On this date, in 1813, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was first published. The book was published Thomas Egerton, who bought the rights for £110. Apparently, Austen didn’t expect the book to become the success that it did. As a result, she ultimately only made £140 off of the book. (Egerton made considerably more.) When the book was originally published, Austen’s name was nowhere to be found on the manuscript. Instead, it was credited to “the author of Sense and Sensibility.”
(When Sense and Sensibility was originally released, it was simply credited to “A Lady.”)
The rest, of course, is history. 205 years after it was first published, Pride and Prejudice remains one of the most popular and influential novels ever written. Every year, new readers discover and fall in love with the story of outspoken Elizabeth Bennet, the proud Mr. Darcy, the pompous Mr. Collins, and the rather sleazy George Wickham. There have been countless film and television adaptations. My personal favorite is Joe Wright’s 2005 version, with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth. My least favorite would have to be Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
The very first film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was released in 1940. Originally, the movie was envisioned as being a George Cukor film that would star Norma Shearer and Clark Gable. However, the film’s production was put on hold after the death of Shearer’s husband, the legendary Irving Thalberg. When the film finally resumed pre-production in 1939, Gable was now busy with Gone With The Wind. Cast in his place was Robert Donat (who, interestingly enough, would have played Rhett Butler if Gable had refused the role). With the film originally meant to be filmed in Europe, the outbreak of World War II led to yet another delay. By the time production resumed, Cukor had been replaced by Robert Z. Leonard and Norma Shearer had also left the project. With Gone With The Wind breaking box office records, MGM came up with the idea of once again casting Vivien Leigh opposite of Clark Gable. However, Gable eventually left the film and Laurence Olivier, looking for a chance to act opposite Leigh, agreed to play Darcy. However, the studio worried that casting Olivier and Leigh opposite each other would lead to negative stories about the two of them having an affair despite both being married to other people. So, Leigh was removed from the project and Greer Garson was cast. Olivier was so annoyed with the decision that, after Pride and Prejudice, it would be eleven years before he would work with another American studio.
Despite all of the drama behind-the-scenes, MGM’s version of Pride and Prejudice is a thoroughly delightful film, one full of charming performances and witty lines. Though she was 36 when she made Pride and Prejudice, Garson is still the perfect Elizabeth, giving a lively and intelligent performance that stands in stark contrast to the somewhat staid films that she was making at the same time with Walter Pidgeon. As for Olivier, from the first minute he appears, he simply is Darcy. That said, my favorite performance in the film was Edmund Gwenn’s. Cast as Mr. Bennet, Gwenn brought the same warmth and gentle humor to the role that he would later bring to Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. I also liked the performances of Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane and Edward Ashley as disreputable Mr. Wickham.
Pride and Prejudice is not an exact adaptation. For one thing, the movie takes place in the early Victoria era, supposedly because MGM wanted to cut costs by reusing some of the same costumes that were previously used in Gone With The Wind. As well, Lady Catherine (Edna May Oliver) is no longer as evil as she was in the novel. Finally, because the production code forbid ridicule of religion, the theological career of Mr. Collins (Melville Cooper) was considerably downplayed. Not even Jane Austen (or, more specifically, the film’s screenwriter, Aldous Huxley) could defy the Code.
Seventy-eight years after it was first released, the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice holds up surprisingly well. It’s an enjoyable film and one that, despite a few plot changes, remains true to the spirit of Austen.