For the longest time, I was one of those young men who thought that Pride and Prejudice was the last thing I wanted to experience. I had internalized a prevailing social meme that often strikes young men: “Pride and Prejudice is stuffy,” said this meme, “it’s old-fashioned and is just about people getting married.” I was, you might say, prejudiced against it.
When, at the age of 22, I finally encountered the book in my college English class, I rolled my eyes. “Ugh,” I thought, “I’ve never wanted to read this!”
But, oh, how I was wrong.
I devoured Pride and Prejudice like a starving man wolfs down a feast, finishing the book in a few days and diving back into it so as to discuss it with my classmates as we worked through a chapter a week.
The wit! The sheer snarkiness of Austen’s humor! The characters who felt as alive and intriguing as any I had ever known!
Within a few pages, I had utterly changed my opinion on this book, and by the final sentence on the very last page, I was a transformed man. Why? Because, as I read, I not only discovered a wealth of brilliant work I had been blind to, I discovered a deeply ingrained (and dreadfully overlooked) part of myself that had been conditioned to “dislike” something without ever having tried it at all. I had accepted the prevailing masculine norm of my culture without realizing it; I had become colonized by thoughts which were not my own.
This has been a powerful lesson for me ever since. I now strive to never close myself off to things — to make absolute judgments on them — unless I first explore them myself (and, even then, I try to reserve “absolute judgment” as experience and time show us that growth is always possible).
Now, in the English class where I read Jane Austen’s masterpiece, there was a young man who did not connect with the more left-leaning and progressive sentiments that the rest of us openly maintained. While we discussed the merits of the novel, he seemed unable to extricate himself from a very narrow set of beliefs. Every time he brought up a question or point with the class it was clear that he was struggling against the perceived ropes of “political correctness.” I can’t help but wonder if, had he discovered works of fiction — of this sort — earlier, he might not have ended up with a more open mind.
Which brings me to the title of this piece: the 1995 Pride and Prejudice series produced by BBC.
This series is a faithfully-rendered adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, often right down to the level of individual dialogue. Where it deviates, it does so for the benefit of its altered medium and does so in such a way that it only serves to enhance the themes dominating the original novel. This is, by far, the ultimate edition of this story ever produced for the screen — so far outstripping larger Hollywood productions as to be laughable.
It is also a means by which those who fear the novel — as with so many young men — might be able to gain entry to Austen’s sensibilities and sense of subtlety. Careful and studied viewing of the series allows one to break down the idea that the story is “just about people getting married,” and introduces the viewer to the more important complexities of the story: namely, those dealing with the titular points of Pride and Prejudice, both issues which infuse human dealings today just as much as in Austen’s time.
Diving into a work like Pride and Prejudice is not always easy, especially for those who have been raised on the sort of media which spoon-feeds the audience a certain expected outcome. This becomes easier to work around in a video format, where the audience can experience the important aspects of the work without having to totally extricate themselves from their expectations beforehand.
As a period piece, too, this novel (and all like it) bears the cross of “not seeming to reference modern life,” though such an argument cannot stand against an actual reading of the text, or a viewing of the 1995 series. Clearly, it is concentrating on a specific era of history, a specific society, and a specific class of that society — there is much it leaves out. But it is all the more powerful for what it leaves in; for what it chooses to concentrate on. In this way, Austen manages to use her work to explore universal elements of human dealings, even as she plays up the problems of early-19th century England Society. Without trying to sound too much like a high-school English teacher, what are the ways in which pride and prejudice affect the workings of your own life?
Beyond being a brilliant adaptation of the original book, however, the 1995 series has other important elements which recommend it for viewing.
The incredible care with which the setting of that time and place was reproduced (right down to the intimate details of the fashion, the styles of furniture, and the type of music that was performed). Also, the excellent acting (this is the series which started off Colin Firth’s acting career, after all) and a production team that understood the importance of pacing (the book is incredibly fast-paced and filled with energy, and the series captures this intensity in such a way that it instantly enraptures those who open themselves to it). These are all elements to be appreciative of, yes. But there is more.
Young men do not always have access to clear role models in the twisting haunts of modern popular culture. In Pride and Prejudice, they will be introduced to male characters which exemplify (through both their intimate failings and their successful growths) what it means to become a man, and what sort of man not to become.
One example, Mr. Collins, provides a character who, in so many ways, is the very picture of the modern difficulty in masculine identity. He is a figure who cannot understand the word “no.” Mr. Collins provides an example of the sort of man we do not wish to become — and David Bamber, who plays Mr. Collins in the 1995 series, exudes all the unsatisfactory qualities with such excellence that, as a negative example, I have yet to find any better.
Likewise, Mr. Darcy — for all his eventual appeal and sterling qualities — has failings which are deep, indeed, and offer the viewer the reality of a flawed man who needs to grow before he can honestly share love with another person.
Jane Austen is, as I mentioned earlier, working with basic human traits — which all characters in her work share in terms of their flaws and better qualities — but for young men, this work provides an additional sort of mirror which is too-often missing from popular culture. It shows them the negative aspects of male behavior, as well as the positive ones (and how to go from negative to positive, given work and time). By doing this, by showcasing a range of relevant behavior, it can help young men explore the best and worst parts of their own identity in an age where other forms of media might not be doing this at all.