The first line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is one of the best-known lines of English literature: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (5). It captures succinctly both the author’s dry humor and the social setting of her stories. It is significant, therefore, that the BBC’s 1995 miniseries adaptation of Pride and Prejudice begins neither with this line as an epigraph, nor with some translation of the tone that the line encapsulates. It begins instead with an invented scene: Darcy and Bingley ride horses through the environs of Longbourn, discussing Bingley’s intention to settle at Netherfield, and are observed by our heroine, Elizabeth, whom we first see out walking, gaily running down the lane and plucking flowers as she returns home. The opening of the story—and Elizabeth’s first sight of Darcy—is thus removed from the context of social machinations, the marriage market, and ironic humor and relocated to the outdoors and the open air; this decision marks the beginning of a visual refrain that is carried throughout the entire miniseries. Picking up on a preexisting theme of “nature” in the novel, the BBC’s adaptation develops nature imagery into a symbolic sub-narrative that accompanies and translates the progression of Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship and that even comes to motivate that progression.
Austen firmly establishes Elizabeth’s affinity for nature as a hallmark of her character in the novel itself. Elizabeth has a “love of solitary walks” (178)—which Mr. Darcy mentions in an attempt to make conversation at one point—that, while it is not dwelt on as explicitly significant in the text, is a very consistent mode of operation for her, especially in that she uses walks as a means of escaping unpleasant situations and seeking comfort. At Rosings in particular, Elizabeth walks in the grounds as a way of avoiding Lady Catherine (165) and, later on in her visit, of avoiding Mr. Darcy and dwelling privately on the upset his proposal has caused her: “not a day went by without a solitary walk, in which she might indulge in all the delight of unpleasant recollections” (206). Emotional turmoil in general causes Elizabeth to seek the outdoors—“walking together in the shrubbery behind the house” (285) with Jane during the crisis over Lydia, and walking “out to recover her spirits” (320) after Darcy and Bingley’s first visit to Longbourn after the crisis—where other characters are often quite dramatically inclined to do the opposite, as Mrs. Bennet does in refusing to so much as leave her room for meals while Lydia’s fate is unknown (284). In a famous line, exclaiming delightedly over her planned visit to the Lake District with her aunt and uncle, Elizabeth half-jokingly sums up her love for nature and the balm it represents for her: “Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains?” (152).
Elizabeth’s fondness for walks and association with the outdoors carries important implications for her character not just in terms of temperament, but also in terms of social standing. The most dramatic instance of this occurs quite early on, as a result of her willingness to walk on foot to Netherfield to see Jane: “Elizabeth continued her walk alone… jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity… with weary ancles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise” (33). This walk and the shockingly muddy petticoats that accompany it, in the eyes of the highly cultivated Bingley sisters, represent a certain vulgarity and lack of civilization in Elizabeth. According to Mrs. Hurst, “she really looked almost wild,” and Miss Bingley adds that “It seems to me to shew an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country town indifference to decorum” (36). Indeed, the “wild” and “country” aspects of Elizabeth are precisely what this passage of the novel underlines. From very early on, then, the novel presents Elizabeth as standing firmly on one side of a dichotomy of which the Bingley sisters stand on the opposite side: a dichotomy between country and town, between nature and cultivated (or perhaps over-cultivated) civilization. Darcy comes from the same world as the Bingleys, and, in the novel, begins as Elizabeth’s polar opposite in terms of this dichotomy. Their falling in love in the novel, then, is subtly accompanied by a slow progression of both Elizabeth and Darcy to somewhere in the center of the scale, Elizabeth learning culture from Darcy, and Darcy learning openness from Elizabeth. It is this progression, and the importance of nature within it, that the BBC’s adaptation picks up on and expands to proportions and to an importance well beyond what is found in the original novel.
The nature imagery of the adaptation is at first centered around Elizabeth; it represents one of the primary physical themes of her character, and is used to differentiate her visually—and symbolically—from those around her. At a very basic level, Elizabeth’s clothing in the majority of the scenes of the series evokes nature in some way, whether in its floral patterns or, most often, in the warm earth tones—tans, browns, and greens—that she sports. This color scheme is established especially in key moments such as the Bennet family’s arrival at the Netherfield ball: Elizabeth, climbing the steps to the party, wears a green coat that seems to almost blend into the dark lawns behind her—as well as actual flowers in her hair—while Jane and Mrs. Bennet, wearing ruffled pinks that surround Elizabeth in the shot, serve to further underscore the uniqueness and naturalness of the color (Pride and Prejudice, Part 1). Similarly, while walking into Meryton with her sisters Kitty and Lydia, both of whom wear a blinding red, before meeting Wickham for the first time, Elizabeth wears a deep green coat and a warm brown bonnet that are signature costume pieces of hers throughout the miniseries (Pride and Prejudice, Part 3). Reds and pinks are the direct visual opposite—the complementary color—of greens, and both instances therefore push Elizabeth’s clothing to the forefront visually and also symbolically heighten her emotional distance from most of her family, all of whom wear colors much more divorced from nature.
In a similar way, Elizabeth’s fondness for and association with literal nature—flowers and other plants—are used time and again as visual tools to differentiate her from less likeable characters. The most dramatic instance of this is the beginning of the scene in which Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth: as soon as Mrs. Bennet closes the door, Mr. Collins sidles towards Elizabeth, and she hurries to take up the flower vase she had been arranging, distancing herself as far from Mr. Collins as possible within the shot and holding the vase between them almost as a shield (Pride and Prejudice, Part 2). The image is one of comically dramatic opposition of character. Mr. Collins—clad in a severe clergyman’s black—leans towards Elizabeth, while she, dressed in white and shrinking ever so slightly back despite the distance of the table between them, subtly wards him off with her flowers. An equal disparity of character, though different in tone, is translated in natural imagery when Elizabeth and her mother discuss Mr. Bingley’s absence from Netherfield after Elizabeth’s return from visiting Charlotte (Pride and Prejudice, Part 4). While Jane, earlier in the scene, had delicately cut a few flowers from a bush before going inside, Mrs. Bennet, while complaining to Elizabeth, viciously decapitates stem after stem, accompanied by loud snipping sounds and brandishing her scissors as she speaks. Elizabeth’s mildly exasperated amusement, in the cuts to shots of her face, seem as much in response to her mother’s dramatic way of taking out her feelings on the plant as to the ridiculousness of her remarks. Perhaps most subtly, there is also a moment when, walking in the garden at Longbourn with a scarlet-clad Mr. Wickham who is announcing his departure, Elizabeth plucks a few leaves from a tree (Pride and Prejudice, Part 3). She does this to escape having to look directly at Wickham as she assures him that she bears no grudge for his pursuit of Ms. King. Knowing the truth of his character that is later revealed, it seems fitting that Elizabeth should use the nature around her—her own element—as a way to distance herself from him, even if only in an uncomfortable conversation.
Beyond being associated with small, symbolic reminders of nature, Elizabeth is also quite literally found in nature far more than any other character, and it is her fondness for nature in part that helps to soften her feelings toward Darcy upon visiting Pemberley. The miniseries makes a point of embracing the rambles through nature that are so typical of Elizabeth’s character in the novel, and it even adds scenes that do not appear in the book to drive home this tendency. Most notably, Part 1 of the miniseries includes a scene at Netherfield where Elizabeth, walking through the garden, finds a dog and, joyously tempted, runs off to play with it out on the grass. In the shot of their retreating backs, Elizabeth and the dog appear as two renditions of the same idea, running side by side—the implication being that Elizabeth, too, is a playful, natural creature that belongs outdoors. For such a woman, there could be no home more welcoming than Pemberley. While Pemberley’s beautiful natural setting is certainly made much of in the novel—“[Elizabeth] had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. …and at that moment she felt, that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” (235)—there is a lushness to it in the adaptation made possible by the visual medium. And the adaptation lingers on the grounds far more than on the house, pushing the natural setting even father to the forefront than in the novel. This is made especially apparent when, instructed by the housekeeper to look at a beautiful view from a window at Pemberley, Elizabeth gazes out at a pond, smitten, and says to herself, “Of all this I might have been mistress” (Pride and Prejudice, Part 4). It is made unmistakably clear that she is thinking of the natural beauty of the grounds and not of the house as she speaks by the unwavering way her eyes focus on the view throughout the line, and, during the cut to the view of the pond, by the idyllic summer noises and quacking ducks that are heard just before she speaks. In the novel, by contrast, the focus is spread much more evenly across the grounds and the furnishings of the house before Elizabeth thinks about being “mistress” of it all (236). This is a subtle shift in focus, but an important one: rather than falling a little bit in love with Darcy’s taste, the BBC’s Elizabeth falls a little bit in love with Darcy’s taste for nature.
The miniseries begins by distinctly disassociating Darcy from Elizabeth—and thereby from nature—by giving him a dark color scheme that places him in direct visual opposition to her. For the first few episodes, Darcy appears almost exclusively in black and very dark colors: his horse, when he rides one, is black in contrast to Bingley’s lighter horse, and his coat is similarly dark. This has the effect not only of conveying a certain sobriety of character and brooding mood, but also of separating him distinctly from Elizabeth, who appears in several important scenes in white to oppose his black. At both balls—the first, in which they are introduced, and the second, at Netherfield—Elizabeth wears a white dress and Darcy a black coat, both of them contrasting with the more mixed and colorful palettes of the characters that surround them (Pride and Prejudice, Parts 1 and 2). Black and white are, of course, the most classically opposite colors; they are also, however, the colors of a groom and a bride, and the double-layered symbolism—the romantic beneath the combative—is a fitting visual translation of the complicated beginnings of the characters’ relationship.
A similar visual setup with added implications is at work in the scene in which a black-clad Darcy proposes for the first time to Elizabeth, once again all in white (Pride and Prejudice, Part 3). In this scene, however, the significance of Darcy’s black and Elizabeth’s white in the context of the adaptation’s nature imagery is incorporated as well. In the shots of Darcy, he paces along the shaded interior wall of the Collinses’ sitting room, all the fripperies and trappings of a cultivated house—from china plates to framed pictures—visible behind him, while our views of Elizabeth place her squarely in front of a window to the garden through which white light and birdsong pour and green trees are visible. The standoff could not be clearer: Elizabeth stands for natural beauty and light—even for happiness, perhaps—and Darcy remains in shadow, with all the rich knick-knacks that come with cultivation.
Darcy comes eventually, however, to a natural association of his own that mirrors Elizabeth’s; where she is associated with earth, Darcy is associated with water, and the development of this association brings him closer to her and gives a symbolic explanation of their falling in love. Darcy is first linked with water in a scene invented for the adaptation, in which he takes a bath at Netherfield (Pride and Prejudice, Part 1). The shots of Darcy’s bath are interspersed with shots of Elizabeth playing with the dog in the garden, a juxtaposition which creates symbolically the tension of similarity and difference that already links the two characters emotionally. Simply by being shown naked in a bathtub, Darcy appears in a vulnerable and far more “natural” state than he ever comes close to in the novel, even beyond that fact that he is explicitly immersed in water, one of the elements of nature. The water, however, is indoors, in a bathtub, as captive and civilized as water can be. After getting out of the tub, Darcy gazes from the dim room at an Elizabeth playing in the outdoors and is transfixed; but he is separated from her by her ignorance of his watching and by the distance and the pane of glass (another unnatural, civilized element) between them.
The second example of Darcy’s connection with water, coming much later in the miniseries and also specifically invented for the adaptation, represents a crucial advance in his connection with nature and thereby with Elizabeth. Upon arriving at Pemberley, Darcy dismounts from his horse by a small pond near the house and, partially undressing, proceeds to dive into the pond and swim; this sequence is interspersed with shots of Elizabeth, inside the house, gazing pensively at a grand painting of Darcy (Pride and Prejudice, Part 4). Where before he had bathed indoors, in this scene he quite literally dives headlong into nature; an underwater shot reveals pondweed and algae streaming past as he swims through the cloudy water. In letting go and embracing this moment of communion with the natural world, Darcy is embracing a principal that Elizabeth has stood for throughout the series. The interspersed shots of Elizabeth looking at his painting are a critical parallel in their relationship: as Darcy learns the lessons that Elizabeth has taught and very strikingly comes around to her mode of being, Elizabeth too is learning to come around to a new understanding of Darcy and to embrace the cultivation from which he comes and for which he stands. It is as Darcy too becomes a creature of the natural world for a few brief moments that Elizabeth finally falls in love with him.
Darcy’s swim in the pond also represents a symbolic “restarting” of his relationship with Elizabeth, a rebirth as a transformed and improved Darcy who is newly suited for partnership with Elizabeth. It is no accident that bathing and immersion in water are symbols often associated with baptism and the concepts of purification and rebirth. Darcy, then, is washing himself clean of the unpleasantness that has accrued between himself and Elizabeth and being “reborn” in preparation for his (as yet unknown to himself) reformulated attempt to win her affection. The fact of this scene representing a kind of rewinding of their relationship and a chance to try and do it over in a better way is emphasized in the deliberate echoes it creates of the scene in the adaptation’s first episode when Elizabeth walks to Netherfield. Where Elizabeth’s boots had been covered with mud, here we see Darcy squelch his way up a hill in waterlogged boots—another instance of the water and earth parallel imagery of the two characters. In a further echo, where Elizabeth had emerged suddenly from the trees into the garden at Netherfield and startled Darcy, Darcy here emerges suddenly from the trees into the garden at Pemberley and startles Elizabeth in turn.
Furthermore, Darcy’s new beginning as a better version of himself is carried out even more basically in a shift that his color palette undergoes. Even before swimming in the pool, Darcy approaches Pemberley wearing a green coat and riding a pale gray horse, and after encountering Elizabeth he dresses in earth tones before chasing after her and the Gardiners who, impressed, comment on his “transformation.” Though the Gardiners are referring on the surface to his pleasant manners, in the eyes of a viewer Darcy’s visual transformation is no less striking, especially when he walks side by side with an Elizabeth in coordinated earth tones on the lawn outside Pemberley in a subsequent shot. The couple presents a united image that could not be further from the visual confrontation epitomized in the proposal scene. This transformation of Darcy holds true for the rest of the series in that he dresses predominantly in earth tones or at the very least in lighter colors after his encounter with Elizabeth at Pemberley. The fact that this shift is both deliberate on the part of the filmmakers and significant is underscored by Darcy’s saying to his manservant as he is dressing and choosing a coat before going to see Elizabeth, “Oh, no, the green one” (Pride and Prejudice, Part 5). Even in the darkness of the streets of London, where he wears his black coat once again as he searches for Lydia and Wickham in a scene created for the miniseries, Darcy’s vest flashes a vivid green as he passes a lit window, the color a visual clue hinting that his thoughts and motives are still tied wholly to Elizabeth (Pride and Prejudice, Part 5).
The theme of nature in the BBC’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice has been noted by critics, who offer a number of different explanations for its prominence. Mark Amis, in his article “Jane’s World” in The New Yorker, attributes it to the filmmakers’ sensitivity to our modern cultural perceptions of and responses to Jane Austen’s work. According to Amis, “We notice, above all, the constriction of female opportunity…We fret and writhe at the physical confinement.” He notes, as an aside and as an explanation of the film’s way of dealing with this physical confinement, “how desperate these filmmakers are to get their characters out-of-doors.” He also dwells on the serial’s “revealing the latent ‘sensuality’ of Jane Austen’s imagination,” adding, “naturally it reveals much more about the blatant sensuality of our own.” To Amis, this “sensuality” is expressed in moments of nature: when “Darcy and Bingley thunder toward Netherfield Park on their snorting horses, while Elizabeth enjoys a hearty tramp on a nearby hillside”; when, “climbing from the bath, Darcy looks out of the window and sees Elizabeth romping with a dog”; and when, “returning to Pemberley, unshaven, with the hot horse between his thighs, [Darcy] dismounts and impetuously plunges into a pond.” Viewed in this way, the adaptation’s focus on nature becomes less a translation and enrichment of the original text, and more a bowing of the filmmakers to modern sensibilities; an “update” of Austen. To view the mini-series’ use of nature in this way is, however, to do it a great disservice. It may certainly have the effect of rendering Jane Austen’s work more exciting to a modern audience. More than that, however, the adaptation’s natural imagery creates a narrative in and of itself. It begins in the original text, taking up the threads of “town” and “country,” adds to them “water” and “earth,” and brings them through a progression that not only makes the love story between Darcy and Elizabeth a visually vibrant and visceral thing, but also enriches the love story in a way that could only be accomplished in a film medium. The filmmakers thus manage simultaneously to stay true to the spirit of Pride and Prejudice—in a way that Mark Amis’s pure sensuality interpretation would not—and to make it very much their own, a feat that one could only wish more adapters of literature were capable of managing with such finesse.
Amis, Martin. “Jane’s World.” The New Yorker 8 Jan. 1996. N. pag. The New Yorker. Web. 1 Apr. 2014.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003. Print.
Pride and Prejudice. Screenplay by Andrew Davies. Dir. Simon Langton. Perf. Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. British Broadcasting Corporation, 1995. Amazon Prime. Web. 12 Mar. 2014.