Saturday, November 12, 2005

Prejudice, Schmejudice

I have nothing to say about the new movie version of Pride and Prejudice. No, I'm sorry, I just can't. I remember a time when there were almost no movies based on Jane Austen novels, and the conventional wisdom was that because her novels have very little in the way of physical action, they were basically unfilmable. The only well-known film version of an Austen novel was the 1940 Pride and Prejudice, which was based not directly on the novel but on a moderately successful Broadway stage adaptation by Helen Jerome. (Though Jerome can't be blamed for the infamously stupid ending of the film version; that was pure Hollywood.) Then suddenly it was 1995 and there were three successful movies based on Austen novels -- Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, and the best of them, Clueless. And since then we've had to sit through movie after movie after movie: faithful adaptations, revisionist adaptations, post-colonial adaptations, re-adaptations.

Anyway, here's something I noticed about the book "Pride and Prejudice" that I haven't seen pointed out elsewhere (though I haven't read all ninety-seven billion words of analysis that have been published about the book). Wickham, the rake and/or rogue who feeds Elizabeth's prejudice against Darcy by convincing her that Darcy cheated and mistreated him, never actually tells a lie in his entire story about Darcy. Every detail of Wickham's story matches up with the account of the real story given later in Darcy's later; Wickham has simply omitted key pieces of information that place Darcy's behavior in a better light, or told the truth in such a way as to make Darcy sound as bad as possible. Austen's greatest strength as a writer was her unusually tight, rigorous sense of structure at a time when novels were often loose and rambling; like a mystery writer, she would play fair with the audience by planting clues early on as to what we're going to find out later on in the story. "Emma" is almost entirely a series of clues as to what is really going on, as opposed to the way Emma sees it; and "Pride and Prejudice" does the same thing by givng us Elizabeth's point of view of Wickham and his story, but giving us the clues we need to understand that she is seeing things in a distorted way. And so, late in the book, when Elizabeth confronts Wickham about his supposed lies, he replies to her, and by extention to us, that the real facts of the case were right there in front of us all the time:

"I have heard from authority, which I thought as good, that it was left you conditionally only, and at the will of the present patron."

"You have. Yes, there was something in that; I told you so from the first, you may remember."

"I did hear, too, that there was a time, when sermon-making was not so palatable to you as it seems to be at present; that you actually declared your resolution of never taking orders, and that the business had been compromised accordingly."

"You did! and it was not wholly without foundation. You may remember what I told you on that point, when first we talked of it."

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