Pissed-off Toff

Pride and Prejudice revisited

in Reviews

Pissed-off Toff’s first offering for the year of Our Lord MMXXI is not a seething polemic about the present, but a backwards look at a lost past and an exploration of the world of Jane Austen.

As it becomes clear that the insanity of our times is not a temporary aberration, but the defining feature of a new dystopia governed by a clown turned dictator, I take refuge in the past. When, therefore, the 2005 feature film of Pride and Prejudice was broadcast a few evenings ago, I was ready in front of the television, drawing-room lights suitably adjusted and whisky & soda to hand. 

I would normally expect to shed a tear or two when watching this movie. Who wouldn’t? But at regular intervals I found myself sobbing uncontrollably. Anything and everything was enough to set me off. Nine months of enforced solitude together with increasingly acute worries about the future had no doubt taken their toll. But there was more to it than that. 

Here, in this film, was a world much of which, over two hundred years after its time, I recognised from my own childhood and youth. And now, I realised, it was gone for ever. Like an impecunious country gentleman from the Russia of the tsars faced with the ugliness and inhumanity of the Soviet regime, I yearned after sweeter times, and wept.

* * * * *

The film opens as it continues: it’s a visual feast. We marvel at the pristine beauty of eighteenth-century English countryside, after which the camera lingers over every detail, inside and out, of the large red-brick manor house inhabited by the Bennet family. Straight away my heart-strings are being pulled at, since so much of this reminded me of being brought up in Gloucestershire, in surroundings not dissimilar, and with paintings and furniture identical to what we see here; all now a distant memory. Straight away, too, it is clear that the cinematographer is going to have a field-day. 

And straight away, we dive into the plot. A certain Mr Bingley, with an income of fully £5,000 a year, has taken a lease on Netherfield Park, the local big house, and Mrs Bennet is beside herself with excitement, because it goes without saying that the well-heeled new tenant is destined to marry one of her five daughters. Or as Jane Austen puts it in what is perhaps the most famous opening sentence of any novel: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

We meet him soon enough, at a dance in the assembly room (a historical phenomenon now extinct) of the fictional Hertfordshire market town of Meryton. Here, Bingley is accompanied by his friend Mr Darcy, a man of haughty demeanour and in possession not of an enviable £5,000 a year, but of double that. For Mrs Bennet with her daughters to marry off, this is the stuff of her wildest dreams.

During the dance – filmed in a potato warehouse got up for the purpose, making it one of the few scenes not shot in locations of some splendour – the essentials of the ensuing drama are established. Mr Bingley likes Jane, the oldest of the Bennet sisters. Will they marry? More importantly, Darcy shows no interest in any of the local girls of gentle birth, and the beautiful and lively Elizabeth Bennet overhears him remarking that she is only tolerably attractive. 

Now, therefore, we have the ‘pride’ and the ‘prejudice’ of the title of the novel of which this film is an adaptation: we have the pride of Mr Darcy, and the prejudice (initiated by his disparaging remark) of Elizabeth Bennet. Though they both fight against it, they are powerfully drawn to each other. So again: will they marry, or won’t they? With the ensuing twists and turns, this is the emotional meat of both the film and the novel.

* * * * *

Kiera Knightley is perfectly cast as the lively and intelligent Lizzy. We read, in the novel, that she has beautiful dark eyes, full of expression, and that her figure is ‘light and pleasing’; and set wide apart, Knightley’s dark-green almond-shaped eyes are indeed stunning; while the relatively unknown Matthew Macfadyen is good as the tall and aloof Darcy. Most of all, though, it is a relief that this role is not acted by the ubiquitous Colin Firth, with whose smug public-schoolboy face I am heartily fed up. 

As the film proceeds, I also found myself wondering what the basis is for the friendship between Darcy and Bingley. Yes, we willingly accept that the taciturn Darcy is a man of distinction, with hidden depths. Bingley, on the other hand, is nice but dim; a bit of a dolt, even. Why, then, are the two men friends? Especially in Austen’s class-conscious world, in which Darcy, as well-establish landed gentry of the grander kind, is in every way superior to Bingley, who has no estate and whose money (as the novel, but not the film, makes clear) comes from trade.

The greatest treat of the movie is perhaps Tom Hollander as the sycophantic Mr Collins, one of Jane Austen’s most memorable comic creations. Told by his patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh that it is time he found himself a wife, Collins turns up at the Bennets’ house which, as a distant cousin of Mr Bennet, he will inherit on the latter’s death, along with the income attached to the estate, which is entailed to the male line. In other words, on Mr Bennet’s death, his family will become more or less destitute; a consideration that the film does not make nearly enough of, and which more than explains Mrs Bennet’s constant attacks of ‘nerves’.

Rightly thinking that Mrs Bennet will be quite happy for him to take one of her daughters off her hands, Mr Collins initially sets his sights on Jane, the oldest; but advised of her non-availability (it is hoped that she will soon become Mrs Bingley), he immediately transfers his bloodless affections to Lizzy.

Shortly afterwards, Bingley gives a ball at Netherfield, to which Mr Collins is invited, and at which he dances clumsily with poor Lizzy, who is powerless to reject his advances. “It is my intention, if I may be so bold,” he tells her, “to remain close to you throughout the evening.” And we note, again, that in terms of dialogue and turn of phrase, the 2005 feature film is faithful to the book, often using whole sentences taken from it verbatim.

Still at the ball, Darcy asks Lizzy to dance, and even though she has persuaded herself that she hates him, she can hardly refuse. As they move down the line of the set, everyone else in the room is blanked out from the screen, leaving just the two of them together. It does not matter that this is quite unjustified by the ball scene in the novel (chapter 18), in which at this stage Lizzy has thoughts only for a certain Mr Wickham, whom we later discover to be an out-and-out cad. It is one of the most powerful shots in the whole film.

We now hear a theme taken from Purcell and popularised in more recent times by Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. And I again reflect how often the music in modern films and adverts is taken from the classical repertoire, without the viewers realising it. How many people, for example, are aware that the music for the entire opening sequence of Trading Places is lifted from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro? Not that it matters. Here, in any case, is the rondeau from Purcell’s Abdelazar Suite (1676), arranged for four recorders.

* * * * *

The ball is not yet over, and it is time for the ridiculous Mr Collins to make a fool of himself again. Breaching the accepted mores of the time, this insignificant country vicar, barely five foot tall, forces his attention on Mr Darcy, the undisputed grand seigneur of the evening; and in a scene pregnant with meaning, Darcy looks down on him in silent distain. It is beautifully done.

A day or so later, in a scene to which Tom Hollander does full justice, Mr Collins proposes to a horrified Lizzy. “It is the duty of a clergyman to set the example of marriage in his parish,” he opines, his words taken directly from the book. Hollander now brings an extra touch of his own, when he gingerly proffers a small pink flower to his intended. There is real pathos here. Yes, Mr Collins is ridiculous and entirely lacking in any quality that might attract a woman; but he’s also human. “And now nothing remains for me but to assure you in the most animated language of the violence of my affection,” he concludes, at the end of the least appealing proposal in the history of English literature.

Undeterred by Lizzy’s determined refusal, our diminutive vicar switches his affections for the second time in just a few days, and proposes to her best friend Charlotte Lucas, who accepts immediately. When Lizzy asks Charlotte how she could possibly have taken on the unspeakable Mr Collins, there ensues a scene which, in terms of the dialogue, is the one outright mistake in the film. “Not all of us can afford to be romantic,” replies Charlotte. “I’m twenty-seven years old and I’m frightened. I have the offer of a comfortable home. Don’t you dare judge me.” 

Yes: one of the main themes of Austen’s novels is the fear of ending up an old maid in reduced circumstances. But the modern psychobabble that the scriptwriter now employs – most especially the awful ‘Don’t you dare judge me’ – is entirely alien to the spirit of both the novel and the film.

As if Tom Hollander’s Mr Collins were not enough of a treat, we are now introduced to his patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who, as chance would have it, is Darcy’s aunt. (To be precise, she is the sister of Darcy’s deceased mother Lady Anne Darcy; the daughter of an un-named earl; and the widow of Sir Lewis de Bourgh, Bt; which explains why she is ‘Lady Catherine de Bourgh’ rather than just ‘Lady de Bourgh’.)

Portrayed here by Judi Dench in one of her most successful screen appearances ever, Lady Catherine is a masterpiece of arrogance, snobbishness and egotism. It is pure cinematic delight. And after a dinner at which liveried footmen stand behind every chair (a detail that is quite out of keeping with the novel; but of that more later), Lady Catherine prevails on a reluctant Lizzy to play the piano. “If I had ever learned,” says the noble lady, “I would have been a great proficient.”

* * * * *

Which puts me in mind of a scene from my own wasted life. Once, after lunch in my father’s house in Gloucestershire, I was playing a Chopin waltz. Sharing not a few characteristics with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, including the possession of a comfortable fortune, my father’s girlfriend was determined not to be outshone. “My piano teacher always used to tell me,” she said, “that if I worked at it, I could become a professional.”

Nearer to the time of the fictional Lady Catherine, another echo of this exchange is to be found on a memorial in the church of St Martin, at Burton Agnes in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Attached to a wall of this church, which I came across when touring the county in Austenesque manner with an old friend, the engraved marble plaque with its accompanying bas-relief honours the memory of a local baronet who died in 1761 after a life spent doing not very much. 

But how to eulogise such a life? Ah yes! Praise not what he did do (which, as we have said, was not a great deal), but what he might have done, if he had been so inclined. And so the inscription on the plaque opens thus: “In a Vase near this place are deposited the Remains of Sir Griffith Boynton, Bt, who modestly chose to fill a private Station, with Virtue which would have adorned a publick one, [etc etc etc].” No doubt he too could have played the fortepiano well, had he so wished.

Here is a photograph of the memorial.

* * * * *

In due course, and battling against ingrained social instincts that tell him not to, Darcy proposes to Lizzy in terms which are far from flattering. And in a scene of intense power, she turns him down. “From the first moment I met you,” she says, “your arrogance and conceit … [etc etc etc].” Kiera Knightley’s deep-green almond-shaped eyes are burning coals; her nostrils flare; she bares her flawless white teeth in almost feral manner; and as her lips move close to his in a scene bursting with sexuality, we know that they want each other. Is Jane Austen the thinking man’s Barbara Cartland, I wondered? Anyway, I was hooked.

Later, following an explanatory letter from Darcy, Lizzy realises that she has misjudged him. Later still, during a tour of Derbyshire with her aunt and uncle, she is shown round Darcy’s residence by his housekeeper … this being another nice historical detail; because at that time, it was quite normal for any gentleman on tour to ask to be shown round the house of any other gentleman, in his absence; an arrangement from which housekeepers no doubt profited.

Of the fact that in the film, Darcy’s country seat turns out to be Chatsworth, more later. But in the meantime, the man himself appears, and Lizzy Bennet / Kiera Knightley realises that she has made a terrible mistake. She loves him. He loves her. The chemistry is unbearable. And after further twists and turns, involving among other things a notable intervention from the ghastly Lady Catherine de Bourgh / Judi Dench (so much better here than as a frowsty female ‘M’ in the Bond films), we see Miss Lizzy Bennet and Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy walking towards each other early one morning across the misty Hertfordshire countryside; and as tears stream down our cheeks, he proposes again and she accepts.

* * * * *

Why the emotional response that this film triggered in me, far more intense this time than the last?

Yes, my enforced solitude over the last nine months must have taken its toll. Nor do I doubt that together with the crazed fiction of ‘man-made global warming’, this absurd ‘lockdown’ marks the end of the world I grew up in and the beginning of something altogether less attractive.

But in contemplating the events of this film, does one not, on a more personal level, contemplate one’s own life? Does one not reflect on how happiness might turn on one fateful decision, or on how misery might be the result of just one defining character fault? In watching this film, I heard the doors slamming on my world and on my life. It was, almost, a Last Judgement. Which, I suppose, is why I wept.

* * * * *

More generally, though, how true is the 2005 film to the novel of 1813 by Jane Austen, and how much does it matter?

Reduced from 400-odd pages of words to 90-odd minutes of film, the movie is, of necessity, an adaptation. But despite the fact that in emotional terms it is entirely true to the novel, and despite the fact that in cinematic terms its transference to a visual medium is a triumph capable of appealing to audiences throughout the world, the result is misleading.

Pride and Prejudice is a curiously unvisual novel. Yes, there are brief physical descriptions of most of the main characters. And yes, we glean a few sketchy details about the houses in which they live. But Jane Austen is not really interested in the physical appearance either of people or of houses. What interests her is character and social status. Thus the description of the physical attributes of a man – Darcy, for example – serves only to suggest his character; whilst the descriptions of houses serve only to indicate the social status of their occupants.

What matters for Jane Austen, therefore, is not so much the physical world, as the psychological and social ones. For her, more wordsmith than painter, the names of her characters ‘Darcy’ and ‘Bingley’ speak volumes. Of Norman origin, ‘Darcy’ is an aristocratic name containing the all-important particule nobiliaire, meaning that it would originally have been written as d’Arcy, after the town in France from which some knightly warrior set out in the eleventh century to conquer our land. Whereas ‘Bingley’ is a humdrum name from the newly-industrialised north of eighteenth-century England. But for the cinematographer who operates in a visual medium, this is meaningless … and it is at this stage that the film departs quite radically from the book.

* * * * *

Perhaps it all started with the TV dramatisation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, which, one evening every week, brought Oxford to a halt when I was an undergraduate there in the early 1980s. Famously, Waugh’s fictional Flyte family was based on the Lygons of Madresfield Court. That is grand enough. But the film-makers couldn’t resist the temptation to go even further upmarket, so they set the action in Castle Howard, one of the greatest aristocratic houses in England. It’s all rather over-the-top; but it sells.

Thus with the 2005 feature film adaption of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. With an uncritical worldwide audience in their sights, the film-makers just can’t resist the temptation to indulge in visual hyperbole.

This is evident from the very beginning. As Jane Austen briefly informs us in chapter 3 of her novel, the Bennet family live in the village of Longbourn, where they are the ‘principal inhabitants’. In chapter 7, we learn that their house is attached to a farm; and later, in chapter 16, we learn that their residence is called Longbourn House. In the film, however, it is all a great deal grander, so that the novel’s Longbourn House in the village of Longbourn now becomes the almost stately manor house of Groombridge Place in Kent … and not in a village, but at the centre of its own estate.

Then take Mr Bingley, tainted by trade and arriving from the north of England to rent a house in Hertfordshire which in the novel is called Netherfield. For the film-makers, no ordinary country house will do. Thus Bingley’s no-doubt gentlemanly Netherfield becomes, in the film, the positively aristocratic Basildon Park.

Thus also with Rosings Park, the fictional home of the awful Lady Catherine de Bourgh. We know that Lady Catherine is the daughter of an earl and the widow of a baronet. Elsewhere, we learn that her own daughter – a sickly waif of a girl – is heiress to a considerable fortune. But about the house they live in (see chapter 31 of the novel), we are told nothing at all. Why? Because all that matters to Jane Austen, and all that we need to know for the purposes of the story, is that Lady Catherine is rich.

So yes, we can assume that she lives in a large house in the country. But again, the producers of the film go further. Therefore the dinner scene at ‘Rosings Park’ is filmed at Burghley, one of the grandest houses in England, with Titians and Van Dykes galore. And behind each guest at a dinner-table laden with porcelain and silver-gilt, there stands a liveried footman. This is wild exaggeration.

Similarly with Darcy’s fictional estate of Pemberley in Derbyshire. In chapter 16 of the novel, the caddish Wickham, who has every reason to resent and disparage him, describes his estate as ‘a noble one, worth a clean ten thousand per annum.’ That’s good enough by any standards; something like – say – Sledmere in Yorkshire, the seat of Sir Tatton Sykes of our own times. But no. Darcy’s Pemberley is now Chatsworth on the outside and Wilton on the inside. Two of the very grandest houses in England rolled into one, therefore. Even with his more-than-enviable £10,000 per annum, splendour such as this would have been beyond the means of Austen’s taciturn hero.

All of this is quite out of keeping with the original novel, the action of which unfolds not in the houses of the grandest aristocrats in England, but in less exalted arenas where downwardly-mobile women mix with upwardly-mobile men who, they hope, will save them from destitution.

* * * * *

What, then, are the true financial circumstances of the protagonists of Pride and Prejudice? Circumstances which, since Jane Austen spells them out in some detail, are central to an understanding of the story …

Let us first take the Bennet family. As we learn in chapter 7 of the novel, Mr Bennet has £2,000 a year for life, together with usufruct of the house he occupies with his family; after which everything will go to his cousin Mr Collins. In the same chapter, we learn that Mr Bennet’s wife inherited £4,000 from her father which, invested at the usual 4%, will yield an income of £160 a year … hardly enough to keep her and any unmarried daughters going after her husband’s death (it is assumed that he will pre-decease her). This is corroborated by Mr Collins when, in chapter 19, he proposes to Lizzy Bennet: “One thousand pounds in the four per cents, which will not be yours till after your mother’s decease, is all that you may be entitled to,” he reminds her. Meaning an income of £40 a year; and destitution.

Now let us look at Mr Bingley, who has taken a short lease on the local big house of Netherfield. In the novel he has between four and five thousand pounds a year. This, we learn in chapter 4, comes from ‘property’ inherited from his father ‘to the amount of nearly an hundred thousand pounds.’ Still in chapter 4, we learn that Bingley’s money comes from trade. One might imagine that Bingley’s father made a fortune in the cotton mills of the newly industrialised midlands, and that his money is now invested in property – perhaps slum accommodation for workers in those same dark satanic mills – which produces a healthy income. Tainted by trade he might be; but Bingley is rich. 

And now Darcy. Not only does he own the estate of Pemberley in Derbyshire, which produces a clean £10,000 a year, but we also learn, in chapter 6 of the novel, that he has a town house in London. He is, in short, about three times as rich as Bingley.

* * * * *

To make sense of all this, I first tried converting the figures from the year 1800 into modern sums, muliplying by a factor of eighty; this being the more or less accepted conversion rate. However, the results are meaningless.

Around the year 1800 an agricultural labourer earned about £12-£15 a year. Multiply that by eighty, and you get an annual wage, today, of £960-£1,200 … hardly enough to survive on for a month, and clearly useless in terms of comparison. Or take A History of Prices by Thomas Tooke, in which we learn that the average daily wage for an agricultural labourer in England in the years 1790-1803 was 1s 8d … one shilling and eight pennies, or £1 for every twelve days worked. Say he was employed for half the year, that would give him an income of about £15 … or (if you accept the multiple of 80), the same £1,200 annually as in the previous calculation. Again, meaningless.

Towards the other end of the income scale, take Darcy’s £10,000 a year. Multiplied by eighty, that gives us £800,000 in today’s money. Again it makes no sense. That’s what a successful lawyer earns in any City partnership. It would buy you just one small flat in London. Whereas Darcy – a semi-divine figure in terms of his social and financial status in the novel – could, at the drop of a hat, buy almost any house in London he chose.

* * * * *

In the end it makes no sense to try to convert their money into ours. What we have to do, instead, is establish a benchmark for income in Austen’s novels and establish how rich the various characters were, not compared to us today, but compared to others in their own world around the year 1800.

The standard benchmark – or the starting point for comparison – must, I argue, be an income of £300 a year. As the historical biographer Amanda Foreman points out in Georgiana’s World, this is the sum that a gentleman could live off in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Confirmation of this comes from Jane Austen herself, when, in chapter 61 of Pride and Prejudice, Lizzy’s sister Lydia expresses the hope that Darcy can find the feckless Wickham a position at court worth £300-£400 a year. This – about twenty times the income of a labourer – is the lowest figure that she and her husband can envisage living on. Less than that, and any pretence of belonging to the gentry is gone.

With this £300-£400 as our benchmark, let us now look at the incomes of the various characters in our novel. Despite the fact that his entire estate is entailed to his cousin, Mr Bennet is very comfortably off with his £2,000 a year. Indeed, at various stages in the novel we learn that his establishment boasts a carriage, a footman, a cook, as well as other servants. But when he dies, the £160 a year that his wife will get from her own £4,000 marriage portion will leave her a pauper. And when she dies, the £1,000-odd which Lizzy is due to inherit from her will yield just £40 a year … and the terrible prospect of working as a governess. So she has to marry.

With his £4,000-£5,000 a year, Bingley is rich. Here, the example of our national hero Horatio Nelson is instructive. After he died at Trafalgar, his brother received an earldom and the sum of £90,000. Invested at the usual 4%, this would have produced an annual income of £3,600 … quite similar to Bingley’s own income from the £100,000 in property which, we learn in chapter 4, was left to him by his father. Put another way, Bingley has an income deemed worthy of a nobleman.

And Darcy, the grandson of an earl, has double that, making him landed gentry equal to aristocracy in everything but the lack of a title. But was he super-rich, to use a modern term? I would argue not. That, I suggest, started somewhere around the £20,000 mark. In 1779, for example, the 4th Earl of Bristol inherited his title and the £20,000 per annum that allowed him to indulge in a building spree. In the late eighteenth century, the 1st Earl Spencer had about £36,000 a year, and was able to build Spencer House in London at a cost of almost £50,000.

So despite his undoubted wealth, Darcy is not in the same league as these people. And as for having him living at Chatsworth, as he does in the film, that won’t wash. It’s just too grand. Chatsworth is the principal residence of the dukes of Devonshire … and in the late eighteenth century, the 5th duke had an income of over £60,000, along with various stately homes and countless thousands of acres … all of which make him – and now one is just guessing for the fun of it – perhaps ten times richer than Darcy.

However, the film-makers can’t resist it. Which is why, in any new historical drama, we see Highclere, Burghley, Chatsworth and Castle Howard time and time again, regardless of their suitability. For a more accurate depiction of the sorts of places in which Jane Austen’s characters lived on their incomes of various multiples of the essential £300-£400, but with never more than £10,000 … for this, you are better off watching the film of Sense and Sensibility, featuring the lovely Kate Winslet, along with Robert Hardy and his perfect portrayal of a typical eighteenth-century English country gentleman. Now that’s a treat … and one that is altogether closer to the world of Jane Austen. 

I’d be surprised, too, if it fails to cause a tear or two to run down your face.

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