“When are we going to see darcy gahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh?”
“ohmygosh i haven’t even met darcy yet, and i’m already madly fangirling over him.”
So commented the viewers on the 57th installment of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a YouTube modernization of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, produced by Hank Green and Bernie Su and starring Ashley Clements as Lizzie. The timing for the series could not be more auspicious, since Pride and Prejudice officially celebrates its bicentennial on January 28. Though not famous in Austen’s lifetime, the book is now a superstar and the source of a major commercial industry. There are Pride and Prejudice baby books, comic books, zombie books, sequels, prequels, fan fictions, and pornographic novels (Pride and Promiscuity anyone?). There are television shows, movies, movie spinoffs and now a YouTube series.
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries recasts Austen’s heroine as a graduate student in mass communications, forced to live at home because of financial constraints. In a nod to Bridget Jones’s Diary, Lizzie is introduced by way of the video diary—or Vlog—she is producing for her master’s project. Like a number of my literature professor colleagues, I think the adaptation is brilliant. The series’ humor, its meta-narratives, its poignant comparison of 19th century female disinheritance with today’s crippling student loans all work beautifully.
But what most impresses me about The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is its refusal to over-romanticize the hero William Darcy (Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy in Austen’s novel). Despite YouTube viewers who clamor to see more of the character in the flesh and who declare “I JUST WANT THEM TO KISS ALREADY!”, the hero has, so far, only made a rare appearance on the screen. To date, there have been 83 episodes of the series (91 if you count the Questions and Answers segments), and Darcy (Daniel Gordh) doesn’t make his first full-bodied entrance until the 60th one. All told, he has been in a grand total of six segments. The vast majority of the episodes consist of Lizzie talking to other young women, playacting other characters, re-imagining past events or sitting alone in front of the camera and discussing her life. Darcy is an important character in the story she tells (though not nearly as important as her mother) but his actual appearance is irrelevant.
In this way, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is far more faithful to Austen’s novel than either the internationally famous 1995 BBC television series (starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth) or the 2005 Focus Features movie (with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen). In Austen’s novel, Darcy is more absent than present for much of the action. This is particularly true in the novel’s second half, despite that fact that these are the chapters during which Elizabeth falls in love with him.
The 2005 movie turned Darcy into a sentimental hero who declares his love during a rainstorm and at sunrise (the movie ends with a time-warping imitation of Sixteen Candles). The BBC’s legendary Colin Firth steals the screen with his hot and brooding Mr. Darcy. The scene where he plunges into a pond and emerges with a revealing wet shirt changed television history and remains iconic to this day; anyone who knows anything about Pride and Prejudice knows this showstopper.
And certainly the producers of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries are aware of it.They have already teased the audience by referring to a rooftop swimming pool at the International Head Quarters of Pemberley Digital, which is William Darcy’s company. As one of the excited viewers anxiously exclaims: “JUST realized why Pemberley Digital has a rooftop pool!!! IT is the stand in for the POND! BATHING SUIT DARCY!!!! DO NOT DENY US THE BATHING SUIT DARCY!!!!”
My vote, though, is for denial. Whether the producers can resist their viewers’ expectations, I don’t know. But if their past approach is any indication, Green and Su have the artistic integrity to hold out. At least until now, they have been faithful to what I think is one of the most important points of Austen’s novel: Notwithstanding Colin Firth’s gigantic shadow, Austen’s novel is about Elizabeth far more than it is about Mr. Darcy, and to the extent that it is about Darcy, the emphasis is on how Elizabeth thinks about him. The same is true in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which records Lizzie’s thoughts via her Vlog.
There is, of course, no swimming scene in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The BBC inserted it in a convoluted attempt to represent a mental moment in the novel that cannot be visually reproduced. The novelistic moment occurs after Elizabeth visits Darcy’s magnificent estate at Pemberley and hears his housekeeper’s glowing report of his benevolence. Shortly after, Elizabeth sees a portrait of the man. (The British Royal Mail chose this scene for its Pride and Prejudice bicentennial stamp). This happens in the BBC production too.
But from here, the novel enters Elizabeth’s consciousness in a way the BBC camera cannot (hence the swimming scene substitute). As Elizabeth stares at Darcy’s picture, Austen tells us, “there was certainly . . . in [her] mind, a more gentle sensation towards the original, than she had ever felt in the height of their acquaintance.” In looking at his painted image, Elizabeth develops a new and improved mental image of Mr. Darcy. Suddenly, she likes him better than she ever has.
Next Elizabeth has an optical illusion. “[A]s she stood before the canvas, on which he was represented, and fixed his eyes upon herself, she thought of his regard with a deeper sentiment of gratitude than it had ever raised before.” Thinking about Darcy prompts Elizabeth to forget that she is gazing at his portrait and to imagine instead that she is the object of his view.
What Austen captures in this astonishing moment is the paradoxical extent to which falling in love does not, as one might expect, necessarily involve a relationship between two people. Rather, it often involves a single person and her ideas about an absent body. Think about it, I tell my students: When you fall in love—let’s say with a guy—how much of that experience involves thinking about him? Do your ideas require his presence? Is it sometime better if he is not there? The answers are painfully obvious.
So far, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries has remained true to Austen’s insight about the solitude of love.
The series has also remained true to the novel’s central interest in Elizabeth Bennet, not Darcy. Just as Austen’s Elizabeth turns herself into the object of the gaze when she imagines Darcy’s portrait looking at her, Lizzie Bennet turns the camera on herself. Indeed, she posts her Vlog on the internet, where Darcy and the other characters supposedly watch her, and where hundreds of thousands of real viewers literally do.
In turning the camera away from Mr. Darcy who has, thanks to the BBC production and all its descendants, become a cultish sex god, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries reminds us of what Jane Austen intended all along. This is a story about a heroine who must learn to see herself. The romance plot is secondary.