Once Upon an Austen Novel

IMG_20150420_090752We watched the new Pride and Prejudice the other day, the one with Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen. And it struck me just how much of a fairy tale that particular interpretation is.

I’d never really noticed that before. I watch Austen films very firmly with the books in the back of my mind, and because I know that Austen’s stories are a form of realism – they were “contemporary fiction” in her day – I expect the movies to be the same, i.e. to portray the Regency period in the most accurate light possible. And that lens of expectation has, so far, coloured every viewing of the story; I thought that what I was watching was a “historic movie”, and I was interpreting everything I was seeing accordingly.

But this time, the lens shifted. Maybe it’s because it was so recently that I watched the new Cinderella movie? You see, the 2005 Pride and Prejudice reminded me of it. A glorious big-screen romantic extravaganza, with poor girls on a farm and a rich man in a palace, emotions running high and gowns swirling wide, and of course the obligatory happily-ever-after.

On Saturday, we watched the movie on Netflix, which has the European version, the one that ends with Mr Bennet’s permission for Elizabeth to marry Mr Darcy – just so you’re forewarned, that variant deprives you of the saccharine candlelight-suffused American ending, in which Elizabeth invites Mr Darcy to call her “Goddess Divine”. Urrh, yeah. But that’s the thing (which had never occurred to me before): for American audiences, they had to tack on that ending to bring it to the proper “Happily Ever After” conclusion, because the story as they tell it here is a fairy tale.

Hey, don’t get me wrong: I’m an absolute sucker for happily-ever-after; I would have been disappointed when I first saw the movie in the theatre if it had ended with Mr Bennet chuckling to himself in his study without my getting to see Elizabeth and Mr Darcy radiating happiness together. I mean, the “Goddess Divine” line makes me gag every time – it’s so completely anachronistic and out of character – but I put up with it to see it stated, in no uncertain terms, that the Darcys are happy, and will remain so, well, for a long time after.

Not ever after, because this is a real story, not a fairy tale, but… Wait. It actually is a fairy tale. In English-speaking culture, and particularly in North America, Pride and Prejudice has taken on folklore status. What was a piece of realistic contemporary writing about the people in Austen’s own social sphere – ladies and gentlemen, the leisured, land-owning classes – doing what they usually did, which was try to find spouses to perpetuate their lines of wealthy landowners, has become a folk tale of a poor beautiful girl marrying the rich handsome prince – landowner-gentleman, whatever.

Every time I’ve watched the 2005 movie, I’ve worked really hard to look past those fairy tale elements and the details that proclaim (quite loudly) that this version is not a “historically accurate rendition”. And I really have had to work on it – apart from the above-mentioned gag-inducing line, there is the anachronistic hair styles (girls with their hair down their back! Agh!), people walking around in their night shirts (that means they were in their underwear, folks!), Darcy and Elizabeth shouting at each other, Mr Bingley visiting Jane in her bedroom… All completely out of line with the early 19th century upper classes. And then the odd gowns, which are kind of a cross between peasant garb, Regency empire waist, and mid-Victorian, to go with the men’s hair, which ranges from Georgian ponytails to Mr Bingley’s, umm, Tintin do. But most puzzling of all are the “dream sequences” – the dance at the Netherfield ball, when Elizabeth and Darcy suddenly revolve around each other in an empty ballroom; the scene in the Hunsford parsonage where Elizabeth watches in a mirror as Darcy walks in (in his nightshirt!), gives her the letter, and then vanishes again as suddenly as he came.

IMG_20150420_090924All of which says quite clearly, if you stop clutching your novel-induced blinkers, that we’re not in Austen’s England ca. 1813, but in that nebulous time and place called Fairy Land, Once Upon a Time. The gowns and flowing hair are not unlike the ones in Cinderella, and even the colours of some of the mise-en-scene are reminiscent of the fairy tale – there is Jane being innocent and ethereal in a pink and blue Little-Bo-Peep outfit; the walls and furniture of Longbourn not unlike those of Cinderella’s home in fairy land… Fine, there’s no fairy godmother waving a wand – but mysterious scenes of people popping in and out of rooms that bring about dramatic changes in characters’ attitudes, stunningly filmed sunrise or sunset scenes, sharp contrasts between messy Longbourn with pigs at its back door and palatial Netherfield and Pemberley – it’s all there. Pride and Prejudice has become a fairy tale for American audiences, and the 2005 movie plays up that aspect of the story to its fullest.

I must say that, having come to this realisation, I have a new appreciation for this film. It’s very different from the definitive 1995 miniseries (which will always remain my favourite), but this very fairy-tale quality it brings to the story has its own charm. My two literary passions meet in the middle – and that’s not only interesting, but kind of a good thing.

Life, the Universe, and a Jane Austen Fairy Tale. And Mr and Mrs Darcy lived happily ever after.

4 thoughts on “Once Upon an Austen Novel”

  1. You know, thinking about it in this light might just make me able to consider this movie without violently gagging. Because when I watched it … I probably spent more time with it paused, ranting on the phone to my mother about how bad it was, than I did actually watching it. But thinking of it as a fairy tale version of P&P would definitely help.

    Although I don’t find Matthew MacFadyen particularly dreamy or his Darcy compelling, nor am I a huge fan of Kiera Knightley or her interpretation of a spirited historic/fantasy maiden, so it’s possible I might never like the movie, regardless of how I view it.

    1. Yes, that was my revelation. It actually *isn’t* Austen’s P&P, it’s a fairy tale. I mean, if you could forget that you ever read the book and watched the miniseries (of course, you can’t, but just sayin “if”), you’d probably find it quite a lovely movie.

      Another thing that struck me this viewing is how Matthew MacFadyen plays Darcy – extremely shy, sort of the tortured soul whose emotion just bursts out of him when he can’t keep it under wraps any more. He was probably bullied in his public school as a little boy. 🙂 Meaning to say he hasn’t got anything like Colin Firth’s rendition of the deadpan in-control man of power. It’s a different interpretation, but equally valid.

      I have to say I like Keira Knightley, but she does play the role extremely modern. Which is another aspect of the “American Fairy Tale” idea – she’s a 21st-century fairy tale heroine, not a Regency lady; and when you look at it that way, it takes on a really different flavour.

      1. I’ve never liked the tortured soul type of hero (unless it’s Richard Armitage playing John Thornton, in which case, swoon); I much prefer the steady, kind, good man with a sense of humor. Probably why Mr Knightley and Henry Tilney are my two favorite Austen heroes. So even if he wasn’t Mr. Darcy, I think I’d find MacFadyen’s character in that less than appealing.

        As for Kiera Knightley … you would THINK I’d get a kick out of her heroines: feisty, strong-willed, witty, all the rest of it. Instead I just want to kick them. I can’t figure it out.

      2. LOL, I’m with you on the preferred heroes. Henry Tilney for me, too, thank you! (And I love how JJ Feild plays him in the otherwise forgettable 2007 NA. Have you seen “Austenland”? He’s great in that one as a fake Regency hero, too. Which is totally off the point here.)
        And yeah, I hear you on the feisty heroine thing too. Some people just rub us the wrong way – there is no accounting for tastes. (Who said that? Isn’t that an Austen quote, too? Hmm…)

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