Jane Austen,  Reading,  TV and Film

Pride Interrupted

Last week, my father (who also doubles as my Regency research partner) was in Brooklyn for a visit. Friday night, he poked around my DVD collection and found the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice; he had just visited my aunt, his sister, and seen the 2005 version, and wanted to compare with the one he’d heard was truer to the text (my dad wrote a paper on Emma in college, so he’s up on Austen).
It was 8:30 by the time we sat down to watch, and I warned him this version was at least five hours long, and I knew neither of us would be up that late. We stopped watching at the end of the first DVD (of the two-disc set), right when Elizabeth refuses Darcy’s first offer of marriage.
Whew. It was really, really hard to stop watching right there, right at the emotional black moment of the film. But how perfect its placement was–right as you’re realizing Darcy has feelings for Elizabeth (courtesy of Colin Firth’s guardedly melting glances), and Elizabeth is piqued by Darcy, although not yet willing to admit it, even to herself, he proposes in his characteristic blunt Darcy way.
The scene closes with her telling him that he would be the last man on earth she would ever contemplate marrying, and he tells her he understands perfectly, and will never bother her again. They separate, leaving behind our palpitating hearts.
Austen’s build-up to that moment is magnificent, as is her gradual threading together of our hero and heroine’s lives. It’s hard to believe, only one DVD disc later, that Elizabeth and Darcy will ever get to a place where they can be together.

Pride & Prejudice is one of the best examples of the Big Misunderstanding ever–yes, Elizabeth could have asked Darcy about Wickham, but there are ever so many reasons why she would not; and he could have discerned her embarrassment about her family, and possibly discussed it with her without blurting it out so baldly, but there are ever so many reasons why he would not.

Do you agree with my analysis of P&P as having a Big Misunderstanding?
What examples of a GOOD use of a Big Misunderstanding can you think of? Do you mind them in your novels? Can you envision any situation with a Big Mis that would make as much sense as the ones in P&P? And don’t you feel sorry for my dad, who had to return to Cape Cod without seeing the second half?


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16 years ago

Well, yeah, it’s obviously a Big Misunderstanding. But, maybe because it’s one of the first, and it’s not yet a cliche, it seems more complex than just a “simple” misunderstanding.

The misunderstanding in P&P is not a misheard phrase, or a kiss on the cheek to a dear brother, but instead every major character in the novel has deeply misinterpreted the motivations of the other characters. The READER thinks that Mr. Wickham must be OK, because the narrator presents him so. The READER thinks that Darcy is capable of cold hearted acts upon Mr. Wickham, because the narrator describes him as being cold or stiff.

To me it works because I as a reader I am misunderstanding right along with Lizzy, and Mr. Darcy. Where the Big Mis gets annoying is when you, as the reader, know it was just a simple kiss of welcome and the hero is silently fuming about his love’s betrayal for the next fourteen chapters.

Did you HAVE to post a picture of Colin? Dear Colin, I thought I had quit you.

Cara King
16 years ago

I think for it to be a “Big Misunderstanding” the characters have to be stupid not to figure it out, or make a little effort to double-check the situation. So when Evil Woman tells heroine “by the way, he’s mine” and heroine believes her, even knowing that she’s Evil Woman, and decides not to trust hero, who’s only been honest till now, that just doesn’t make sense.

But the thing in P&P strikes me as NOT being a “Big Misunderstanding” for several reasons. First off, it is only one of many reasons she has for refusing him, and indeed, I think it is the least. She would have refused him just as much had she not believed it (though perhaps with a bit more kindness? Then again, the way he insults her family, perhaps not.)

Second off, the whole character progression Lizzy takes is in learning how to judge people, and how to value them. She overvalues Wickham because he likes her, and because he’s easy to talk to; she undervalues Darcy because he hurts her vanity, and because he sees the faults of her family (which Wickham never notices).

So when Lizzy believes Wickham, I don’t think it’s because she’s stupid. I think it’s because it’s just what she wants to hear….


16 years ago

I think I agree with both Cara and Megan (how’s that for diplomacy?), in that I think misunderstanding does play a large role in the conflict between Darcy and Elizabeth–but if it were just a misunderstanding, that would be too pat. Darcy is a better person than Elizabeth takes him for, but he himself acknowledges that his earlier pride and coldness were faults, which he is eager to amend. Elizabeth has to gain a little humilty about her judgments of people, and recognize Darcy’s better traits, which she was unwilling to see. The aspects of their characters which keep them from getting past the misunderstanding (at least for a long time) also have to change before they can come together.

One of my favorite Georgette Heyer novels is “The Unknown Ajax,” where the hero pretty much plays everybody (including the heroine) for a fool for much of the book, while gently working his way into her affections. When All Is Revealed, the heroine is too much in love to be quite as angry as she ought to be.

Of course, if we’re allowed to delve into other genres, mysteries are often totally based on big misunderstandings. One of my favorites there is “Sleeping Murder,” by Agatha Christie: as the main characters delve further and further into an old tragedy, they seem to come to a darker and darker understanding; only to realize, almost too late, that almost all their information comes, directly or indirectly, from the same tainted source. They just don’t write ’em like that anymore!


Elena Greene
16 years ago

I think that Big Misunderstanding thing has become one of those things romance writing “rules” are made about. And it’s a shame, because misunderstanding and miscommunication is rife between the sexes and perfect subject matter for romance. It’s only when (as Cara said) the characters are truly stupid about it that it grates.

There’s another overused ploy I’ve seen: third parties who keep interrupting just as the h/h are on the verge of solving the B.M. If there’s a true plot purpose for the interruption, it can work. But repeated, it’s a cheap way to prolong a weak conflict.


16 years ago

But what did your Dad decide about the BBC version of P&P?????

Megan Frampton
16 years ago

Thanks, all, for your comments–I have to go finish watching it now, too!

Vicky, my dad liked the BBC version much better than the 2005 version. He belongs to a great library system on Cape Cod, so he’s going to hunt down the series so he can finish watching (he spends all of his money on books, so no $ for video rental–sound familiar?).

16 years ago

P&P’s Big Misunderstanding is so multi-faceted. That, IMHO, is what makes it brilliant. Lizzie believes everything Wickham says because Darcy has not given her any reason to believe otherwise. I do think that even if Darcy knew Wickham was saying such malicious things about him, that he would even defend himself. Mr. Darcy projects a hard shell and possesses too much inner pride to refute what was being said. Add to that, the fact that he had his innocent sister’s reputation to protect because to address Wickham’s slanders, Darcy’s sister’s name would have to be dragged out.

I adore Big Misunderstandings in books, when done right because it’s the redemption or pay-off, if you will, at the end that makes me sigh and smile at the end.

A more recent read that comes to mind that fit the above criteria is Elizabeth Boyle’s ‘This Rake of Mine’. Miranda and Jack’s lives were brutally affected by the manipulations of others in producing a misunderstanding that shadowed their lives until their paths crossed again after WAY too many wasted years. Well, I feel a re-read coming on!

LOL, I think I’ll pick up P&P again, then see the Colin Firth version again. That brings to mind ‘Persuasion’. Didn’t that also involve a misunderstanding of sorts? I guess I’ll have to struggle through that one again.*G*

This blog is way too long. I promised myself I would not blog for a while and write instead. BAD Risky Regencies! BAD!

16 years ago

I don’t think Persuasion does center on a misunderstanding–Lady Russell convinced Anne that it would be imprudent to marry Wentworth, and Wentworth was too hurt, and too convinced that Anne would not accept him, to seek a second chance. Anne, of course, would accept him, but she is prevented from communicating that to him by their past baggage, his apparent indifference, and the conventions of the time. I don’t really count that as a misunderstanding; Wentworth has to get over the past, and learn to appreciate Anne again. There are, of course, many complications along the way…


Elena Greene
16 years ago

There’s another aspect of misunderstanding in Persuasion. If I’m remembering correctly, part of the reason Anne allows herself to be persuaded not to marry Wentworth the first time is that she believes she might impede his promising career. At the time he is too young to appreciate or understand, and decides she just doesn’t love him enough.

It’s the sort of miscommunication that makes sense given the characters and their situation. A simple explanation wasn’t going to fix things.

I truly love that book, also think the movie captured it beautifully.


Cara King
16 years ago

You know, Elena, I didn’t get that impression. (I may need to read Persuasion again!) I thought it was more that his future was uncertain, and it wasn’t prudent for her (or her future children) to risk everything on a young man who thought he would get lots of prize money. After all, he could have been injured (or killed) and she could have ended up like Fanny Price’s mother.

Anyway, I definitely don’t recall her doing it for his sake (but as I said above, I may have missed it!)

Okay, I thought of another thing re: the Big Misunderstanding. It’s easier to sell a misunderstanding in a comedy. In a serious, angsty book (or movie or whatever), you don’t want to invest the emotions if you feel you’re being manipulated, or if you don’t really buy the characters or the story.

But in comedy, it’s often just a set-up for humor. So if in a serious novel, the hero (for little reason) mistakes heroine for a courtesan, and there’s much trauma, I think the reader will be less ready to accept an easily-solved misunderstanding than if it were a comedy.


16 years ago

Prime example of misunderstanding in comedy: “She Stoops to Conquer,” where the hero spends most of the play under the mistaken impression that the house he is staying at is an Inn, and that the heroine is a saucy little maid. Hilarity ensues. (That’s a thumbnail summary of the plot. 🙂


Elena Greene
16 years ago

You made me look, Cara!

And I thought I was losing my mind but I did find the one bit in Chapter IV:

She was persuaded to believe the engagement a wrong thing–indiscreet, improper, hardly capable of success, and not deserving it. But it was not a merely selfish caution, under which she acted, in putting an end to it. Had she not imagined herself consulting his good, even more than her own, she could hardly have given him up.–The belief of being prudent, and self-denying principally for his advantage, was her chief consolation…

But I don’t really disagree with what you said, either. Anne broke off the engagement for a number of motives.

Cara King
16 years ago

Ah, I see! Thanks for the info, Elena.

BTW, ever since I saw Amanda Root as Anne Elliot, I’ve always pictured her when I read the book. And Ciaran Hinds too. Makes me like Wentworth more, I must admit!


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