“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Thus begins Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s famous novel of romance, irony, and wit. On a t-shirt or poster, this famous line gleefully alludes to romance. Pride and Prejudice is the story of a witty Elizabeth Bennet and a dreamy Mr. Darcy.
And yet, beyond Lizzy and Darcy’s sexual tension and wordplay, there is an essential part of the story that can be easily overlooked. With an emotional mother, sardonic father, and five sisters, it is family that is at the heart of Pride and Prejudice. In this Regency-era period piece, family defines the characters. The bonds of family determine social status and standing in the world. Yet, these familial ties are also ones of affection. Pride and Prejudice shows how important, however infuriating, your family can be. While running away with your boyfriend may no longer threaten the reputation of your sisters, so many familial elements of the story still resonate with us today. Family can be your favourite sister, the siblings you barely tolerate, an embarrassing mum, and a dad who plays favourites. Family can be lounging around together, sharing secrets, and stealing each other’s clothes.
When we dare to read beyond the iconic first line (and trust me, the novel is worth your time) we are introduced to the overbearing Mrs. Bennet. Loud, plagued by “nerves,” and often deeply embarrassing, her goal in life is to marry off her five daughters — thus ensuring the financial stability of each. This drive, while comical at times, is reflective of an urgent need. The five Bennet daughters are not entitled to the family home. Upon Mr. Bennet’s death, Mrs. Bennet and her daughters will be left destitute and at the mercy of a distant male relative, Mr. Collins (of “excellent boiled potatoes” fame). Love and family, then, are deeply intertwined. Marriage, for the Bennet sisters is not simply a matter of love, but an act driven by the financial state of the family.
For this essay, I will be focusing on Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice (2005), starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen, as its two-hour runtime is friendly to the casual viewer. As I was raised in a household that owned the DVD set, however, it is also essential for me to remind you of the 1995 BBC miniseries. The ultimate literary adaption, it is here that you will find Colin Firth’s wet shirt scene, and other essential plot points, in a six-hour run time.
Wright’s film opens with Lizzy, book in hand, walking across the fields. We soon learn where she is headed, as the camera follows her to her home. It is here that the camera leaves her, gliding through the open doors of the Bennet home. In quick succession, we are introduced to all five of the Bennet sisters (and their temperaments) as they rush by the camera. Lizzy, witty and sharp, somehow capable of both reading and walking. Mary, pensive and studious, sitting at the piano. Concerned and beautiful older sister Jane. And Kitty and Lydia, wildly rushing through the house laughing, ribbons in hand. The Bennet home, with half-eaten food and heaps of clothing on the table, feels lived-in, a far cry from the stiff lives we might imagine for the Regency era. It is only after we are introduced to the sisters that we see Mrs. Bennet and hear her gleefully cry, “My dear Mr. Bennet, have you heard? Netherfield Park is let at last,” a foreshadowing of the romance to come. The film then, from the very opening, posits the Bennet family as central to the story.
The 2005 film does a wonderful job of inserting or expanding moments of casual affection or embarrassment from the novel. Through these scenes, we are given a welcome peek into the lives and relationships between the Bennet sisters. One such example can be found after the ball, with Jane and Lizzy having a hushed conversation under the sheets. Shot closely, with the sheets framing the two girls, we feel as if we, too, are part of this conversation. While their eloquent language may feel foreign, the subject of their conversation — Lizzy firmly allaying Jane’s doubts of Bingley’s affections — is all too familiar. Giggling under the sheets while discussing the man Jane likes, this scene is intimate and warm. The film is rife with such scenes of affection, particularly between the two eldest Bennet sisters.
Another such scene with all the female Bennets can be found near the end of the film. With the sudden announcement of Bingley’s arrival, the Bennets, who previously had been lounging about, reading, sewing, and eating sweets, suddenly launch into action. They scramble to arrange themselves in a more dignified manner. This moment, like the scene under the sheets, feels genuine and real. They are shouting at each other, scrambling, Mrs. Bennet telling them to act naturally as she pinches Jane’s cheeks for colour.
Beyond affection, the film also delights in the sheer embarrassment induced by the large, socially inept family. At one point in the film, all the women of the Bennet household descend upon Netherfield to collect a sickly Jane. This scene gives me an almost unbearable amount of second-hand embarrassment. Cutting between the Bennets, Darcy, and Lizzy, we watch as the Bennets manage to repeatedly stick their feet into their mouths. They make inappropriate comments, and there are just too many of them. As Caroline Bingley cries, “Are we to receive every Bennet in the country?” The utter awkwardness of the scene is emphasized by the very image of Mrs. Bennet, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia squished together on a couch. Having grown up the eldest of four daughters, this scene is reminiscent of every outing during my teenage years, where I constantly felt my family was too loud or took up far too much space.
Yet, beyond all this affection and gentle embarrassment, Pride and Prejudice also makes it very clear that family can spell one’s ruin. The characters are constantly defined by their family’s social status. During Darcy’s attempt at a proposal, he immediately stresses the difficulty poised by Lizzy’s family, stating that he has struggled in vain against the inferiority of her circumstances. Her birth, rank, and the lack of propriety shown by her mother, father and three younger sisters all stand as initially offensive to Mr. Darcy.
The film similarly emphasizes the power of the family in determining social worth when Lizzy learns that Lydia has run away with Mr. Wickham. In a scene supposedly written by Emma Thompson, Lizzy walks in and out of the room, sobbing, as she struggles to find the words to tell her aunt, uncle, and Mr. Darcy the news. We hear the voice of her uncle declaring, “I will join Mr. Bennet and find Lydia before she ruins the family forever” as we are plunged into a dark shot of a carriage racing through the dark. Lizzy stares out into the night, struggling to hold back her tears. This scene vividly depicts the horror of the fallen woman – illustrating how the disgrace of one daughter can infect the reputation of the entire family.
Pride and Prejudice is a love story for the ages – we’re all still swooning over Darcy. But beyond the romance, it is also a fascinating peek into the family life of the Bennets. From whispering under the sheets to eavesdropping at doors together, this film offers a perspective that feels real in all its embarrassing, messy moments. The Bennets are not a stiff family from a book published more than 200 years ago. In this film, and in the pages of Austen’s novel, they come alive.