Now we’ve come to what many consider the best adaptation of Austen’s novel, which is the 1995 BBC/A&E collaboration. This adaptation was written by Andrew Davies, who’s name should be familiar at this point (ITV’s 1996 Emma, ITV’s 2007 Northanger Abbey, ITV’s 2008 Sense & Sensibility, and other notable works such as the original House of Cards from 1980, Bleak House with Gillian Anderson, and most recently BBC’s Les Miserables). Davies is a powerhouse when it comes to adaptations (though I don’t always enjoy them as some do feel more “modernized” than others in terms of language and sexuality). However, this version is usually at the top of any Jane Austen’s lover for the script, costumes, locations and cast.
The Bennets: Alison Steadman (Mrs. Bennet), Benjamin Whitrow (Mr. Bennet), Julia Sawalha (Lydia), Jennifer Ehle (Elizabeth), Susannah Harker (Jane), Lucy Briers (Mary), Polly Maberly (Kitty)
This version exfels in showing the chaotic nature of the Bennet household and how it stems from the two youngest members-Lydia and Catherine “Kitty”. Mrs. Bennet is also someone who contributes to the chaos and it’s made clear she encourages the flighty ways of the two youngest, pushes Mary into thinking she has a singing voice, and places on her hopes for a suitable match on the shoulders of Jane, the eldest. Mrs. Bennet is n ot found of Elizabeth, and that’s made clear. Lydia is wonderfully acted as she’s portrayed as being wild, childish, selfish and most likely her mother’s favorite (after Jane of course). Mrs. Bennet comes across as someone who complains to hear her won voice (which is how she comes across in the novel). What Davies and the actors have done is play off of Austen’s portrayal of a marriage based on looks (or lust) and not personality. It’s a theme throughout the novel of being judged on looks and realizing that looks don’t indicate character. Elizabeth herself once states in the novel and the TV series that Wickham has all the looks to indicate he is good, while Darcy is good based on his actions (but is not as handsome as Wickham).
Lizzie (Elizabeth) and Jane wearing fichus (scarves)
The two previous adaptations have Darcy enter the first ball very haughty, very proud, which is not a bad decision to make. Darcy is proud and comes across as arrogant in the novel. This time, Darcy enters and while he appears proud to Lizzie’s eyes (and the novel is mainly from her perspective as told through an omniscient other), this Darcy comes across as being visibly uncomfortable surrounded by so many strangers. It’s the first time that we see a Darcy who is at odds with how he was described, but how it actually works to create a more dynamic adaptation. Darcy at Rosings Park admits that he felt he could not recommend himself to anyone at this first ball to Col. Fitzwilliam and Lizzie. She chides him for it because in her mind, he should have been like Bingley-carefree and easy going. Instead, Darcy is someone who’s had to raise his own sister, was thrust into being a landowner and provider way before he was ready, and perhaps it has caused him to not attend as many social functions as Bingely has. In other words, Darcy comes across as being shy. this doesn’t mean he isn’t arrogant and proud (because he still is), but shyness makes him vulnerable. It’s also a very good contrast with Bingley’s personality and Wickham’s as both men do come across as being fairly easy going.
Mrs. Bennet trying to convince her husband to visit Bingley.
Charlotte Lucas (Lucy Scott)
I do love that Charlotte Lucas is again a very elegant and lovely woman, instead of making her plain as the previous version did. She is a mature woman and the thought many have is women at her age (27) were not marriageable and most ladies married young. While Jane Austen tended to show young people marrying in almost all of her novels (Persuasion being the exception), historically women Charlotte’s age and older married quite often and for the first time. This was a time of constant conflict and most men were either in service (military) or another profession that wouldn’t allow them marrying due to finances. We have got to recognize that older, mature ladies marrying was not the exception, but normal at this time.
Fitzwilliam Darcy (Colin Firth) at a men’s club
While not mentioned in the novel at all, showing Darcy at a gentleman’s sports club is historically accurate. They show him fencing, but gentlemen at this time also partook of boxing from famous puglists (professional boxers) at this time. Swimming, of course, is used later on and has become an iconic scene. However, while there was no need to put this in an adaptation, I do believe it was the right choice. Men did these things to stay in shape and one would expect Darcy to belong to such a club.
Jane, Mary, and Lydia
Now, onto the costumes (because many people comment on how much they like them). Dinah Collin designed the costumes and makeup, stressing herself that she spent months researching extant clothing, portraits, and trying to find a way to make the costumes appeal to modern eyes. I think she succeeded and should be applauded for the effort. While stock costumes from previous adaptations were used for extras, an effort was made to choose clothing that would compliment the designs for the main cast. Use of pale colors and prints for most of the young ladies gave an impression of lightness. While Charlotte Lucas’s clothes were richer looking than the Bennet girls, her dresses were not as rich or luxurious looking as Caroline Bingley or Mrs. Hurst. It helped give a visual social hierarchy without having to be reminded that the Bingley’s were wealthy (due to trade) while the Lucas’ had a title (due also to trade), but not necessarily as much money as Bingley or Darcy. The Gardiners especially come off as being refined, which is how I’ve always pictured them, and really are what we would consider middle-class. Aunt Philips is also not made coarse, but is seen as ore of a proper gentlewoman who happens to be part of the middle-class as well. This is important as there is a lot of dialogue regarding class and social hierarchy in this novel more than any other. Elizabeth is not considered suitable because her father is a gentleman, but not wealthy, and only a minor landowner. Her family connections are seen as vulgar because of trade, which is funny considering Bingley’s wealth is due to trade, but it seems society can overlook the stench of Trade if one is extremely well-off, which the Phillips and Gardiners are shown to not be of the same social sphere. And this all came across in the costumes. Richer people had better materials and the more money they had, the greater their social standing and the more expensive the costumes looked.
A look at the gowns from the Lucas Party which occurs. Charlotte Lucas’ gown is much nicer material wise than Lizzie’s, but not so out of place for the area in which she lives. Notice behind her is Mary sitting with Maria Lucas (Lucy Davis) as Jane is talking to Bingley (Crispin Bontham-Carter).
Similar scene (it’s from a ball scene, but cannot recall which one) showing Caroline Bingley (Anna Chancellor) in a ball gown. Her dress is much richer, having been made of a finer material, with an underdress of a different color, with jewelery and a turban to complete the look. She appears socially superior to the other single ladies.
The Netherfield Ball; with one glance you can tell Maria Lucas’ gown is of a better quality than Elizabeth’s, yet both are not so rich looking as Caroline Bingley or Mrs. Hurst. Also notice the uniforms of the Militia are period correct and lovely. And footmen are seen (uniforms and wigs)\
One item of interest to me, but probably not anyone else, is because the crew on this adaptation wanted to be so historically accurate, it’s easy to tell that the main characters (and sometimes the extras as well) are wearing period undergarments. This is completely different from any other adaptation at this point since most tended to use modern undergarments. And yes, this would make a difference in terms of performance. Period undergarments force an actor or actress to sit, stand, and move in a certain way. It can restrict movements such as bending down, running, etc. I include men in this because this was an era in which men did wear corsets to achieve a more pleasing shape, as well as padding things such as calves or shoulders. While I have never noticed any men in these films wearing such garments, it wouldn’t be beyond the realm of possibility to see someone like Sir Lucas wearing a corset for the Netherfield Ball to look slimmer. Or for Mr. Collins to wear padded calves because his around as nice as other men (because men can be vain about their appearances too).
George Wickham (Adiran Lukas); notice the fine detailing on his uniform and how less bright it is than the previous adaptation. His military jacket was made in Italy.
Lizzie getting her hair done (possibly by Hill, the ever faithful Bennet servant) while Lydia is in her period correct petticoat. Now, while the corset looks to be worn underneath, the correct layering should be a chemise, corset, then petticoat, then dress. Pantalettes wear worn (think crotchless pantaloons), and stocking that were tied a the knees.
Layers worn by a typical Regency Lady (courtesy of the Oregon Regency Society of North America)
The steps to getting dressed, simplified but showing the basic layers (courtesy of Tzarina Regina at Deviant Art)
Now, there are issues with the costumes which should be addressed. The necklines, while correct, are not used correctly. Let me clarify this: low necklines did exist during the day, but were filled in or covered up because it wasn’t appropriate. So Mary’s outfit is more correct in being a true Day Dress, as is her mother’s, than any of her sisters. Low necklines showcasing one’s décolletage was only appropriate for evening wear. Now, many have criticized this because it gives a more sensual feel to the piece that what should be there. I actually don’t mind simply because when the average person is trying to find images from that time period, even the ladies who’ve had portraits done around this time are not always wearing anything to cover themselves up. So perhaps while we think everyone covered themselves up, it’s simply not true. Extant gowns for day wear exist in museums around the world and when they are showcased to the public, it’s often not shown with anything to cover up the décolletage area. Of course, they wish for everyone to see the neckline (the shape, where it lays, etc), but this instills a certain image in the public of how these gowns were worn. And perhaps because we did get women covered up during the day (Mrs. Bennet, Caroline Bingley, Mary Bennet, Maria Lucas, Mrs. Gardiner, Charlotte Lucas Collins), it’s enough to show some period correct ways of dressing during the day, but also allowing the others to not be so covered up because I;m sure there were women who didn’t. It is perhaps more authentic to have a mixture than everyone covered up or not. And we did get examples of the Bennets wearing day dresses with the décolletage covered up (which most who criticize seem to forget). This means even with the main characters, there was variety. Plus, certain necklines looked better on certain people. I enjoy the variety.
Lydia & Kitty wearing day dresses that are covering them up (and being historically correct).
Mr. William Collins (David Bamber) and Mrs. Bennet; notice Mrs. Bennet is wearing a neckline filler (or tucker), mob cap, and shawl. She is completely covered up and is appropriately dressed.
Charlotte after she’s married Mr. Collins; notice the mob cap, fichu, and high necked day gown, which is all period correct. Also notice Sir William Lucas (Christopher Benjamin) and Maria have finally made it to Rosings Park.
The hair I think is some of the best I’ve seen in any adaptation. A few of the main characters are wearing wigs (Elizabeth, Mrs. Bennet) and you cannot tell that they are wigs because they have been dressed and look very good. Colin Firth had to darken his locks while Susannah Harker had to lighten hers (and yes, that IS her real hair). They greased David Bamber’s hair to mimic the look of a comb over, which I am on the fence about. It does tell you his character is a trifle vain, it makes him look hideous, but sometimes I wished they hadn’t gone that route. Maybe because in real life he looks like a complete sweetheart, so I don’t like him looking ill. Lucy Briers also had her hair greased out to make her ears stand out, but at least they also dressed it with a period hairstyle so it looked like Mary makes an effort to look pretty. Again, she wears glasses, but at least with the hair having some attention paid to it, I can live with it.
Mary with a decent hairstyle (although greased) with curls and very light period correct frames, which I like because they don’t overwhelm her face.
Mrs. Hurst (Lucy Robinson) with very lovely hair and with a gorgeous turban to match the silk evening dress she wears. Notice the very nice necklace and matching earrings.
Some things I did not like about this adaptation, which is hard to put out there as many consider this the gold standard in regards to Austen Adaptations, is some of the casting. Now, I love Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Lady Catherine. She played it extremely well and very much like an Austen version of Lady Bracknell, but with a streak of cruelty. I’ve always thought Lady Catherine to be roughly 20-25 years older than Darcy. Meaning if he is 30, then Lady Catherine is about 55, which really isn’t too old. It seems when it comes to casting Lady Catherine, the norm is to go for someone very old and looking close to their 70s even though she has a daughter close in age to Darcy. I guess I am tired of women who are close to 40 having to be made up to look older and not being allowed to portray characters of close to their own ages. Then again, we have a habit of casting people as old as 30 to portray teenagers in films, so clearly that pendulum swings harshly both ways. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy her interpretation, because I did. Only it’s a pity this role tends to be cast as a pseduo-evil crone type of figure instead of middle aged lady, which is (historically) she is.
Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Barbara Leigh-Hunt); I do love the attention paid to her outfits.
Lady Catherine and her daughter, Anne (Nadia Chambers); Anne is made to look sickly, which is what we are told she is by Elizabeth in the novel.
Elizabeth Sparrow of Bishop Hall, c1815. This woman is dressed similar to Lady Catherine. This woman is also in her sixties.
Baronness Sophie Waitz von Eschen-Rheinfart, c. 1816; this is what I’ve always imagined Lady Catherine to look like. While this woman is in her late 30s, early 40s, if Lady Catherine had Anne when she was 16 (some married very young), then being 46 would be possible.
Another criticism (not mine) which hangs about this production is THE SCENE, of which anyone who’s ever watched it knows what I am speaking of. We’re speaking of Darcy swimming at a pond on his property. Apparently this scene was titillating to people, which is odd considering we have a scene with Darcy shirtless earlier taking a bath (then standing and being covered up with a banyan/dressing gown so nothing is seen). Why the bathing scene is passed over but the pond swimming scene is fantasized about boggles my mind. First, I appreciated that they showed how people of wealthy would bathe, in a copper tub (which is quite small) and then dressing afterwards. A nice touch was the servant pouring water over his head. And they show fabric(linen) in the tub because no one wants to sit on metal, let’s be honest here (and yes, that is historically accurate).
Darcy taking a bath; yes, fabric would have been draped for comfort reasons.
The scene: fun fact but Firth isn’t the one jumping into the pond as a stuntman does it due to the threat of Lyme Disease at the time. Firth dives into a tank in a studio.
Now, many see the lake scene as being very sexualized and over the top. It’s been referenced in other films since because it has become part of our media culture. I don’t see what all the fuss is about, actually. Darcy has been riding from London, he takes a break at a pond on his estate and goes for a swim, but he’s still fairly dressed with breeches and a shirt. It seems like a logical thing a man might do. The funny part, for me, is him trying to remain calm and collected running into Lizzie dripping wet. For me, it’s funny, not sexy. It also shows us he’s human and has the same little quirks everyone else has. I just want to know who’s job it was to hose down Colin Firth for the walking scene, because I can imagine both Firth and the person just saying “sorry” to each other the entire time.
Another criticism I’ve come across is people truly think Lizzie and Lydia are too “fat” to be realistic representations of women during the Regency Era. Excuse me? I know people have tended to cast much thinner women in these main roles, regulating the fuller figured actress (or even actor) to the smaller, comedic roles, but women were not these stick thin figures. Most portraits of thin women at this time are portraits of very young girls-some as young as 10. To base the assumption then that all women were likewise is simply preposterous.
Unknown Young Woman, early 19th Century (Courtesy of the Currier Museum of Art)
1811 Mary Anne Nugent-Temple-Grenville, Lady Arundell of Wardour (1787-1845) [Public Domain Image; portrait was sold privately by Christie’s]
1816 Franciso Lacoma y Fontanet [Public domain Image]
1809 Portrait of a Lady in a White Dress (courtesy of Southeby’s)
1802 Louisa, Queen of Prussia [Public Domain Image]
Henry B. Bounetheau’s Aunt when a young girl (miniature) ca. 1804 (courtesy of the Smithsonian)
1816 Portrait of Caroline Darwin, aged 16 (sister of Charles Darwin) [Pubic Domain Image]
Looking at the first image of the unknown young lady, the miniature, and the portrait of Caroline Darwin, one can state that those are typical images of women during the regency. Except this is wrong. The second portrait (Mary Nugent-Temple) is also that of a young lady, possibly about 16 years of age. Yet she is not thin, but has a very full figure. The other three images are of women in their 20s, so this belief that women of all sizes didn’t exist needs to stop. One would expect in a family of five daughters in the instance of the Bennets to have variety in terms of their shapes. And we see that in this production. Jane, Lizzie and Lydia are all ell-endowed. Kitty and Mary are not well endowed. This should be applauded and not criticized. Clearly Bingley fell in love with Jane over her manners, not her shape (which men should do as it’s shown Mr. Bennet married a pretty face and lives to regret his decision the rest of his life).
Bingley and Darcy; both gentlemen fall in love because of women with personalities, not necessarily body shapes. Though Darcy has a thing for eyes.
Even Bingley’s sisters have different body types; Caroline is tall and willowly while Mrs Hurst is more curvaceous.
Overall, there’s a reason this remains as the gold standard of Jane Austen adaptations. It’s got a wonderful script, cast and crew. While there are some issues, they are very minor ones and shouldn’t detract from this lovely, bubbly adaptation. Real effort went into getting the costumes, hair and makeup correct. And time was spent getting the cast ready with horse back riding lessons, dance lessons, and getting them comfortable with each other as an ensemble piece. This is also the first adaptation of Pride and Prejudice to end with the joint marriages of Bingley & Darcy. They also get the wedding garments correct with veils on bonnets and the dresses being ones that can be worn afterwards as best gowns. Everyone should watch this version. If you are really into Austen, owning it is a must. It’s just beautifully done.
Bingley, Jane, Darcy, Lizzie. I do love the light streaming through the windows.