Persuasions On-Line examines Pride & Prejudice 2005


A special edition of Persuasions On-Line, the online journal of the Jane Austen Society of North America, looks at P&P05 with a variety of papers on all aspects of the film.

We haven’t had a chance to sit and read the new issue extensively but look forward to perusing all the papers (and invite AustenBlog readers over to the Molland’s forum to discuss it). We did quickly skim Barbara K. Seeber’s paper on various cinematic treatments of Mr. Bennet and were struck by this selection:

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.

That explains a lot about a recent controversy here at AustenBlog. A lot.