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Why I love Jane Austen, by Eva O’Flynn

Criticise her all you will, it’s nothing to me; Jane Austen is my dearest friend.  Warning: I write this post sipping tea from my ‘Pride and Prejudice‘ mug, staring proudly at my new merch (can’t do it justice; see picture.)

Goodies just arrived from the Jane Austen Centre giftshop...
Goodies just arrived from the Jane Austen Centre giftshop…

The woman is perfection. She is a witty, dry, perceptive, insanely intelligent goddess.

As a 17 year old myself, I can only marvel at her epistolary novel ‘Lady Susan‘, which she wrote at my age.

Austen and I first met in 2005, when I was 8 and she 230. This was the year of the infamous portrayal of Elizabeth by Keira Knightley. Forgive me Reader, for I have sinned; that film holds a special place in my heart. It’s extravagant, Hollywood and inaccurate, but it was the first time I met the characters; I remember my young grin as the footman announced ‘a Mrs Bennett, Miss Bennett, Miss Bennett and a- Miss Bennett.’ (Innaccurate, of course but amusing nevertheless.) I’m not stubborn enough that my view of each character remains loyal to the film’s portrayal, but I do believe that the film captures their essence pretty well.

Kiera Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen in 2005's Pride and Prejudice.
Kiera Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen in 2005’s Pride and Prejudice.

Later, in 2008 when ‘Sense and Sensibilty‘ arrived on the BBC, I fell in love with her plots all over again. I moved straight on to read ‘Pride and Prejudice‘. Admittedly, as an 11 year old still in primary school, much of the novel’s genius was lost on me. Nevertheless, I rooted for Darcy and Elizabeth, bickered with Lydia as if she were my own sister and detested Wickham (not to be confused with Willoughby!) with a burning passion. The confusion between names is something which continues to trouble me to this day: the more Austen you read, the more confusing it gets. Musgrove, for example, a name which features in both ‘The Watsons‘ and ‘Persuasion‘, for very different characters, had my opinions somewhat confused.

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Pride and Prejudice 2005: Cinderella Meets Mr. Darcy

Is Pride and Prejudice primarily a Cinderella story? How you answer that question may well determine whether you will enjoy or detest the 2005 Keira Knightley/Matthew Macfadyen film.

When spending quality time with Jane Austen’s novel, gentle reader, do you imagine paint peeling from the Bennet family home or picture Longbourn’s back garden as a filthy barnyard? Does Mr. Bennet potter about the house unwashed, unshorn and unshaven? Does his beloved library resemble the leftovers of a jumble sale? One might assume that the Bennets could do better with an estate that is lawfully their own and two thousand a year. However, this appears to be Director Joe Wright’s interpretation of the novel as “social realist drama.” Dear me. And what would Jane Austen make of that?

The poverty, grime and crumbling gentility adds what Wright refers to as “a bit more street,” if this is considered desirable. But what is “street” about Mr. Darcy trudging through a foggy field, white shirt front agape, looking for all the world like Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights? Or was it an attempt to offer up Matthew Macfadyen as a wet shirted substitute for Colin Firth? Other choices seem to defy any analysis. Why turn Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) into a giggling idiot, someone not safe to be let out unattended? Why would Darcy befriend such a man, and what could possibly induce Jane Bennet (Rosamund Pike) to shackle herself to him for life? Charlotte Lucas (Claudie Blakley) appears fortunate by comparison. Charlotte’s fear of poverty and her resulting acceptance of Mr. Wrong is well done, if a bit overly dramatic, but the film’s actors are not to be blamed for its faults. Indeed, the casting seems nearly flawless.

Knightley delivers a credible performance as a spirited Elizabeth, and Macfadyen need not be ashamed of his Darcy. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet (Donald Sutherland & Brenda Blethyn) are given sympathetic makeovers. A kinder, gentler Mr. Bennet proves to be a compassionate father and an amorous husband not entirely indifferent to his frowzy, careworn wife, and Mrs. Bennet’s poor nerves actually merit some compassion.

Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander) is not given enough screen time for one of the greatest comic characters ever created. Lady Catherine fares a bit better, perhaps common decency demanded it, as the role is absolutely perfect for Dame Judi Dench, but when Lady Catherine descends on Longbourn with a vengeance, her tirade is over all too soon, and this scene illustrates one of the film’s glaring weaknesses. The pace is much too rapid. Characters burst onto the screen, hurry through their lines and rush off with alarming rapidity. One fears that a great deal of talent was laid waste in the cutting room.

The rousing dance scene was enjoyable, but awkward attempts to add sexuality were annoying. The novel’s witty repartee and the chemistry between Knightley and Macfayden already suggest enough, thank you. In a film so obviously at war with its time constraints, Elizabeth’s fascination with a collection of nude statues at Pemberley wasted valuable minutes and added nothing, though a group of twelve year old boys might disagree. But was this the imagined audience? And one wonders why it was deemed necessary for the camera to linger on a pig. A pig? You well may ask.

Comparisons to the 1995 Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth television adaptation are inevitable. Granted, the six hour BBC time frame opened up a great many opportunities to unfold the story and to develop the characters in keeping with the “light, bright and sparkling” authorial intent. When it was first announced that there would be a new, Hollywood film of Pride and Prejudice, your humble servant was immediately skeptical. To quote Mr. Bennet in the novel, “what is there of good to be expected?” My own prejudices firmly in place, I never-the-less entered the theatre agog with curiosity, and, to give myself credit, I thoroughly enjoyed the 2004 Bollywood Bride and Prejudice, so I was not entirely without hope.

Pride and Prejudice played to a full house, and some members of the audience appeared to enjoy the film. Others, like myself, found it a bit of a disappointment, yet I may well go to see it a second time and will probably purchase the DVD in the fullness of time. I do such things; God help me. I can only conclude that the viewer must ultimately judge for him or herself, so this review will end with some words of wisdom from Mr. Bennet: “Perhaps you would like to [see] it. I dislike it very much. but it must be done.”

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Sheryl Craig is an Instructor of English at Central Missouri State University. She is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Kansas.