In our not quite yet a tradition of watching new-to-us romantic comedies and seeing what they can teach us about the romance genre, Erin and I recently watched the 1995 Pride and Prejudice. Although to be fair, it’s not really what we meant by romantic comedy, and we didn’t put it on — all six ultra-’90s hours of it — for the sake of this exercise. Rather, I was goaded into it by friends because I insisted that Colin Firth in a wet shirt did nothing for me, and then I goaded Erin into it because no one should have to suffer alone.
The thing is, in the end, we loved it, despite a number of complaints, including that nothing happens in the first two episodes, and I was never a convert to the matter of the wet shirt.
In fact, we keep joking that it’s ruining our lives because we can’t stop talking about it for all sorts of completely absurd reasons. For example, my temptation to grow my hair out is useless at best, and while I do annually actually attend a Regency reenactment ball, my love for the period comes from Age of Sail material, and so I usually wear menswear to such events. My making some sort of fluffy confection of a dress is so not on, because frankly, I have better things to be doing, like writing books. Also, my tits will never, ever look as good as Lizzie’s in the fashions of that day.
So without further ado, six things we learned about the romance genre watching Pride & Prejudice:
1. Getting chosen is really appealing. I think we say this after everything we watch for this blog series. But the fact remains. And it’s not news to us. After all, our Love in Love Angeles series is about the deconstruction of that trope. But the trope may be more shiningly clear in Pride & Prejudice than in any other media we’ve consumed.
In Pride & Prejudice, marriage, and the right sort of marriage, is a mark of success, adulthood, worth, and beating the odds. It’s actually everything, and the miniseries makes no secrets about that. And while we can all say that’s archaic and we don’t relate to it, we do live in a world with the term “smug marrieds” and there was that unfortunate period in the ’80s where someone crunched some numbers incorrectly to say that women had greater odds of dying in a plane crash than finding a spouse after 30. So really, we’re feeling Lizzie’s problems here.
2. The idea of girlishness is alluring. It’s alluring to perform and it’s alluring as an object of desire. Instead of hitting us with the “not like the other girls” trope that’s big in contemporary romantic comedies and rife in YA literature, here success comes from being a girl. And it’s not that Lizzie is the best girl ever — she’s not. But she’s one of many women in the story who all perform their girlishness differently. That it’s okay to be what you are in the way that you happen to be it is a pretty sexy idea. And the lack of demonization of femininity — even if it’s in a story where femininity is enforced and involves a great deal of tedium and limited choice — is a nice change of pace.
3. What’s sexy in fiction is often still likely to be creepy, annoying, or weird in real life. We said this about Love Actually and it’s still true here. Can you imagine being married to Mr. Darcy? I’m sure the sex is great, but the rest of it would probably be highly irritating. And really, both Darcy and Lizzie should have been quit of each other permanently several times over. In real life these are your annoying friends who need to stop having their endlessly aggravating on-again-off-again thing that they swear is really going to work this time and probably isn’t. Good thing this isn’t real life.
4. Nostalgia, which is a form of longing for what you can’t have, really turns a lot of people’s cranks. For Erin, this was in the comfort food feel of the cheesy Masterpiece Theater vibes of the entire thing. For me, it was a sense of Lizzie’s problems and the formality of the culture feeling perfectly modern to me (ten years at Miss Hewitt’s Class for Young Ladies? Yup. My life is an anachronistic car crash). The idea of nostalgia, of longing for a lost world, allows the reader/viewer to engage the story from a position of I could have had this if only… even when that’s not true at all. But wow, it hurts so good.
5. Everyone loves a good class difference story. It’s not just 50 Shades of Grey that deserves blame for the sexy billionaire trope. I mean, have you seen Pemberly? That said, writing class difference stories — especially as an American when writing about America — is an exercise in murkiness as we tend to focus on wealth. But the appeal of the class difference story isn’t just about money, it’s about manner, access, and expectations.
6. Sometimes, you just want to be rescued. Darcy charging in and solving everyone’s disasters at the end works because his motives include his own selfishness and making up for disasters he helped to create. But it also works because Lizzie, like all women of that era, has limited resources beyond her own cleverness and fortitude in terms of being able to rescue herself. It’s okay to write someone getting saved. Sometimes, we all need saving, and that doesn’t have to be a sign of weakness or an emotionally unequal match.
Perhaps what’s most worth noting though is that while other media we’ve watched for this exercise has informed us structurally, what Pride & Prejudice really did for us was allow us to wallow in longing and desire in our new manuscript. We tend to write sparely. This miniseries helped us find the permission we needed to do anything but.