Olivia Lichtenstein is a BAFTA award-winning documentary film-maker. Former Editor of BBC Television's flagship documentary strand 'Inside Story', she commissioned and executive-produced some 100 films for BBC One and has been executive producer of many memorable BBC One series, including 'HMS Brilliant', 'Gulag' and 'Making Babies'. Olivia currently works as a freelance documentary and drama producer/director and journalist. Her first novel, Mrs Zhivago of Queen's Park, a comedy about love, marriage and adultery, is now out in paperback. Here she discusses Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.
Olivia Lichtenstein on Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Memory works by association and frequently in conjunction with our other senses; sometimes I can even smell where I was when I first read a particular book. My favourite novels are often those most firmly etched in my memory, the ones I read when young. Perhaps we best remember events and books from our youth, not merely because we were more impressionable, but because it was a time when the hard drive of the mind was less obfuscated with trivia. In any event, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is, for me, inextricably associated with my twelfth year, a year when I teetered uncertainly on the brink of adolescence. I like to think it was my precocious summation of the book's values that assured my entry into a prestigious girl's grammar school, for I spent much of my interview extolling the virtues of Jane Austen's characterization of Mr Darcy, the prototype of the irresistible, impenetrable and haughty hero whose love every girl wants to win. I was a voracious reader (ah les beaux jours: it was an age long before the arrival of daytime TV and the internet when all we had to play with was a stick and a ball). I re-read the book somewhere in my teens with added enjoyment, identifying as I'm sure many girls must, with the feisty Elizabeth Bennet, and picked it up again last summer, settling in the sun with it as one might for a conversation with an old friend.
In the past decade alone, Pride and Prejudice has spawned a BBC costume drama, an Oscar-winning feature film, a Bollywood version (Bride and Prejudice), the books Bridget Jones's Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, its sequel - arguably amongst the biggest of recent publishing sensations - and, of course, by extension, the two feature films they engendered. This year, a spoof Pride and Prejudice is planned, Jane Austen Handheld, a film which is to star Stephen Fry, Russell Brand and Lily Allen. I wonder whether frequent repetition diminishes the value of the original work of art, or at the least, people's perception of it. Just as, in the 1970s, the Athena-ization of the works of Van Gogh and Salvador Dali somehow cheapened the originals and gave us the impression that we were familiar with the artists' brush-strokes, so too this proliferation of films and books gives everyone the impression that they've read the original when many haven't.
A return to the text quickly reminds the reader of the extent to which Austen is mistress of her art. I'd forgotten quite how witty the book was, what a skilful satire it was, not only of Austen's own society, but of society in general. The parody is just as applicable today as it was over 200 years ago. It's a moral tale and Austen's satire is targeted at all that is snobbish, presumptuous and foolish. It is not for nothing that the first line of the book is one of the most well-known in literature. In one economical sentence it sets both the scene and the tone for the novel that follows and is as true today as it was in the late 18th century. The humour, of course, inheres in the fact that the universally acknowledged truth is actually that every young unmarried girl is in want of the rich husband rather than the other way round. (These days, judging by the growth in pre-nups and divorce settlements, the line could perhaps be altered to 'It is a truth universally acknowledged that every woman married to a man of fortune is in want of a good divorce.')
Everyone surely knows the plot of this novel, but briefly: Elizabeth Bennet is the second oldest daughter of five girls in the Bennet family. Her mother, the epitome of the foolish, ambitious and embarrassing parent, who wants only for her girls to be successfully married off to men of means, is greatly excited when wealthy young Mr Bingley takes up residence in the nearby big house. He brings with him his snobbish sisters and his best friend Mr Darcy. Jane, Elizabeth's eldest sister, a 'good and kind' girl, soon wins Bingley's affection. Darcy, who is at first intolerably arrogant and condescending, cannot help himself from succumbing to 'the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow'. Elizabeth Bennet, the owner of these eyes, is blinded by pride and responds to Darcy's smug and prejudiced condescension with venom. A variety of misunderstandings ensue as a result of the characters' respective failings and their tendency to make quick and inaccurate judgements about each other. Austen's characters behave in strict accordance with the way their author has drawn them: thus, Jane is at all times good, kind and beautiful, Mrs Bennet preposterous, Mr Bennett waspish, Lydia flighty and Wickham, the handsome bounder for whom we have all at some time yearned against our better judgement, wicked. Only Elizabeth and Mr Darcy change and grow, respectively overcoming their pride and their prejudice.
Who can fail to be captivated by Austen's finely and economically drawn characters, the razor-sharp picture of an oppressively class-bound culture, and the strong woman at the centre who, one can't help feeling, has much of Austen in her and who skilfully weaves her way through the absurdities and perils of the society in which she lives? How I would enjoy her wry take on the absurdities of our own celebrity-obsessed culture. What fun Austen would have had with the likes of Kerry Katona, Jade Goody and Katie Price, any of whom could be a perfect Lydia or Kitty. It is the universality of her characters that has made them endure. Some of the characters are drawn with broad brush-strokes but are none the less enjoyable for that. Mrs Bennet is the source of much of the book's humour and some of her utterances make me laugh out loud. When Bingley moves away without proposing to Jane, she says: 'Well, my comfort is, I am sure Jane will die of a broken heart and then he will be sorry for what he has done.' And elsewhere, when Mrs Gardiner, her brother's wife, comes to visit and Mrs Bennet has unburdened herself, she says: '... your coming at this time is the greatest of comforts, and I am very glad to hear what you tell us, of long sleeves'. I'm sure we have all met a Mrs Bennett in our lives and likewise, a Darcy, a Wickham, a Mr Collins and a Lydia. Plus ça change. This is the brilliance of Austen's work, she is a keen observer of human beings and their mores and has a unique ability to recognize and draw archetypes. Pride and Prejudice crafted the template for the romantic comedy genre in fiction. That is why we cannot leave it alone and why we rewrite and perform it over and over again.
It irritates me when men claim not to like Austen, dismissing her books as shallow romances and 'books for girls'. Why shouldn't men be interested in these skilful novels which paint an intimate portrait not only of Austen's times, but also of our own and of love affairs generally? After all, everyone participates in relationships, both men and women alike.