Pride and Prejudice at 200

I grieve to report that America’s latest bout of Anglophilia has infected this corner of the blogosphere. Perhaps one post on Monty Python (one-sixth American, and that fraction hailing from the niftiest of the fifty states) can be dismissed, but even as we Colonials rejoice at the birth of a new heir, I find myself compelled to write about a work of Brit lit published back in the days of another Prince George, the one who acted regent for his mentally ill father, King George III.

(Remember him? The guy who “endeavoured to prevent the population of these States” by obstructing immigration and naturalization? Who then further “endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions”? Yeah, that one.)

The Guthrie Theater at night
The Guthrie Theater – Creative Commons (Steve Lyon)

Last night my wife and I celebrated our wedding anniversary by visiting Minneapolis’ famed Guthrie Theater, which is putting on Simon Reade’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s most beloved novel, Pride and Prejudice. Besides the story itself — celebrating its 200th birthday this year — the main draw is the actor playing Mr Darcy, Vincent Kartheiser (of Mad Men fame), making a triumphant return to his home town, and the theater where he once played Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol.

But the central pair of Kartheiser’s Darcy and Ashley Rose Montondo’s Elizabeth Bennet is rather overshadowed in his production by the outsized characters swirling around them, particularly Mrs Bennet (Suzanne Warmanen), her exasperated husband (Peter Thomson), their mismatched daughters Lydia (Aeysha Kinnunen, a younger, less inhibited version of the family matriarch) and Mary (Thallis Santesteban, only allowed to speak — or sing — a few times, but getting a big laugh every time), Mr Collins (Kris L. Nelson, wonderfully creepy and awkward) and Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Guthrie mainstay Sally Winger, doubling as Mrs Gardiner). It’s about as broad an interpretation as one could imagine, does very little to develop the romance at the story’s core (Darcy’s sudden first proposal to Lizzy — also played for laughs — comes just before intermission, then the second act flies by in what feels like half as much time as the first), and is completely entertaining.

To a large extent, it’s a triumph of craft — I have a feeling that that cast could have made me laugh at an adaptation of Camus — but it may also testify to the genius of Pride and Prejudice: its universal appeal withstands the changes to the particulars. I’ve only seen three other adaptations, none much like the others, and enjoyed each one: as a Golden Age of Hollywood light melodrama with a thirty-six year old Greer Garson playing Lizzy to Laurence Olivier’s Darcy; as a leisurely paced BBC miniseries with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth pretty much making it impossible for me to imagine anyone else in my head when I read the book; and as a lightning-fast epic starring Keira Knightley’s cheekbones and Brenda Blethyn somehow finding a way to make Mrs Bennet un-cartoon-like.

What did Austen get so right? A mere historian who finds a way to justify using one adaptation or another every fall in my Modern Europe course probably has nothing useful to say in answer to that question. I’ll ask my literary scholar friends Michial and Victoria to weigh in when we have supper this weekend — perhaps one or both will write a follow-up post here? — but in the meantime, I’ll just pull out a couple of theses that found their way into the Guthrie program and might provoke some debate.

Image from 1833 edition of Pride and Prejudice
Engraving from an 1833 edition of Pride and Prejudice

First, from G.K. Chesterton, in The Victorian Age in Literature (written 100 years after Pride and Prejudice):

Jane Austen was born before those bonds which (we are told) protected woman from truth, were burst by the Brontës or elaborately untied by George Eliot. Yet the fact remains that Jane Austen knew much more about men than either of them. Jane Austen may have been protected from truth: but it was precious little of truth that was protected from her. [someone post that line on Facebook!] When Darcy, in finally confessing his faults, says, “I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice though not in theory,” he gets nearer to a complete confession of the intelligent male than ever was hinted by the Byronic lapses of the Brontës’ heroes or the elaborate exculpations of George Eliot’s. Jane Austen, of course, covered an infinitely smaller field than any of her later rivals; but I have always believed in the victory of small nationalities. (p. 109)

Now, no one is celebrating the 100th birthday of this analysis with anything approaching the joy that greets that 200th of Pride and Prejudice. In the same breath that he lauded Austen as the first and greatest of the women to prove themselves equal to the men who wrote novels, Chesterton professed himself unable to think of a woman writing something important about politics or philosophy — not a fan, G.K.C., of Mary Wollstonecraft (“I never heard that many women, let alone men, shared” her views) or Beatrice Webb (“who settles things by the simple process of ordering about the citizens of a state, as she might the servants in a kitchen”). He thinks George Eliot was protected from the truth — or it from her — “that there are really demons and angels behind men,” then added this critique of her “rationalist flirtation”: “Each sex is trying to be both sexes at once; and the result is a confusion more untruthful than any conventions” (pp. 108-109).

Whereas Austen mastered a form he regarded as “mainly modern” while resisting modernization:

[Austen] comes into our present consideration only as that most exasperating thing, an ideal unachieved. It is like leaving an unconquered fortress in the rear. No woman later has captured the complete common sense of Jane Austen. She could keep her head, while all the after women went about looking for their brains. She could describe a man coolly; which neither George Eliot nor Charlotte Brontë could do. She knew what she knew, like a sound dogmatist: she did not know what she did not know—like a sound agnostic. But she belongs to a vanished world before the great progressive age of which I write. (p. 105)

Then there’s the opinion of the “unconquered fortress” herself, presented in the Guthrie program through excerpts from letters written to her sister Cassandra the year the novel was published: (with thanks to Guthrie dramaturg Carla Steen, presumably the person responsible for pulling these together)

Jane Austen (1775-1817)
Portrait of Jane Austen (ca. 1810) by her sister Cassandra – Wikimedia

I must confess that I think [Elizabeth Bennet] as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least I do not know. There are a few typical errors; and a ‘said he,’ or a ‘said she,’ would sometimes make the dialogue more immediately clear; but I do not write for such dull elves as have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves. (January 29, 1813)

The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story; an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott [Chesterton once more: “Jane Austen is as strong in her own way as Scott is in his. But she is, for all practical purposes, never weak in her own way—and Scott very often is”], or the history of Buonaparté, or anything that would form a contrast, and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and epigrammatism of the general style. (February 4, 1813)

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