PLOT SPOILER ALERTS
Three years ago I wrote an online article which was picked up by the official Jane Austen magazine, who published it as their guest essay. I was delighted but surprised, since the article is called “Going off Austen” and it charts the end of a 24 year love affair, the parting of a joint best friend of much of my life.
It appeared in the Nov 2010 edition of Jane Austen’s Regency World.
Did I take Janey off my shelf? No, because she had been so significant in my life, though I’d not watched or read her since writing that article. It was trying to find something universal to view with my family at Christmas which led me to this adaptation of PD James’ novel, a synthesis between her love of Austen and of crime fiction, aired by the BBC as a new drama this week.
Quickly, I had to release all thoughts of whether the characters were like Austen’s; for though PD
Wodehouse James says in the Radio Times interview that the characters are not her own, I did not really recognise them. I felt Anna Maxwell Martin didn’t play the part of Elizabeth Bennet with the required wit and vivacity that particularly Jennifer Ehle did. But I’d already found that the heroine on the page wasn’t much of one, and her sensible mistress-ness in this continuation to P+P made me continue to rail against Lizzie.
My membership in the anti Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy club was renewed, and I found him again – even as he completes his character arc – to be pompous and controlling. And PD James never queries these ridiculous mores that are so central to Pride and Prejudice and other contemporary pieces, namely that around Lydia and Wickham.
I still want to stick up for Lydia – the most interesting face in the show – and found her pre-execution meeting with her husband touching, for she was willing to forgive him his philandering and think the best of him and did not regret their marriage. He asked her to cherish a positive memory of him. And even though both were young and their marriage brief, they could say that their life together had been full. At first, I felt Wickham was being shown as an ever greater blaggard, a serial propositioner of under age women for money, then incestuous, and then a murderer, as well as a debtor and manipulator, whilst the Darcy camp is the side of right. I’m glad that PD made Wickham a good friend and loving husband, and though I disagree about wartime heroes, that she added bravery in battle as another virtue, whilst throwing in a few queries about Darcy’s own perfection.
PD does have Darcy rescind the decision to have single mother Louisa Bidwell and her “bastard” child parted – but his idea of liberalism is to make that baby have a life of servitude under his snooty nose and his son’s. Darcy shuts out Colonel Fitzwilliam (any reason they share a name?) and uses his power as master of the house to have his former friend removed by his staff rather than complete the argument.
I sizzled over the way servants are treated (mostly by each other) and the power that landowners have to make decisions on behalf of others as much as the continued stereotypes shown in short appearances by Mr and Mrs Bennett and Lady Catherine dB – hardly worth getting Penelope Pitstop I mean Keith kitted out in Georgian garb. I did not like Georgiana’s speech about the Darcy name being bigger than all of them so that even when you are top of that tree, it requires you to cut your own trunk and be held to account by some unseen force. I hated that Will Bidwell attacked Denny because he felt he “couldn’t take care of his women”; but his assuming that he had to make decisions for them, avenge their honour, and keep them chaste in that narrow stricture also made me angry, and more so as the tale was penned by a living writer, not one who died in 1817.
As a piece, there’s a clear learning curve and need for each of the characters, so from a writing plan point of view, PD James’ story is satisfactory. But from a society and justice slant, it is not. And it’s not making me run back to Chawton or Bath either, but I will stick with Rozema’s Mansfield Park as it’s the only Austen about social justice.