectations about how members of different social classes should interact. Thus the 2005 production makes possible a compelling expansion of our understanding of the novel itself.
Deborah Moggach’s screenplay for the 2005 production uses the language of the novel sparingly, but the film’s visual elements suggest a reading of the novel related to its genesis in the 1790s. The producers and designers of the 2005 production very specifically chose to set the movie in an earlier time frame, but this decision was not an attempt at a revisionist interpretation. According to the movie’s official website, Wright’s decision to set the film in 1797 was a result of his dislike of Regency-style dresses, particularly of the empire waistline, which he found “very ugly” (“About the Production”). This aesthetic choice led costume designer Jacqueline Durran to work with a very different range of clothing for the women; Caroline Bingley “would obviously be wearing the latest creation. But Mrs. Bennet’s dresses are earlier than 1797, and Lady Catherine’s are even earlier, because those two would have best clothes from previous years in their wardrobe” (“About the Production”). Dame Judi Dench’s Lady Catherine in particular appears always ready for an appearance at court, dressing for her daily life in fashions that by the turn of the century had become relegated to highly ritualized, formal moments of social display. Thus Durran’s costuming creates striking visual contrasts in the movie, both between generations and between Meryton’s permanent residents and the newcomers.
We first notice this contrast in the Meryton ball scene, with most of the local women (particularly of Mrs. Bennet’s generation) in the tightly laced bodices of eighteenth-century fashion, decorated with gauzy scarves at the neckline. At the Netherfield ball, hosted by Mr. Bingley and his highly fashionable sister Caroline, three women stand out in proto-Regency dresses with slightly elevated waistlines: Jane, Elizabeth, and of course Caroline herself, with the most extreme of the dresses. A similar aesthetic drove set design; production designer Sarah Greenwood went for a sort of “late-eighteenth-century ‘shabby chic’” (“Behind the Scenes”). On the whole, critics responded favorably to this sort of grubby realism in contrast to the relatively polished surface of other adaptations. But in addition to its perhaps greater realism in depicting the grittiness of English country-house life, this emphasis on aesthetic transitions rather than Regency innovations provides a visual construct of the more fundamental transitions taking place in ideas about the nature of the people living in those houses and wearing those clothes. Most explicitly, this transition can be seen in the eighteenth-century idea of the gentleman.
Austen’s heroines typically negotiate attractions to and attentions from a number of men who fit the label “gentleman.” Emma Woodhouse is surrounded by the clergyman Mr. Elton, the fashionable young man Frank Churchill, and the established landowner Mr. Knightley; Anne Elliot feels pulled between William Elliot, the heir to a baronetcy, and Captain Wentworth, the newly wealthy naval officer. In Pride and Prejudice, Austen not only explores the social variables of the term “gentleman,” as implied in the characters just mentioned, but also examines how the term itself was evolving morally throughout the eighteenth century. The variability and evolution of the gentleman hinges on the convergence of the public and the personal in the eighteenth-century sense of self; thus the tensions of the Elizabeth-Darcy relationship are, as Samuel Kliger points out, precisely those of “humans qua humans” versus “humans as the ‘art’ of society directs their activities” (53), a central eighteenth-century dilemma. In her depiction of various gentlemen, therefore, Austen participates in this ongoing eighteenth-century debate about the relationship between morals and manners. The term “gentleman” became during this time an increasingly useful but also fraught term, both philosophically and socio-economically.
The eighteenth-century reformist idea of the gentleman, spearheaded by Defoe, Addison and Steele and fictionalized by Samuel Richardson, was according to Robin Gilmour a gentried reaction against an aristocratic concept that was increasingly seen as devoid of any moral sincerity whatsoever (4-5). If Richardson’s amoral aristocratic rake Lovelace in Clarissa could still be considered a gentleman by polite society, then there was something fundamentally wrong with the term. In his 1729 The Compleat English Gentleman, Daniel Defoe exhorts the aristocratic gentleman to “stoop so low as to admit that vertue, learning, a liberal education, a degree of natural acquir’d knowledge are necessary to finish the born gentleman” and argues further that only birth and exemplary character together can “produce the best and most glorious piece of God’s creation, a compleat gentleman” (qtd. in Letwin 13). The debate over the term reflects an awareness that the characteristics Defoe promotes can be a mere pretense, and it also indicates anxiety over social mobility: on the one hand, one increases one’s chances of climbing the social ladder by ingratiating oneself to and imitating those above; on the other hand, that these characteristics can so easily be learned and imitated suggests that such genteel behavior is a pretense potentially lacking any real foundation in private life. Those in (and ambitious to join) the eighteenth-century fashionable world were very conscious of that world as a stage on which, however they might feel privately, individuals performed carefully scripted roles, ranging from the interpersonal importance of “urbanity, politeness, [and] a ‘pleasing address’” (Gilmour 19) to the high public drama of presentation at court.
This difference between public and private selves, between learned and innate behavior, was not necessarily seen as problematic. Elizabeth compares Mr. Darcy’s self-professed lack of ease in conversing with strangers with her own lack of proficiency at the piano, and ironically it is Lady Catherine who suggests the solution: “perhaps you should take your aunt’s advice,” Elizabeth tells him in the 2005 production, “and practice.” The reforming view of the gentleman, with its balance between social and moral qualities, thus offered great opportunities to the ambiguously defined but increasingly powerful middle classes of the eighteenth century. The ever greater economic power of merchants and proto-industrialists created a greater fluidity of social class than ever before seen, and out of necessity the attitudes from the top down were growing grudgingly more favorable. The fashionable world’s snobbishness towards trade was becoming less strict (Gilmour 23-24), a shift that Austen dramatizes effectively in a number of ways; as Gilmour points out, Elizabeth’s response in the novel to Lady Catherine’s admonition that she shouldn’t aspire to a marriage above her station represents a powerful “middle-class challenge to aristocracy” (31) and validates the “alliance between respectable trade and responsible gentry” (32). “‘He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal’” (356), says Elizabeth, to the loud cheers of generations of readers.
In this “magnificent retort” Austen voices what Reeta Sahney calls the “good eighteenth century Tory doctrine” of class leveling; “it is the middle class Bennets and the Gardiners who compel the noble Fitzwilliams and Darcys to take them seriously” (Sahney 75), not the other way around. Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle on her mother’s side who have a prosperous life in London founded on trade, represent precisely Gilmour’s positive alliance between trade and gentry, fixing what Mrs. Bennet nearly destroys by being the first of Elizabeth’s family (other than Jane) whom Mr. Darcy can view with respect (Gilmour 32). “It was consoling,” Elizabeth finds in the novel, “that he should know she had some relations for whom there was no need to blush. She listened most attentively to all that passed between them, and gloried in every expression, every sentence of her uncle, which marked his intelligence, his taste, or his good manners” (255). But the snobbish attitude towards trade lingers on in the new generation as embodied by Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, who, though allowing Jane to be “‘a very sweet girl,’” condemn her to an unprosperous life because of those same connections (36). Their snobbishness is both ironic and understandable, lacking as they do even the modest pedigree of the Bennets and deriving their family fortune and subsequent sense of entitlement from the trade of their predecessors. One wonders how Lady Catherine might have responded to a rumor that her beloved nephew was going to marry Miss Bingley.
Their brother, by contrast, embodies almost perfectly the key Steelean concepts of the gentleman from The Guardian in 1713, being “modest without bashfulness, obliging and complaisant without servility, cheerful and in good humor without noise” (qtd. in Letwin 17). Thus in the novel, Jane describes Mr. Bingley after the first ball as “‘just what a young man ought to be . . . sensible, good humoured, lively; and I never saw such happy manners!—so much ease, with such perfect good breeding!’” (14, emphasis added). In the 2005 production, Jane begins with the same description before the more vivacious Elizabeth interrupts her. In both, it is worth noting that Jane says this is just what a young man ought to be, not what a gentleman ought to be; these qualities have become the ideal for any respectable young man. Mr. Bingley has no dissimulation. He is precisely what he appears to be and is entirely at ease with others, whatever their social status. Mr. Bingley’s universal agreeability, so key to the gentleman, may according to Shirley Letwin strike some as a miraculous ability “to treat everyone as an equal without disregarding differences of rank” (15). It is worth noting, too, Jane’s celebration of his “happy manners,” for manners are not morals, though clearly here she equates the two. Genteel manners, as the unreformed eighteenth-century gentleman demonstrated, were simply behaviors that could be emulated and manipulated when necessary for selfish, amoral ends (Gilmour 16-18). And although Elizabeth acknowledges this potential falsehood when she praises Jane’s caution to Charlotte (in commending her for not showing too much feeling before they have confirmed whether Bingley’s morals do indeed coincide with his happy manners ), she is quick to ignore the same principle when presented with the equally happily-mannered Mr. Wickham. Wickham has, as she eventually acknowledges to Jane, all of the appearance of a gentleman without the substance, whereas Mr. Darcy has all the substance but is lacking in the appearance (225). In the novel, the three gentleman (for, indeed, according to the definitions of the time all three merit the term in one way or another) thus demonstrate the problematics of this term in a society “in flux; an acquisitive, high bourgeois society at the point of its most evident inter-locking with an agrarian capitalism that is itself mediated by inherited titles and by the making of family names” (Sahney 17).
In the 2005 production, the characters of Mr. Bennet, Mr. Bingley, and Mr. Darcy portray the eighteenth-century gentleman in various stages of reformation. Donald Sutherland’s Mr. Bennet has, on the surface, more in common with Henry Fielding’s Squire Western than with other adaptations of this character. His vocal inflections do not change a bit, whether he is mumbling about a famous ancestor of the current pig he is herding down the hallway or asking his wife for clarification about Jane and Mr. Bingley. As horrified as Lady Catherine would be to find herself mentioned in the same sentence, she and Mr. Bennet (and Mrs. Bennet) are contemporaries. In this context, his failings as a father can be seen not as a retreat from the daily tribulations of a silly wife and daughters but as a failure to adapt to the new world and new modes of genteel behavior. Simon Woods’s Mr. Bingley in the 2005 production is a gentleman in transition, representing the new middle-class aspirations to gentility based not on family history or land but on trade. Though still portraying that universal agreeability that Austen celebrates, Simon Woods’s Mr. Bingley displays a greater proximity to his humble roots and, in that humility, an apparent awkwardness with his family’s new status that contrasts sharply with his sister’s elevated sense of self-consequence. What natural gentility Woods’s Bingley has allies him more with Fielding’s Tom Jones—though he lacks Tom’s self-assurance and borders at times on diffidence in conversation with Jane—than with more polished incarnations of Austen’s character.
The greatest contrast to Bingley’s easy humility is not Mr. Darcy but Dame Judi Dench’s Lady Catherine; Mr. Bingley and Lady Catherine, then, represent the extremes between which Mr. Darcy himself negotiates in the 2005 production. Lady Catherine’s utter horror at the degradation of finding herself in the Bennet family home reflects an earlier eighteenth-century attitude that aristocratic manners are wasted on the lower orders; thus in the novel Mr. Darcy’s shame at “his aunt’s ill breeding” in her treatment of Elizabeth (173) refers to manners which were, a generation before, a sign of good breeding. And here, though I might question the 2005 production’s historical accuracy in clothing so worldly and wealthy a woman as Lady Catherine in outmoded fashions, her appearance nevertheless has the effect of reifying her as the representative of an attitude about social class that is fruitless and past its prime. By contrast, Simon Woods’s Mr. Bingley is, if anything, more at home with the class level from which the rest of his family is trying to elevate itself; his sister Caroline, portrayed by Kelly Reilly, is clearly looking back to older models like Lady Catherine for her clues to behavior rather than foreshadowing manners to come.
If at the film’s beginning Matthew Macfadyen’s Mr. Darcy clearly sees Mr. Bingley’s comfort with Meryton society as problematic, he just as clearly, as the film progresses, grows uncomfortable with his aunt’s outmoded ideas of gentility. We thus wait, along with Elizabeth, to see if he can overcome the power of his upbringing and embrace something of his friend’s affability. When he asks Elizabeth, at the end, how he can “ever make amends for such behavior” as Lady Catherine has exhibited towards her and her family, it is not difficult to interpret his sense of shame as including his own rather similar behavior towards them in the past. It thus becomes a crucial indication of just how far he has distanced himself from the worldview of his aunt’s generation. We can now read his description of his upbringing in the novel with fresh eyes, understanding it as an explication of a generational shift as much as his personal experience as a child:
“As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. . . . [I] was spoilt by my parents, who though good themselves, . . . allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing, to care for none beyond my own family circle, to think meanly of all the rest of the world, to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own.” (369)
The latter part of this declaration describes nicely the eighteenth-century aristocratic notion of gentility, as encapsulated by Lady Catherine. By the time he gives this assessment of himself in the novel, he has been “‘properly humbled’” by Elizabeth (369), particularly by her reproof that she might have felt guilt in rejecting him “‘had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner,’” a charge which causes him to physically “start” when she says it (192), and which he forcibly recalls during their reconciliation at the end of the novel: “‘you can scarcely conceive how [your words] have tortured me’” (367). Mr. Darcy’s reformation has as much to do with a fundamental reconception of what it means to be a gentleman as it has to do with a personal re-evaluation of his pride and prejudices.
The best thing an adaptation of a work of literature can do, regardless of our ultimate assessment of its quality, is give us new ways to think about the original material. Nowhere in any of the promotional materials for the 2005 production do any of the people involved discuss the ideas of gentility in transition as I have examined them here; from all (limited) accounts, its presence appears to be the accidental byproduct of Joe Wright’s preference for a certain kind of waistline. Nevertheless, the rereading of Austen’s novel that this movie encourages is truly fruitful, complicating and adding depth to the central tension of the novel which has, by and large, gone so unchallenged for so long as to have become its own kind of “truth”: Mr. Darcy struggles against his love for Elizabeth because her family is not up to his personal standards of taste and behavior. By being able to suggest that his prejudice against them is not merely personal but also historically bound, that he has been socially conditioned to view his rude treatment of them as entirely appropriate, we can vastly expand our understanding of the process he goes through in overcoming his objections. And thus, whereas the 2005 production (in its U. S. release) ends with an entirely personal moment between the newly married (and apparently consummated) couple, the novel’s ending with Mr. Darcy’s confirmed affection for the middle-class Gardiners (and the acknowledgement of the role they played in Elizabeth and Darcy’s union) seems less Austen’s maidenly refusal to peer too closely into personal intimacies and more her ultimate affirmation that Mr. Darcy has not merely taken a new bride but has become a new man, a new gentleman, representative of an entirely different view of the world and the people around him.
“About the Production.” Pride & Prejudice. 2005. 13 Jan. 2007 http://prideandprejudicemovie.net.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. R. W. Chapman. Oxford: OUP, 1965.
“Behind the Scenes.” Pride & Prejudice. 2005. 13 Jan. 2007. http://prideandprejudicemovie.net.
Birtwistle, Sue, and Susie Conklin. The Making of Pride and Prejudice. London: Penguin, 1995.
Gilmour, Robin. The Idea of the Gentleman in the Victorian Novel. London: Allen, 1981.
Kliger, Samuel. “Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in the Eighteenth-Century Mode.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Pride and Prejudice. Ed. E. Rubinstein. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1969. 46-58.
Letwin, Shirley Robin. The Gentleman in Trollope: Individuality and Moral Conduct. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982.
Pride & Prejudice. Dir. Joe Wright. DVD. Focus Films, 2005.
Pride and Prejudice. Dir. Simon Langton. DVD. A&E, 1995.
Sahney, Reeta. Jane Austen’s Heroes and Other Male Characters (A Sociological Study). New Delhi: Abhinav, 1990.