PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.27, NO.2 (Summer 2007)
“A Fearsome Thing to Behold”? The Accomplished Woman in Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice

Juliette Wells


Juliette Wells (email:, an assistant professor of English at Manhattanville College, has published articles on Jane Austen, George Eliot, and "chick lit."  Her article on the performing woman in recent film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice will be included in Women and Performance in Britain 1660-1830, edited by Laura Engel.


            One of Elizabeth Bennet’s most appealing qualities, to twenty-first-century readers, is her outspokenness.  Accustomed to thinking of candor as powerful and admirable, we applaud Elizabeth’s willingness to stand up to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, to counter Darcy’s rude statements, and to ridicule Mr. Collins’s cant.  As scholars remind us, however, Austen’s contemporaries would have viewed this aspect of Elizabeth’s character with more caution.  Speaking of Austen’s family’s reactions to Pride and Prejudice, Pat Rogers notes that “[o]n a first meeting, Elizabeth would not have struck most people as the ideal young lady:  she is too opinionated, too independent, too sturdy physically and mentally, too free with her tongue” (xxxviii).  How can a filmmaker, adapting the novel for a present-day mass audience with little knowledge of Regency mores, effectively convey the challenge to convention posed by Elizabeth’s authoritative speech—and by Elizabeth herself?


            In his 2005 feature film Pride & Prejudice, Joe Wright makes use of the contrast that Austen draws between Elizabeth and the feminine ideal articulated collaboratively by Caroline Bingley and Mr. Darcy in Chapter VIII of the novel: that of the “‘really accomplished’” woman (39).1  Elizabeth’s opposition to this ideal is evident both in the forcefulness with which she repudiates it in this conversation and in her failure elsewhere in the novel to meet its requirements, particularly with regard to musical proficiency.  The version of this scene crafted by Deborah Moggach, Wright’s screenwriter,2  makes substantial use of Austen’s own dialogue.  This momentary fidelity to Austen’s text is surprising, since we might assume that this late-eighteenth-century ideal would be opaque to present-day viewers—indeed, that it would be one of the “culturally anachronistic features” which, as Imelda Whelehan has argued, directors aiming at a “commercially successful film” must be careful to trim from their adaptations (4).  Furthermore, as Austen purists have been quick to note, Moggach’s screenplay does not elsewhere remain particularly close to Austen’s language, substituting instead a mixture of modern idiom and archaic-sounding sentence structure.3  


            The handling of Austen’s dialogue is, as we might expect, a significant issue in criticism of film and television versions of her novels, as well as in accounts of these adaptations’ creation offered by directors and screenwriters, as Sue Parrill points out (13).  Even those scholars who aim, as I do, to treat adaptations as not mere versions of a privileged original text but coherent works on their own terms—the approach advocated by Whelehan, among others—can fall into the trap of complaining about screenwriters’ lack of fidelity to Austen’s own glorious words. Jocelyn Harris demonstrates this pitfall:  first arguing that “[t]he most successful cinematic versions [of Austen’s novels] derive not from translation but from the eighteenth-century theory of imitation which inspired Jane Austen herself,” she later claims that “[n]o one can possibly use everything [Austen] wrote, but accurate quotation is surely preferable to bad substitution” (44, 48). 


Wright’s film does not, however, rely on Austen’s dialogue alone to establish, and indeed to endorse, Elizabeth’s unconventionality in this pivotal scene (numbered 24 in the screenplay).4  Together with his production team—notably his cinematographer, Roman Osin, and his film editor, Paul Tothill—Wright invests Elizabeth visually with authority equal to that of her social superiors (or those who consider themselves to be such), through careful positioning of actors and management of the camera.  Finally, nuanced performances by all the actors effectively communicate both the appeal and the effrontery of Elizabeth’s forthright speech.


Although Wright’s film begins with an extended view of Elizabeth that implicitly establishes her centrality to the story,5  we initially hear little of her voice amid the Longbourn hubbub.  Not until the dance in the assembly rooms at Meryton (scene 6) does Elizabeth’s wit come to the fore, in a brief exchange with Jane just before the first entrance of Darcy and the Bingleys.  Men, Elizabeth tells her sister, are “[h]umourless poppycocks, in my limited experience” (5).6  “One of these days, Lizzie,” Jane responds, “someone will catch your eye and then you’ll have to watch your tongue” (5).  Jane’s remark carries an undertone of warning that is perceptible to the viewer, if not to Elizabeth herself:  love, or at least attraction, may affect Elizabeth’s cherished freedom of expression.  The screenplay further emphasizes Jane’s point by noting that Darcy, on his arrival, “catches Elizabeth’s eye.  She stares, with a kind of surprised shock.  Jane notices and looks at Darcy.  He turns away” (5).  The finished film omits this reaction:  Keira Knightley, playing Elizabeth, does look at Matthew Macfadyen’s Darcy as she curtsies, but giggles as he passes by rather than registering “shock” or attraction.


Furthermore, Moggach and Wright establish—in contrast to Austen—that Darcy’s interest in Elizabeth is first piqued by her speech, rather than her looks, which he proclaims “[p]erfectly tolerable . . . but not handsome enough to tempt me” (10).  In Austen’s novel, Elizabeth and Darcy exchange no words on this occasion.  Elizabeth hears his unkind judgment of her appearance (phrased very similarly to Moggach’s version) and subsequently retells it, states the narrator, “with great spirit among her friends; for she had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in any thing ridiculous” (12).  Moggach, however, has Elizabeth display her verbal “playfulness” directly to Darcy in the assembly rooms.  After he comments blandly that poetry is considered the food of love, she responds:  “Of a fine, stout love it may.  But if it is only a vague inclination, I’m convinced one poor sonnet will kill it stone dead.”  “Darcy,” the screenplay stipulates, “looks at Elizabeth with surprise.  A glimmering of interest” (11).  Not only does Elizabeth intrigue Darcy here with her unusual, confident opinions, but she successfully diverts his attention from Mrs. Bennet’s gauche remarks about Jane’s romantic past, which initiated the topic of love poetry.


            In Austen’s novel, Darcy’s attraction to Elizabeth has the opportunity to develop gradually during further meetings, during which he becomes aware that she is no model accomplished woman.  Particularly crucial is the social gathering at Lucas Lodge in Chapter VI, in which Elizabeth’s “pleasing, though by no means capital” musical performance contrasts with the pedantic efforts of her sister Mary (25).  Subsequently, Darcy admits to the probing Miss Bingley that he has “‘been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow’” (27).  Wright’s film omits this scene, transposing Mary’s performance instead to the ball at Netherfield (scene 46) and having Darcy and Elizabeth next meet when she arrives at Netherfield to attend the ill Jane.  Consequently, in the film, Darcy does not hear Elizabeth’s piano-playing until her visit to Rosings (scene 69), when the two characters compare notes—as they do in Austen’s novel—about what is lost by insufficient practice of music on the one hand and of social conversation on the other.  Elizabeth plays, the screenplay stipulates, “not that terribly well, it must be said” (66), an effect that is conveyed in the finished film by a noticeably heavy-handed and plodding rendition, with a few obvious wrong notes.  Wright calls attention to this effect in his director’s commentary to the DVD release, remarking: “I really like how bad a pianist Elizabeth Bennet is in this scene.  She’s really terrible.  I think it makes her human.”


            Moggach and Wright, then, do not entwine Elizabeth’s music-making—whatever its level—with Darcy’s growing fascination with her.  Nor do they emphasize, as does Austen, the differing attitudes towards performance displayed by Elizabeth, who consents to play only upon request, and Caroline Bingley, who, given a chance to show off her own superior skills, “move[s] with alacrity to the piano-forte” (51).  In the film, Caroline merely proclaims her opinions about what constitutes a really accomplished woman; she appears to be above actually demonstrating such abilities herself.7  In contrast, the film’s Mary Bennet is repeatedly seen and heard working away at her scales and exercises.


            Indeed, the viewer’s chief insight into the culture of feminine accomplishments, prior to the dialogue in scene 24, is derived from Mary’s laborious practicing (and, of course, the dancing in which all the characters—except Darcy—enthusiastically take part).  Bingley’s exclamation of his amazement that “young ladies have the patience to be so accomplished” (scene 21) certainly makes sense, given Mary’s evidently dogged dedication to her instrument.  After this point, however, Moggach relies on the dialogue to provide its own context, tweaking Austen’s lines slightly in order to convey more effectively the contrast that the characters are collectively drawing between the supposed ideal—incarnated in Georgiana Darcy—and Elizabeth, the alternative put forth by Austen.


            As in the novel, Caroline Bingley introduces the subject of accomplishments by praising those of Darcy’s sister, although the film’s Caroline comments on Georgiana’s “beautiful little design for a table” (20) rather than her piano-playing, a logical change given that viewers associate the piano with Mary—no rival to Caroline—rather than Elizabeth.  The ensuing dialogue proceeds essentially (albeit with some compression) exactly as in Austen’s version, with no thoughts altogether omitted or reassigned:



It’s amazing, how young ladies have the patience to be so accomplished.



What do you mean, Charles?



They all paint tables, and embroider cushions, and play the piano.  I never heard of a young lady, but people say she is accomplished.



The word is indeed applied too liberally.  I cannot boast of knowing more than half a dozen women, in all my acquaintance, that are truly accomplished.



Nor I, to be sure!



Goodness!  You must comprehend a great deal in the idea.



I do.



Absolutely.  She must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing and the modern languages, to deserve the word.  And something in her air and manner of walking.



And of course she must improve her mind by extensive reading.


[Elizabeth closes her book.]



I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women.  I rather wonder now at your knowing any.



Are you so severe on your own sex?



I never saw such a woman.  She would certainly be a fearsome thing to behold.  (21-22)


The actors perform the dialogue exactly as written, with the exception of Simon Woods, playing Bingley, who addresses his opening comments to the women present—“amazing you young ladies have the patience. . . . You all paint tables”—rather than framing them in general terms.  (In the same speech, Woods also rearranges the cushions so that they come after the piano.)  The effect of this apparently small change is substantial: Bingley, as befits his geniality and generous spirit, thinks of his sister and Elizabeth as both being examples of “young ladies,” whereas Caroline tries to accentuate the social gulf between herself and her new neighbor.8  Thanks to Bingley’s shift in pronoun, Caroline’s and Darcy’s version of the feminine ideal also appears more distant and impersonal:  “She must have a thorough knowledge”; “she must improve her mind.”


            Moggach’s reliance on Austen’s words to carry this scene is striking, and it reminds us how much information Austen conveys even to readers whom she could have presumed to be well acquainted with the notion of feminine perfection that Elizabeth is criticizing.  To Austen’s contemporaries, Caroline’s laundry list of desirable skills—“music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages”—would have been thoroughly familiar.  To present-day viewers, this list serves effectively to establish an obviously lofty and probably unattainable ideal, one that it makes sense for Elizabeth to counter by saying (in words identical to Austen’s own), “I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women.  I rather wonder now at your knowing any. . . . I never saw such a woman.”  Only the next line delivered by Keira Knightley—“She would certainly be a fearsome thing to behold”—is Moggach’s invention. 


This line may or may not seem, to the viewer steeped in Austen, to be appropriate to the tone of the preceding conversation; to me, it is reminiscent of the kind of language Austen employs in her letters rather than in this novel.  Its addition is crucial to the scene in the film, however, since it establishes explicitly that Elizabeth’s contradiction of Darcy retains an element of humor.  Readers might presume that to be true of the dialogue in the novel, given Elizabeth’s characteristic tone, but Austen does not specify it.  Indeed, Austen presents this dialogue sequence without any hints at the characters’ behavior, in contrast to her tendency, as identified by Ellen Belton, to “describ[e] what is unspoken through looks, glances, and facial expressions, [which] read like stage directions for her ‘actors’” (187).  As John Wiltshire contends, “Pride and Prejudice is a novel in which much is not told. . . . the absence of many indications of facial expression, of guiding commentary from the narrator, even of scene setting . . . has critical consequences for the reading of Elizabeth and Darcy’s dialogues leading up to the proposal scene” (107-08).


            Taking full advantage of Moggach’s confirmation of Elizabeth’s humorous tone, Keira Knightley conveys with her face throughout the scene that she is not taking the conversation too seriously.  In particular, she smiles as Matthew Macfadyen solemnly declares that the term accomplished is “applied too liberally.”  For his part, Macfadyen furrows his brow with apparent concern after Elizabeth’s remark about the “fearsome thing”—an unusual degree of emotion in a performance that otherwise remains very understated until the proposal scenes.  The same comment causes Simon Woods to giggle, as he does throughout the scene (and indeed throughout his entire performance).  Kelly Reilly, playing Caroline, delivers her lines with the same bored superciliousness with which she earlier criticized Elizabeth’s hem for being “six inches deep in mud” (17).  In the novel, following Elizabeth’s final declaration that she “‘never saw such a woman,’” Caroline and her sister (a character excised from the film) “cr[y] out against the injustice of her implied doubt,” and protest that they know several such women (40).  Reilly’s Caroline does not stir herself to protest, but only enlists Elizabeth in a languid turn about the room, maintaining her superiority with a cutting reference to the Bennet “family trait” of laughter (23).


            Wright supports Knightley’s presentation of Elizabeth as amused and at ease by granting her a degree of visual authority in this scene equal to Darcy’s.  Both are seated throughout the dialogue quoted above—Elizabeth alone on a sofa, with a book, and Darcy at a writing table—while Caroline hovers, standing, at Darcy’s elbow.  (Although the screenplay stipulates that Bingley should be “pacing anxiously around the room” [21], in the finished film he is also seated, fondling the tassel of a cushion.)  The initial shot of the scene frames the drawing room and establishes the position of all the characters, with the camera moving slowly forward as Caroline chats to Darcy about his letter-writing.  Only when Caroline specifically comments on Georgiana does the shot change to a view of Elizabeth’s reaction.  Subsequent shots frame Darcy and Caroline, Bingley, and Elizabeth in turn.  That the change in shot is often slightly out of sync with the beginning and ending of each speech creates a sense of movement in an otherwise rather static scene.  In the most complex visual composition, which accompanies Darcy’s declaration that he does not know “more than half a dozen women, in all [his] acquaintance, that are truly accomplished,” the camera peeks behind Elizabeth’s head (blurrily visible on the left) to capture Caroline’s elegant torso (her head is out of frame) and Darcy’s profile.  The awkwardness of Caroline’s presence in this shot is telling:  while she attempts to direct the conversation and, later, Elizabeth’s movement as well, the verbal intensity is all between Darcy and Elizabeth.  The cinematographer subsequently offers a contrasting shot of Elizabeth’s torso, as the camera travels from her book (which she shuts abruptly upon Darcy’s remark about “extensive reading”) to her face.9 


            Wright and his production designer, Sarah Greenwood, further underline Elizabeth’s confidence—and exceptionality—by surrounding her with emblems that connote the kind of ornamental femininity she disdains.  On her left, as we view her, are a decorative vase and a framed portrait on an easel of a young woman wearing white, her left profile exposed.  Loosely suggestive of the work of Gainsborough or Reynolds, this portrait reminds us of the difference between opinionated Elizabeth and such a silent beauty.10  On Elizabeth’s right is a densely-packed bowl of hothouse flowers, rich-looking and more appropriate to Caroline Bingley’s elaborately polished beauty than Elizabeth’s own simpler dress and hairstyle.  “[V]ery formal, in fact frigid” (17) is the screenplay’s description of Netherfield when Elizabeth first enters it in Scene 18; the phrase also suits the atmosphere in the drawing room.  Elizabeth’s position on the sofa becomes a commanding one, however, in the subsequent scene (numbered 29 in the screenplay; scenes 25-28 do not appear in the finished film), in which her mother and four sisters settle onto the opposite sofa and embarrass her with “untold gaucheries” (24).


            The final shot of scene 24 seals the contrast that the dialogue has established between witty, confident Elizabeth, who has no interest in attracting Darcy’s attention, and Caroline Bingley, who aims for nothing else.  Following an extended shot in which the camera tracks Caroline and Elizabeth as they “take a turn about the room” (22),11  we see Caroline and Elizabeth separately cross behind Darcy, one on either side, and sit.  This symmetrical image of women in motion reminds us indelibly that, at this stage of the film at least, Caroline and Elizabeth represent strikingly different potential mates for Darcy.  We viewers are in no doubt as to which we find more appealing, though we must still wait for confirmation of Darcy’s preference.


            In the film as in the novel, the dialogue about accomplished women works both to establish Elizabeth’s verbal fearlessness and to indicate Darcy’s growing interest in a woman who falls short of his explicit set of criteria for a mate.  A great deal of plot, of course, must be gotten through, with many more occasions for Elizabeth to speak up—and even talk back—to powerful people, before she and Darcy reach an understanding in Wright’s film.  As mentioned before, Elizabeth will later demonstrate at Rosings that her piano-playing does indeed fall far short of the “thorough knowledge” stipulated by Caroline (21).  Lest we be in any doubt about Darcy’s reaction to this shortcoming, the film immediately proceeds to his abortive effort to propose at the Parsonage.  Clearly he has already made up his mind about Elizabeth, and “music, singing, drawing, dancing and the modern languages” (21) are no longer what he rates most highly in a woman.


            In his director’s commentary to the DVD, Wright comments that scene 24 was difficult to shoot because its dialogue had become too familiar, having been used in casting auditions for the character of Darcy.  It is delightfully ironic to think of potential Darcys testing themselves against the very lines in which Austen’s hero sets forth his own impossible standards, especially if we imagine Keira Knightley, as Elizabeth, effortlessly incarnating the very opposite of a “fearsome thing to behold.”





1.  For a consideration of the importance of this ideal to Austen and her contemporaries, as well as in her other novels, see Wells.


2.  Deborah Moggach is the sole credited screenwriter of the film.  However, the unpublished screenplay (dated 26 February 2004) specifies “Revisions by Lee Hall,” and the film’s credits give “Special Thanks” to Emma Thompson.  Wright mentions in his director’s commentary on the DVD that Thompson was solely responsible for the final version of Scene 58, in which Charlotte Lucas announces to Elizabeth her own engagement to Collins.


3.  The novel’s most famous line of all—the opening sentence—does not make it into the finished film, although the screenplay has it intoned over images of Netherfield being readied for its new inhabitants (1).


4.  Subsequent scene numbers refer to the screenplay.


5.  The screenplay specifies that Elizabeth “is reading a novel entitled ‘First Impressions’” (1).  In the finished film, the text visible in Elizabeth’s book is indeed, upon close inspection, that of the end of Pride and Prejudice, though no title is present.


6.  When the film’s dialogue and that of the 2004 screenplay are identical, I will cite the screenplay; uncited quotations are transcribed from the film. 


7.  In this sense, Moggach and Wright’s version of Caroline Bingley joins Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who proclaims (as in the novel) that she “would have been a great proficient,” and her daughter Anne too, had they only learned to play (scene 65).  Caroline does deign to dance, at least at the Netherfield ball.


8.  In the novel, Caroline’s insistence on establishing such a demanding ideal can be read as an index of her own social uneasiness.  Thanks to “trade,” as Austen damningly specifies (15), she is rich, and she has made herself stylish, but she can hardly match Darcy in true distinction.  The film, however, does not differentiate between the Bingleys and Darcy, presenting all of them as much wealthier and more fashionable than the Bennets:  “creatures from another world,” as the screenplay describes them upon their first entrance at the assembly rooms (5).


9.  Wright’s use of the camera with respect to his film’s hero and heroine can be compared to that of other directors of Austen adaptations.  Belton points out that in the 1995 BBC miniseries, Elizabeth and Darcy “are hardly ever framed together until well into the second half of the film, and when they are shown in the same shot, the effect is to emphasize the obstacles between them” (188).  Nora Nachumi, analyzing Douglas McGrath’s 1995 version of Emma, argues that his camera “insists that the two [Emma and Mr. Knightley] be viewed as a pair.  Whenever the two share a scene, the camera either frames them within a single shot or shows us that they are aware of each other” (134).


10.  That this portrait is a film prop rather than an actual piece of eighteenth-century art is borne out by its presence in a scene of the 1993 Merchant Ivory film The Remains of the Day, where it decorates the home of Lord Darlington and is visible during a typically fraught dialogue between Emma Thompson’s and Anthony Hopkins’s characters.  Doubtless the picture has been included in other British films as well.


11.  Wright points out the length of this shot in his director’s commentary, remarking that he prefers setting up and shooting such a shot rather than several short ones because of the greater time available for rehearsal.  This shot is not specified in the screenplay, which has Elizabeth and Caroline merely “walking up and down” (22).


Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  Pride and Prejudice.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1969.

Belton, Ellen.  “Reimagining Jane Austen: The 1940 and 1995 Film Versions of Pride and Prejudice.”  Jane Austen on Screen.  Ed. Gina Macdonald and Andrew F. Macdonald.  Cambridge: CUP, 2003.  175-96.

Harris, Jocelyn.  “‘Such a Transformation!’ Translation, Imitation, and Intertextuality in Jane Austen on Screen.”  Jane Austen on Screen.  Ed. Gina Macdonald and Andrew F. Macdonald.  Cambridge: CUP, 2003.  44-68.

Moggach, Deborah.  “Pride and Prejudice.”  With revisions by Lee Hall.  Unpublished screenplay.  26 Feb. 2004.

Nachumi, Nora.  “‘As If!’: Translating Austen’s Ironic Narrator to Film.”  Jane Austen in Hollywood.  Ed. Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield.  2nd ed.  Lexington: UP Kentucky, 2001.  130-39.

Parrill, Sue.  Jane Austen on Film and Television: A Critical Study of the Adaptations.  Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002.

Pride & Prejudice.  Dir. Joe Wright.  Perf. Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen.  2005.  DVD.  Universal, 2006.

Rogers, Pat.  Introduction.  Pride and Prejudice.  By Jane Austen.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005.

Wells, Juliette.  “‘In Music She Had Always Used to Feel Alone in the World’: Jane Austen, Solitude, and the Artistic Woman.”  Persuasions 26 (2004): 98-110.

Whelehan, Imelda.  “Adaptations: The Contemporary Dilemmas.”  Adaptations: From Text to Screen, Screen to Text.  Ed. Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan.  London: Routledge, 1999.  3-19.

Wiltshire, John.  Recreating Jane Austen.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. 

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