Sunday, August 20, 2006

Subtext - Pride & Prejudice

Let us talk about love. Let us go old school, Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice, Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, Jane and Lizzy, and… lots of dancing. Make no mistake, my friends, Jane Austen’s brilliant novel was never about Pride nor Prejudice. At its core is the very chick-flickiest of all chick-flick notions – how to hook the man of your dreams. This is why, not one, but two of my female friends read P&P every year. For girls in the early 1800’s, this was their Cosmo. This was Man-Hooking 101 for advanced students. This was master chess-playing at its finest level for love strategists the world over.

Last year, we had the superb adaptation penned by Deborah Moggach who is known for a number of great novels including Tulip Fever, which is also being adapted for the big screen. Unfortunately, Moggach's script is not available online, but you can read Austen’s novel here for free in .txt or .pdf format thanks to Project Gutenberg. In any case, you have to admire the way Moggach condensed Austen’s material to a manageable 2-hour movie and at the same time, made it so much fun.

I think Darcy is the character with the most depth because of the many contradictions in his personality. At times, he’s selfish and other times, generous. He’s thoughtless and thoughtful. He’s cruel and kind. He’s loyal and disloyal. He’s mysterious and yet everybody thinks that they know what he’s really about. He is the ultimate challenge. And we empathize with Lizzy. She’s not as beautiful as her older sister, Jane. She is every girl with modest circumstances fighting for love. She is a ferocious thinker and strategist. She is equal parts strong-willed and vulnerable, and don’t forget, a master chess player.

P&P, for me, is the movie (& novel) with the best subtext in dialogue.

I’d like to point you to an element Moggach added to the latest movie that is not in the book, which I thought was so brilliant – all the talk about dancing, which Moggach used as a symbolic representation of Darcy’s courtship to Lizzy.

At the first ball, Jane immediately hits it off with Mr. Bingley (pictured above) and as they dance together, Lizzy walks up to Darcy and asks him a subtle question...

Do you dance, Mr. Darcy?

Not if I can help it.

Here, dancing was simply an invitation to flirt, but she was rejected and she walks away.

Later, Lizzy and her sister Charlotte overhear Darcy talking to Bingley...

I’ve never seen so many pretty
girls in my life.

You were dancing with the only
handsome girl in the room.

She is the most beautiful creature
I have ever beheld. But her
sister, Elizabeth, is very

Perfectly tolerable, I dare say,
but not handsome enough to tempt
me. You’d better return to your
partner and enjoy her smiles.
You’re wasting your time with me.

Count your blessings, Lizzy. If
he liked you, you’d have to talk to

Precisely. As it is, I wouldn’t
dance with him for all of
Derbyshire, let alone the miserable

At the end of the night, Jane, Lizzy, their mother Mrs. Bennet, talk to Darcy and Bingley. Mrs. Bennet tells a story about a gentleman who tried unsuccessfully to woo Jane and wrote her some bad poems...

...however, he did write to her
some very pretty verses.

And that put paid to it. I wonder
who first discovered the power of
poetry in driving away love?

I thought poetry was the food of

Of a fine, stout love, it may. But
if it is only a vague inclination
I’m convinced one poor sonnet will
kill it stone dead.

So what do you recommend to
encourage affection?

Dancing... Even if one’s partner
is barely tolerable.

Lizzy curtsies, walks away, and smiles.

She swore to loathe him for all eternity. After a few more clashes with Darcy, the next ball brought the most surprising turn of events...

May I have the next dance, Miss

You may.

And as they dance together for the first time, it is not love at first sight. It is, in fact, a verbal war of wits. Here, I think, is Lizzy's great declaration of independence, her showing Darcy that she will not be intimidated by his great wealth, that she will not be treated like a worthless lower class citizen, that the decision of whether they fall in love is actually up to her, that he needs to shape up if he wants her, and that if she is to accept him, he had better be a man with good character. And she says all of these things without actually saying it…

I love this dance.

Indeed. Most invigorating.

It is your turn to say something,
Mr. Darcy... I talked about the
dance, now you ought to remark on
the size of the room or the number
of couples.

I am perfectly happy to oblige.
Please advise me of what you would
most like to hear.

That reply will do for present...
Perhaps by and by, I may observe
that private balls are much
pleasanter than public ones.
For now we may remain silent.

Do you talk, as a rule, while

No... No, I prefer to be
unsociable and taciturn... Makes
it all so much more enjoyable,
don’t you think?

Tell me, do you and your sisters
very often walk to Meryton?

Yes, we often walk to Meryton...
It’s a great opportunity to meet
new people. In fact, when you met
us, we’d just had the pleasure of
forming a new acquaintance.

Mr. Wickham is blessed with such
happy manners he is sure of making
friends. Whether he’s capable of
retaining them is less certain.

He’s been so unfortunate as to lose
your friendship. And I daresay
that is an irreversible event?

It is. Why do you ask such a

To make out your character, Mr.

They stop dancing while everyone else continues.

And what have you discovered?

Very little. I hear such different
accounts of you as puzzle me

I hope to afford you more clarity
in the future.

They resume dancing. They stare at each other, and suddenly, all of the other guests around them disappear. They’re alone in the hall as they circle each other.

The music stops. Everyone reappears.

They bow to each other.

(There is still much more subtext to come. Next will be a submission by the great Billy Mernit! And if you think of more submissions, please feel free to email them to me.)


crossword said...

Ah! Another fine example, MM.

Also, period subtext! - a return to the time when (IMO anyway) an economy of word usage probably denoted a superior intellect. In any event, this example conveys both. Great writing!

Boy, does that make me sound like a snob? :)

Just imagine how tortuous this scene would be to capture without subtext. It would surely go on & on.

When Shakespeare wrote Richard III, he didn't need to say very much more than "And thus I cloathe my naked villainy" (Act 1, scene iii). We got it :) Ditto here.

Mystery Man said...

Re: Richard III - EXACTLY.

I love period subtext! What is it about it exactly?

I think it must be the etiqette. You can have subtext when you're angry, but more often than not anger is on-the-nose. To me, superior subtext is wrapped in a cloak of courtesy. We're being nice while also ripping you apart. I think that's what made "Desperate Housewives" so popular, all those great underhanded zingers wrapped in a politeness.

Anonymous said...

This wonderful submission reminds me of the works of Anne Perry, who writes of Victorian England.

Much of her dialogue is full of subtext and takes place during the social visits that were so much a part of Victorian society.

But your comment on the verbal sparring reminded me more of a less subtextual exchange between Hester Latterly and William Monk, who verbally spar with one another through five or six books and finally marry. I knew they would. The sexual tension between them was thick enough to cut with a chainsaw.

And it begins straight away at their first meeting. They run into each other in a garden and discuss the shocking events that have brought them together.

Hester turns aside one argument after another of Monk's with intelligence and cool logic. Finally, in a fit of frustration, he attacks her at the heart of what was considered the hallmark of a good woman in Victorian England. He says, "I loathe clever women."

Without blinking, she retorts, "And I love clever men. It seems we are both to be disappointed."

crossword said...

The fantastic thing about period subtext is that it is a great equalizer. Characters who would otherwise be separated by a gulf of wealth or class can be dueling it up to the astonishment of the onlookers.

Unlike "Body Heat" (1981) which is smoldering sexuality, I see Pride & Prejudice as being about equality. Yes, it is a chick-flic, but while in engaging in the customs of the day, the main characters just want to be respected... and they're having to earn that.

Another great example of this would be the Alan Bennett (aka. genius!) play "The Madness of George III" (also made into a film in 1994, same name).


King George: (howling) I am the King of England!
Dr. Willis: No sir. You are the patient.


Willis: These fancies are improper, sir. You have been told before. I see you, sir.
King: No, sir. You do not see me. Nobody sees me. I am not here.
Willis: I have you in my eye, sir, and I shall keep you in my eye until you begin to behave and do as you are told.
King: I am the King. I tell. I am not told. I am a verb, sir. I am not the object.
Willis: Until you can govern yourself you are not fit to govern others, and until you do I shall govern you.

Tee-hee. Great stuff.

And MM, this one is FULL of zingers :)

Thurlow: Being a lawyer, I have had some commerce with madness.

Willis: The state of the monarchy and the state of lunacy share a frontier. Some of my lunatics fancy themselves kings. He is King, so where shall his fancy take refuge?

Anonymous said...

My name is GimmeABreak and I am... a Pride and Prejudice idiot! I've never seen any of the movies. I've never read the book. My only familiarity comes via Tim Taylor and his assertion that the handyman was the most interesting character. No wait, that was Madame Bovary and her ovaries. Haven't read that one either. Oops.

Anonymous said...


Isn't Anne Perry the writer that "Heavenly Creatures" was based on? The one who bludgeoned her best friend's mother to death with rocks?

Subtext indeed!

Mystery Man said...

"I loathe clever women." "And I love clever men. It seems we are both to be disappointed." Hehehe... That's hilarious.

Crossword, what-what, "Madness of King George" is on my list for subtext, WHAT-WHAT. Hehehe... I friggin' love that movie. I remember when I first watched it thinking, "Hmm, I wonder what the hidden meaning is behind his 'blue water.'" Of course, in the end, I had to laugh. Sometimes blue urine is really just about blue urine.

Gimme - last year's P&P should turn anyone into a convert!

Mickey - You are, of course, correct! Kate Winslet's character, Juliet Hulme, came forward during the making of the film and revealed herself to be Anne Perry. Very good! The opening scene of the movie creeps me out...

Mystery Man said...

I am allowed to comment even more on my own post?

I just love this exchange between Lizzy and Darcy when they dance.

She opens it up with "I love this dance," jab-jab, and Darcy couldn't be more miserable with his, "Indeed. Most invigorating."

And then she takes control of the conversation, telling Darcy that he should speak and even suggests a few things to say.

The best little jab Darcy could come up with is, "Do you talk, as a rule, while dancing?" And Lizzy just slaps him right down: "No, I prefer to be unsociable and taciturn. That's so much more enjoyable, don't you think?"

Don't @#$% with Lizzy Bennet. Hehehe...

What else do you guys see as subtext in that dance between the two?

Anonymous said...

I don't know how subtextual it is, but I really dig this exchange:

He’s been so unfortunate as to lose
your friendship. And I daresay
that is an irreversible event?

It is. Why do you ask such a

To make out your character, Mr.

I'm going to have to see this film, MM. I have to admit I yawned my way through the first chapter of this book in 11th grade and then proceeded to pick up the Cliffs Notes for the test, but I am willing to give the film a try.

Anonymous said...

Mickey Lee, Anne Perry is indeed one of the girls portrayed in Heavenly Creatures, but she has tried to distance herself from that time. Nowadays she prefers to be known for writing about incest, rape, pedophila, abortion, and other social consequences of life in Victorian England.

I remember a story about a woman who read P&P once a year and had since she was a teenager. I think it was in one of the screenplays I reviewed last year on TS, so it may not be familiar.

P&P has been on my must-read list for years. I put the movie on my netflix queue, but it seems like such a cheat to watch a movie when this great piece of literature is available.

Anonymous said...


I know, I know, it supposed to be a great piece of literature. I just couldn't get through it. It's just something about the time period and how verbose many of the authors of that period were. I really don't like most 19th century literature, unless the author is Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Poe or Twain.

wcdixon said...

okay okay...I'm convinced...I should pop 'Old School' out of the dvd player and check out last years P&P (which I did actually want to see but somehow missed it)...if anything, to stare agog at the subtext of Keira Knightley's...

Mystery Man said...

Mickey, Dix - Kiera's Lizzy was certainly nice to look at, but frankly, my heart belonged to Jane.

I don't know why, but I always fall for the supporting girls.


Anonymous said...

All right, all right -- I just added the movie to my Netflix queue. Hopefully it doesn't come the same day as "Amadeus" and "Ordinary People"!

Mystery Man said...

I have to make another comment. When we hate someone, we say, "I can't stand that guy. He's a scammer." But Darcy gives us such grace and manners when speaking of Mr. Wickham.

"Mr. Wickham is blessed with such happy manners he is sure of making friends. Whether he’s capable of
retaining them is less certain."

That's the nicest way I've ever heard anyone say, "I hate him. He's a scamming conniving little crook."


I love the subtext in this movie. There is also the opening line where Mrs. Bennet tells Mr. Bennet about how someone bought Netherfield Park at last and "don't you want to hear who it was?"

He replies, "YOU want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it." In other words, "I really don't care, but you're going to tell me regardless, so I won't stop you."


Patricia Burroughs aka Pooks said...

Re: P&P

If you want to "read" it without actually having to read it, I got it from I liked Kate Reading's voice (except, unfortunately, when she read Darcy's lines -- which fortunately are fewer than one might think). I enjoyed the listen, possibly more than I might have enjoyed the read.

As for last year's P&P -- it was wonderful, except for the portrayal of Darcy. I hate to say it but the scene you're discussing (which is lovely, and the subtext and dialogue are wonderful) is not only new to the story, but counter to a character people have been fascinated by for 200 years.

The "real" Darcy is arrogant, sullen and an ass -- especially for the first half of the story. Colin Firth's portrayal in the BBC miniseries is true to the book (which is in large part because the script was true to the book).

I haven't seen Olivier's portrayal -- which reminds me to put it in my Netflix queue.

Last year's P&P was beatiful, and most of the liberties it took from the novel (including changing time period) didn't bother me at all.

But taking a story about two characters who are doomed to be in eternal conflict and somehow transform it into one of the greatest love stories of all time -- and turning it into last year's sweet, fun love story? Sigh.

If last year's P&P is the only one you've seen (or read), you haven't seen Darcy. You've seen some weak moony-eyed wannabe take his place.

In other news -- I'm delighted to have stumbled across this blog!

Mystery Man said...

Hey Pooks, thanks so much for the comment! I am very much new to P&P so I wouldn't dare to pretend like I'm any kind of expert on the subject. I fell in love with last year's adaptation and read the book for the first time. It's quite possible I read the book through rose-colored prism of that movie, too.

I'll tell you this much. If Darcy was ONLY sullen and an ass in the movie, I might've not liked it as much because that would've felt kinda flat to me. The thing I really enjoyed in the latest version is just the fact that there were quite a few different sides to Darcy, and different impressions people had of him, which to me screams "depth." Of course, Lizzy had depth too. She has at her disposal an arsenal of social strategies when dealing with many different people, and I loved that too.

Am I wrong?

I'm so sorry to say have yet to see Colin Firth's Darcy, and I can't wait.


Patricia Burroughs aka Pooks said...

Well, in the book and previous movies, Darcy is sullen, arrogant, etc. -- and the big reveal in the middle is that he can't stop glaring, staring and otherwise seeming like a jerk because he's got such a war going on within himself over his attraction to her. So when he finally humbles (sorta) himself, it's huge. And when you then start to see the layers of the onion peeled away and finally get to the tender parts he's kept protected -- it's rather divine.

It's a more intense portrayal, I think. Please keep us updated if you do see the BBC miniseries. It spawned Bridge Jones's Diary, but you already knew that!

But there are some wonderful comments here on period subtext, and it's very astute to note that so much of their communication was in subtext, anyway. You'll also find many a Southern lady who can eviscerate you with a smile and a "compliment."

Mystery Man said...


Oh yes, that's the epitome of subtext, isn't it? A compliment, a smile, and... gut him like a fish. I suspect you might be a master of the form?

The problem with me is that I appreciate the fine art of subtext so much that I'd probably enjoy it.


Patricia Burroughs aka Pooks said...

I'm afraid I have to work to hard to be a Southern lady (mother from Mississippi/Louisiana). I manage from time to time, but usually it's the fifth-generation Texan that speaks before the lady can catch her breath.

Texans tend to be more blunt, shall we say?

Milehimama @ Mama Says said...

I do love the backhanded compliment as an art form.

My thought on subtext:
One of my favorite lines from a movie is:
"For years, I've been dying to tell you what I think of you. And now, being a Christian woman, I can't say it!"
The imagination puts words into her mouth that are probably way more insulting- especially because each different generation, culture, etc. can put their own idea on the most insulting thing.
Doesn't seem very subtle, actually, but the essence of subtext is inference of things unsaid. So, maybe this is a great example of "on the nose" subtext.

Mystery Man said...

Hehehe... That's great! Volumes could be written about backhanded compliments. I love 'em!

"Have you lost some weight, like around the hip area? Good for you! Keep it up!"


"Is that a hair extension you're wearing? I think it's great! My Aunt has one just like it!"

Hehehe... I'm not very good at it, but they make me laugh.