Fashion is gentility running away from vulgarity and afraid of being overtaken by it. It is a sign the two things are not very far asunder.
(William Hazlitt, 1830)
While fashion is a concept that the twenty-first century can relate to, gentility, the status of the gentleman, and vulgarity seem to have been taken out of the equation and been replaced with money, with haves and have-nots. This omission from the public’s cultural lexicon makes it increasingly difficult to decipher the complex class relations, the struggle between gentility and vulgarity, at work in Jane Austen’s novels. And this gap is nowhere more clearly seen than in the most recent film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. But what does getting class so spectacularly wrong actually signify? I will argue that in denuding Pride and Prejudice of its complex consciousness of class, the novel is transformed from a brilliant analysis of social and marital politics to a generic fairy tale, from a great work of literature to just another romantic comedy.
In interviews conducted prior to the general release of the film in 2005, Joe Wright frequently referred to “British realism,” citing Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as “the birth of social realism, of observation” (Fetters). In one of those interviews, Wright also states that he “wanted to be true” to Austen, but at the same time he “wasn’t particularly interested in the temples that had been built around her”:
I wasn’t interested in the monolith that has been erected over her and her books. I was interested in being true to her spirit and the spirit of her stories. That was what was important to me. (Fetters)
Wright almost declares his intention of ruffling feathers by privileging “realism” and “the spirit of her stories” over what, I can only assume, are the interpretations and analysis generated by generations of scholars. Essentially, Wright opens the question of what an adaptation should do.
On seeing the trailer for the first time, one of my colleagues suggested that the film should be called “Pride and, like, totally Prejudiced.” In some ways it is Clueless—i.e., an adaptation with a modern sensibility—in period costume, a formulation that goes some way to suggesting what this film sets out to do. It is perhaps helpful here to consider Trevor Ross’s discussion of canonical works as “intrinsically meaningful” but also the subjects of continual reinterpretation and adaptation: “Interpretation enables reproduction of these works in changing contexts, whether by showing their ongoing thematic relevance or by instructing new readers on their language, references, and so on.” What is at stake here is determining the most important aspect of Pride and Prejudice, what the viewer must take away from this two-hour film. Should social comedy and social criticism be emphasized along with the romance, or should we be presented with the love story, pure and simple?
In order to deal with social criticism and bring out the subtle social comedy of the novel, some understanding of class is essential. Unfortunately, class is in some ways an elusive concept for many modern readers, let alone the “non-literary” audience the film will appeal to (Tookey). One key to unlocking the mystery is money. Though it is difficult to translate eighteenth- and nineteenth-century incomes into twenty-first-century figures, determining the contemporary buying power is rather easier. Edward Copeland’s chapter “Money” in the Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen is a useful reference for deciphering what characters’ incomes mean. The Bennet family, for example, has two thousand a year. According to Copeland,
At two thousand pounds a year (the landed-gentry income of Mr. Bennet . . .), domestic economy must still hold a tight rein, especially in Pride and Prejudice where there are five daughters in need of dowries. Mrs. Bennet is noted as a poor economist; Mr. Bennet is better, though still inadequate considering his daughters’ situation. (136)
To discover precisely what “domestic economy” might mean at this level, one need only look to what those aspiring to gentility further down the income chain can afford. On £500 a year, the Dashwood ladies can retain only “two maids and a man” when they leave Norland (SS 26), though Copeland suggests it is possible to have a cook, a housemaid, and a boy on less; £700 can support a carriage (136).
J. A. Downie further elucidates the Bennets’ social and financial position. Looking to the text for clues to determine the status of the “principal inhabitants of Longbourn village,” Downie observes that the Bennets are in possession of a cook (when Mr. Collins begs to know which of his “fair cousins” was responsible for the excellent dinner, Mrs. Bennet assures him “with some asperity that they were very well able to keep a good cook” ), a butler (the butler directs Jane and Elizabeth to “‘the little copse’” when Mr. Gardiner’s express comes ), and a footman (who delivers Jane “a note” from Miss Bingley ). Mr. Bennet must wait until the servants have withdrawn to expose Mr. Collins’s conversational follies. There are also “two housemaids” who report to Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper (317) (Downie 70). This tally only accounts for the indoor servants explicitly mentioned in the text. In examining Lady Catherine’s visit, Downie seizes on her observation that the Bennets’ “‘park’” is “‘very small’” (352). But this comment comes from a woman used to the splendors of Rosings and Pemberley (the park at Pemberley is ten miles around). Small it may be, but a park is a park,1 and would require a gardener and assistants in addition to the hands for the home farm. As Downie observes, “[q]uite clearly, the Bennets live in a country house of some size” (71).
Yet, in the 2005 Pride & Prejudice, the Bennets appear more like peasants in a manor house than members of the gentry. Of the Bennets’ house, Wright reveals,
personally I was brought up in a very messy house. And I think it’s more beautiful than sterile, clean environments. I like mess; I think it has life. And I think if you’ve got five daughters all living in a house together and you haven’t got enough money for the servants to be constantly looking after the place, and you haven’t got the money to upkeep the house in the way it should be kept, then your house is going to get pretty messy. (Dawson)
The pig wandering through the house probably does not help either. (I simply cannot imagine that Mrs. Bennet and her nerves would have countenanced a farmyard intrusion into her domestic domain!) There is a difference between clutter and squalor; however, this distinction is not in evidence in the Bennet home in Wright’s adaptation.
Wright feels that the mess adds “to the drama of the predicament that the family were in. It felt earthy and that felt real, and it gave you a contrast between the Bennets and Mr. Darcy and the Bingleys” (Dawson). The Bennets’ predicament—at least their financial predicament as Wright views it—is not a lack of ready money. The real financial concern of the Bennets is a lack of future security through their failure to have a son:
When first Mr. Bennet had married, economy was held to be perfectly useless; for, of course, they were to have a son. This son was to join in cutting off the entail, as soon as he should be of age, and the widow and younger children would by that means be provided for. . . . This event had at last been despaired of, but then it was too late to be saving. (308)
Their more serious predicament, however, is their precarious social standing, which comes, not from reduced financial circumstances as the film would suggest, but from Mr. Bennet’s mésalliance. In choosing the daughter of an attorney, Mr. Bennet marries beneath his rank, a social mismatch that is reinforced through differences in temper and education. As Downie observes, “Mr. Bennet has married beneath himself, and this, in turn, threatens to compromise his daughters’ standing in society” (72). And this standing is threatened both through the dubious connections Mrs. Bennet gives to her daughters, and through her lack of propriety. Socially speaking, gentility, instead of running away from vulgarity, has married it. The subtleties of the Bennets’ social position are lost in the translation to the big screen. And there’s the rub—the problem of trying to separate the fashionable from the unfashionable, the genteel from the vulgar, and convey the difference to the audience.
In the film, as in the novel, estates are used as signifiers of social status, and this attempt to define status is where the film does the most damage to Austen’s social criticism. Wright states,
how much money a character is worth, all of that kind of stuff you can get too bogged down in. So we tried to find ways of expressing that visually through design and through the choice of the houses—each house is chosen as a symbol of their wealth and their status, but also as a symbol of their character as well. (Dawson)
If a ramshackle house situated in the middle of a farmyard is meant to signify the heroine’s class, Darcy’s Pemberley—the beautiful Chatsworth—perhaps overcompensates as a sign that he is rather above Elizabeth’s touch. And this visual gap between Darcy’s obvious wealth and gentility and Elizabeth’s now oppressively vulgar origins belies her later declaration that “‘[h]e is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal’” (356). This assertion of equality, however, is excised from Elizabeth’s bizarre midnight encounter with Lady Catherine. The abbreviated confrontation that appears on screen differs markedly from its textual companion: while in the novel Lady Catherine speaks of Elizabeth as having “‘upstart pretensions’” and lacking “‘family,’” “‘connections,’” and “‘fortune,’” but is willing to admit that she is, despite her maternal relations, “‘a gentleman’s daughter’” (356), her latest screen incarnation dismissed Elizabeth on the grounds of her “inferior birth” and the taint of Lydia’s patched-up marriage.
But what of Wright’s love of “realism”? It would appear that realism for Wright is a twenty-first-century variety of realism, rather than something resembling Austen’s reality. Complex social relations have been reduced to the lowest common denominator, catering to an audience who can only distinguish between posh and not posh. By lowering Elizabeth to impoverished aspiring pseudo-gentry and equating Darcy’s standing with that of the Duke of Devonshire, any assertion of equality becomes preposterous, and Austen’s tale of gentrycentric pride and prejudice is deflated into a saccharine Cinderella story. By making the Bennets so visually impoverished and shabby-sans-genteel, the audience is at no loss to understand why Darcy finds the Bennets wanting. His prejudice, however, is not simply rooted in their financial circumstances and lack of connections. As he reveals in his post-Rosings proposal letter, he objects to the vulgar behavior of various members of the Bennet family: “‘The situation of your mother’s family, though objectionable, was nothing in comparison of that total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly betrayed by herself, by your three younger sisters, and occasionally even by your father’” (198). If Darcy’s snobbery and prejudice are mitigated by visual cues, or altogether removed, he has nothing to learn, and Elizabeth’s indignation becomes less insulted pride than the resentment of a woman scorned.
The “unequal” match of Elizabeth and Darcy is tempered by the fact that they are indeed, strictly speaking, social equals. The disparity in their fortune and connections, their respective matrilineal inheritances, complicates and obscures their equality through their fathers. Their recognition of spiritual/mental/personal equality, one with the other, is necessary to overcome superficial inequalities, but also suggests that the complex social signs of status do not completely define a person. Gentility and seeming vulgarity are indeed not that far apart. This complicating of class and blurring of social boundaries is reinforced by the Gardiners in the novel. When Darcy is introduced to the Gardiners at Pemberley, Elizabeth is amused by the irony of Darcy seeking an acquaintance with “some of those very people, against whom his pride had revolted, in his offer to herself,” and assumes that he has mistaken them for “‘people of fashion’” (255). Despite his surprise at the connection, Darcy finds the Gardiners to be models of intelligence, taste, and good manners. In the final sentence of the novel, Austen stresses that the Gardiners “had been the means of uniting them” (388), and I would argue that their role has as much to do with bringing Elizabeth into Derbyshire as it does with illustrating that birth alone does not determine gentility. But as they appear in this adaptation—far older and poorer than they should—Elizabeth’s uncle and aunt are hardly fashionable and in no way genteel. Their function is reduced literally to bringing Elizabeth to Pemberley. Once that task is accomplished, they simply present yet another objection that Darcy’s love must overcome rather than providing a reality check for his patrician prejudice.
In the 2005 Pride & Prejudice, the subtle investigation of class and status, along with much of the novel’s comedy, is hijacked by overriding passion and romantic sensibility, sweeping any of the political possibilities of the novel under the rug of Elizabeth and Darcy’s love story. The “realism” that rules in the film is fantasy, while the realistic elements of the novel that preoccupy scholars and students are dismissed as part of the “monolith” constructed around Austen and her works. Which is the valid interpretation, and what is the significance of choosing one over the other? While these questions could no doubt fill a book, I want to suggest that in simplifying issues of status and equality—which, as Gurinder Chadha’s Bride & Prejudice (2004) has demonstrated, are indeed twenty-first-century concerns—Wright’s film assumes that the romance is the only interesting part of the novel, that it is the “story.” This adaptation exposes the tension between the novel as a work of art—as a great novel that has been and will continue to be studied and interpreted as a key to unlocking the human experience as well as historical realities—and its popular conception, and indeed popular appropriations of the novel, its “chiclit-ification,” if I may. It is this popular perception of the novel as romance, as love story, rather than an attention to its statements about society and marriage, that is presented on screen, reducing Austen’s masterpiece to “the romantic comedy . . . of 2005” (Tookey).
1. Aside from considering the definition of Park—“Any large enclosed piece of ground, usually comprising woodland and pasture, attached to or surrounding a manor, castle, country house, etc., and used for recreation, and often for keeping deer, cattle, or sheep” (OED)—Downie observes that the ornamental part of the Bennets’ property includes a copse, a “‘prettyish kind of a little wilderness,’” and a hermitage, in addition to several “‘different walks’” (352-53).
Austen, Jane. The Novels of Jane Austen. Ed. R.W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.
Copeland, Edward. “Money.” The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Ed. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster. Cambridge: CUP, 1997. 131-48.
Dawson, Cherryl. Interview with Joe Wright. 2005. 24 Feb. 2007 <http://www.themoviechicks.com/fall2005/mctpride.html>.
Downie, A. J. “Who Says She’s a Bourgeois Writer? Reconsidering the Social and Political Contexts of Jane Austen’s Novels.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 40 (2006): 68-84.
Fetters, Sara Michelle. “It’s Austen All Over Again: Director Joe Wright Makes Pride & Prejudice for a New Century.” 2005. 24 Feb. 2007 <http://www.moviefreak.com/features/interviews/joewright.htm>.
Pride & Prejudice. Dir. Joe Wright. DVD. Working Title, 2005.
Ross, Trevor. “The Canon.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature. Ed. David Scott Kastan. 5 vols. New York: OUP, 2005.
Tookey, Christopher. “Keira captivates in Pride & Prejudice.” Daily Mail 6 Sept. 2005. 28 Feb. 2007 <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/showbiz/showbiznews.html?in_article_id=361513&in_page_id=1773>.