My spies tell me that today is the day when the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice starts to be shown on TV in the US. For those who haven’t seen it yet, there’s a treat in store. At least, most Austen fans on this side of the pond think so.
I have two vivid impressions of watching the first episode. The script, by Andrew Davies, seemed to have used more of Jane Austen’s original dialogue than any other adaptation I could remember. What’s more, the actors delivered Austen’s witty lines to perfection. Mr Bennet, in particular, seemed to me to be ideally written and cast: sharp-tongued and long-suffering, certainly, but self-indulgent and weak, as well.
And then there was Colin Firth as Darcy, brooding like a volcano about to blow.
All Austen fans will have their own mental image of how Mr Darcy should look and sound. Was this Mr Darcy too silent, too brooding in the early stages to be true hero material? For the women of Longbourn and Meryton, Darcy’s single status and ten thousand pounds a year had made him as handsome as it was possible to be. Until it was decided that he was proud and disagreeable, of course, and shockingly rude.
It can’t be an easy role for any actor, especially in the early part of the story. Darcy begins by being admired, and fawned upon. But then he becomes detested. He has to be taciturn, and moody, and abrupt when forced into speech. What's more, he has hardly any lines to say. None of that makes for a character that is easy for us, the viewers, to like.
Do we empathise with Colin Firth’s Darcy because we already know how the story will end?
Or because we’ve seen a trailer for the later, sexier Darcy?
Or is it because Firth takes us behind the prickly exterior to the man beneath?
There’s something special about this portrayal, I think. That wistful quality when he gazes out of the window at Lizzie playing with the dog. Is this Darcy a man who never enjoys such carefree, simple pleasures? Is this a man who always has to consider the consequences before be speaks, or acts?
Later, in perhaps the most famous scene of this adaptation, we see Firth’s Darcy doing all of those things, as he changes his way of living, driven by his desire to earn Lizzie's regard.. He indulges in simple pleasure, just because he wants to. He gives no thought to possible consequences. Yet the consequences are real, and wonderfully embarrassing, both for him and for Lizzie Bennet. It makes the viewer smile. And warm to the Darcy that Firth has become.
Just in case there are some viewers out there who haven’t yet heard what happens in that famous scene, I’m saying nothing more here (though I'm afraid that Wendy has given the game away in her earlier post). It’s not authentic Jane Austen, of course, but it’s true to the spirit of her story. And when you see it, you’ll know exactly what I mean.