Pride & Prejudice: What Has Boredom Got to Do With It?

Last night while thumbing through TV Guide I found that Oxygen Channel scheduled Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for 7 P.M. – since I don’t receive the upper tier channels and do own the DVD I decided to watch the film. I own two different P&Ps: the A&E’s version done in a mini-series format featuring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, and the Keira Knightley version. At first I resisted the newer film because Firth’s Darcy was so silently breathlessly broodingly spot on that I truly didn’t think the world needed another Darcy, but I was wrong. Matthew Macfayden’s Darcy was up to the task and equally as hot as Firth’s – if not taller and a little more talkative. In contrast, A&E’s version cast actors that seemed to be in their middle age already, unlike Knightley’s younger and more buoyant Elizabeth Bennet.

After watching the Knightley film I decided to watch the older film to compare in real time, except I chose to watch the second half, especially to focus on the ending – although I haven’t yet finished it because it went on and on (something I hadn’t realized when it was the only film I had). I also realized some character differences: Donald Sutherland’s Mr. Bennet is much more believable and plays well off of the nervous Mrs. Bennet, his wisdom and eccentricities made him a “I’d-rather-be-with-my-orchids” doting father. I noticed that the A&E’s Bennets were played very much like a Dickens era couple, even in dressage. Knightley’s Elizabeth seems a bit more with it, saucier, able to back up her opinions, able to get her points across with more venom when talking about Darcy, than the A&E’s plumper, plain-Jane version. The Bennet mansion, or should I say, country-estate, was too stately in the A&E film, everything seemed too prefect for old money poverty. I liked the washing, dyeing and reusing of ribbons scene in Knightley’s film, and the decay throughout the Bennet household rung true. Parading the prized hog through the hallway, bringing not even a raised eyebrow from Mrs. Bennet, was perfect(!) because this, the viewer was let to believe, was common practice. Everything was messy, dusty, wet and lived-in dirty. Elizabeth loved to walk (for how else would she get anywhere?) and trod about in any weather wherever she wanted – through mud, farmyard puddles and manure, small streams, through snow, fog, and rain, miserably hot days, as well as rigid cold English days. These forays found her frocks dirty hems betraying her English outdoors spirit. When she was announced at the Netherfield Park manse, Bingley’s sister remarked about Elizabeth’s “at least 6-inches of muddy hem” to which she receives a glowing – “what of it” type of acknowledgment from Elizabeth. A&E’s Elizabeth would have been chastised when pointed out her dirty hem, oh my!

All this aside, I like Jane Austen films and own every one plus just about everything that has ‘Jane Austen’ in the title. My favorite book is Persuasion, followed up by Emma. It seems that Jane Austen films and books continue to make her a very wealthy woman and she will never die, no, never leave us to take a lesson in female virtue alone.

I haven’t always liked Jane Austen. I don’t think of myself as Austenophile, but I do have opinions about Miss Austen’s stories on the whole: I thought her story’s plots and women weak, nothing was deep and or quite Earth shattering, other than polite bowing and piano playing the stories seemed vapid. This brings me to my Austin peeves that I will happily list out: while the Bennets bemoan their utter poverty they can afford a cook, maid(s) and farm workers, they can feed all five daughters without farming any of them out to relatives as governesses or adoptive children for childless in-laws. Their table overflowed with plumb carcasses, bones naked to picking fingers, plate’s loaded and wine glasses full. Oh, the woe of old money running dry, of having to dye ribbons the new season’s colors instead of buying new. Their house and furnishings crumbling around them, they preferred to walk into town rather than drive the phaeton any more than necessary. Perpetual laundry hung to dry behind a country mansion announced that those within were going extinct, that the genes housed inside were as lousy as the moldy walls and cobwebs trialing lace and mountains of fireplace ash. Maybe they deserve to wither away; maybe the girls should become spinsters and crones because they didn’t have dowries, nor any inheritance to be inherited (a living, they called it). While each girl was expected to come into society with a bushel load of parlor talents: piano, singing, painting, cards, dancing, reading, and needlework, and money, to find a suitable husband – if she lacked money then she had to be pretty and have a good pedigree. Poor Elizabeth Bennet had the additional baggage of a crazy family and four sisters to dispose of to sour any possibility of a good contract.

The Bennet girls appeared to be educated beyond reading scripture, but they didn’t attend school other than perhaps being schooled at their father’s knees. Boys were sent away to school; sometimes, wealthier relatives paid their boarding expenses. It was a waiting game for a girl: aging was her enemy, as well as lacking any money of her own, she languished indoors and watched her world spin without interaction. Here is where I have a major problem with the improvised wealthy set: all the time wasted doing absolutely nothing made me horribly tired. Girls sat around reading small books, some were reading the fashionable “female novels” of the day, other read psalms or poetry. The books were too small to be Bibles. In Alcott’s Little Women, Joe and her sisters were forever reading Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, which I read to see what it was that was so mesmerizing – it appeared to be a rewording of the Book of Job/Dante’s Inferno in my eyes – I felt sure there was something better to pass the time doing than reading the dry Progress. Beth painted watercolors, at least. [I know that I just mixed time periods and countries, but not the idle hours of the women-with-servants women.] I also know that Austen didn’t invent her character’s hours of idle misery – she only wrote about what women did with their time; her own days were lived as such, except she wrote letters and short novels to alleviate the boredom. Landed gentry’s lives were all wasted on fox hunts, strolls, attending terrible plays, parlor recitals, drinking, cards and vice – they lived their lives in overextended fogs of civility mixed with bored cruelty toward perceived lesser men. They ate too much, bred and died (some taking far too long to do all three) and passed their habits and bills on to the next generation. Wars and disease had little affect on this class of people, true, it thinned out some of the gene pool when courageous young men went off to “do their duty for their mothers, sisters, wives and country,” and the women rolled bandages and sent their servants to collect unused pots and pans for the war effort, but little actually changed. Women standing at windows, women sitting on cruise ship deck chairs, women lounging on salon couches and at the bathes; watching, doing nothing, thinking nothing, talking about nothing, keeping their hands busy but their brains moldered and shriveled up.

The men liked their women dressed in childlike baby-doll column dresses with low bodices and poofy short, capped sleeves, mufflers and tiny jackets. The girls never grew up just became older women wearing clothes that ill suited them. Bonnets controlled their view much like horse’s blinders. Hairstyles were off the shoulder sporting little corkscrew curls to soften the otherwise severely controlled oiled back hair. They carried baskets because they had no pockets – they were for looking at, nothing more. And the only time women ever looked comfortable was when they were dressed for bed, hair down, billowing nightgown on with night cap tied under the chin, wrapped in a crocheted shawl, reading or talking animatedly to sisters or friends before their candles ran down or the cold forced them into bed. They never did anything or went very far, they may have known city and town names but they had little idea of how to get there; their men folk spoke of visiting countries – India, China, Peru – the women spoke softly of Bath, Shropshire, Dover and London, yet hardly ever visited outside of the towns in which they were born and married to. This reminds me of Gone With the Wind’s southern belles, napping after a big fancy afternoon meal while the men removed themselves to the gaming room to drink, smoke cigars and speak plainly with each other. Northern women would never think of taking a mid-afternoon snooze unless they were very young or elderly. Alcott’s girls were industrious, they came from a later period that allowed more activity, a time when women could openly write about their lives, hold opinions and sign their names to contracts.

I would not have wanted to live in Elizabeth Bennet’s or Mr. Darcy’s world – Oh my, Pride and Prejudice – have I ruined it for myself? No, I still like to visit, and thank God that I became a woman during the 1970s and not during the Regency Period.