Pride and Prejudice, Sex and Passion

Lacock Village in Wiltshire, England, where BBC's "Pride and Prejudice" was filmed. Photo by Karen Roe.
Written by Max Filipsson

The BBC reboot of “Pride and Prejudice” has stood the test of time since debuting 20 years ago, primarily due to the blatant addition of more sex.

By Max Filipsson
BU News Service

It’s been 20 years since the BBC premiered Andrew Davies’ series adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice,” originally by Jane Austen. Around the anniversary of the first episode, articles appeared across the web about the show. They touched not only on how monumental of an achievement the adaptation was, but on how pervasive it has become in the public mind. These articles have largely focused on Colin Firth’s role as Mr. Darcy and the ‘Darcymania’ that followed the mini-series.

One thing that wasn’t spoken of much, despite Davies calling it a focus of the show, was sex. Davies made it clear it was intentional, and the Darcymania craze made it natural to speak of. The presence of sex isn’t discussed much through dialogue in the series, but it’s definitely there.

Though sex was present in the original series, the 1995 adaptation was made better for it. The characters were made better for it. The way Firth, Jennifer Ehle, and their co-stars portrayed their characters in the series. The way certain lines were spoken, the uncomfortable excitement barely contained and certain choice words.

According to a BBC interview with Davies, the producers attempted to shove as much energy and physicality into the show as possible. Having Darcy “take his kit off” was one way to express this, and certainly found the greatest foothold in the public imagination. This scene wouldn’t have become the iconic moment it did without the sex present in the rest of the show. This sex is far more than the obvious stuff (low-cut dresses, dizzying smiles, sweaty dances), though all of this plays an important role as well.

Eliza Bennett was praised for her “fine eyes” in the book as well as the adaptation. Ehle’s dresses and curves made it very clear that Ms. Eliza was well endowed. The way the camera framed her in an up-close shot called attention to her face, and so when Mr. Darcy comments on the “very great pleasure a pair of fine eyes… can bestow,” the particular inflections Firth delivers the line with makes it abundantly clear what was on his mind.

When Ms. Eliza walked to Netherfield to inquire after her sister and came upon Mr. Darcy on the grounds, covered in a thin sheen of sweat, hem of her dress covered in mud, there was more than incredulity in Mr. Darcy. The stilted acting of Firth is about shock but also about an “instant erection.” Firth’s face said, “I want to ravish you right here and now” in as veiled a fashion as any man in his mid-20s could in that situation. Sex was part of a scene as seemingly innocuous as this.

Despite the obvious and understandable focus on Ms. Eliza and Mr. Darcy, this prevalence of sexual energy is not limited to just them. Lydia Bennett and George Wickham are two of the more obvious carriers of sexual undercurrents in the series, with Ms. Lydia being a particularly egregious offender in her thinly-veiled innuendo. The inflections in her voice, the way she looks at certain officers, the way she stretches on her shared bed with Mr. Wickham — the actions of a horny teenager and everyone involved in making the adaptation surely knew this.

Mr. Wickham was more subtle. He is more of sexual object than a carrier, infusing sexual energy into his scenes. He is the object of Ms. Eliza’s desires early in the series, and it is made clear what nature this desire took. Ms. Lydia makes it clear in her innuendo, and Ms. Eliza makes it clear in the way she reacts: embarrassment and blushing cheeks.

Furthermore, Mr. Wickham is a sexual predator, going after underage girls simply for their looks. When the rumors about Mr. Wickham began to surface after his elopement with Ms. Lydia, he was painted as quite the philanderer. Knowing that Ms Lydia had no money either, it became clear what he wanted from her. Mr. Wickham injected a great deal of sex into the series, though most of it in a rather dark manner.

The focus on sex made the characters real. It made them relatable in a way the book had a hard time doing to the audience of the 20th and 21st centuries. It is difficult for us to understand and identify with the positions and situations of landed gentry in the English countryside during that time. Focusing on what the gentry was then made the characters seem very relatable. It made it easy to sympathize and identify with the characters plights and agonies.

Who wanted to have sex with someone despite better judgment? (Ignore what Mr. Darcy’s better judgment was actually judging here). Who has been deeply in love with someone, felt a deep urge to get into their pants, only to find out that they cheat and lie and construct false personas? Who’s had a sibling or a friend, or sibling of a friend, who got in too deep with someone of a less-than-stellar reputation?

These scenarios were present in Austen’s book. But Davies’ adaptation made them immediately available to modern viewers in a way the book could not. Making the sexual tension as explicit as possible meant Mr. Darcy’s sudden interest in Ms. Eliza wasn’t simply due to her eyes looking brighter after some exercise.

It’s because he wanted to bang.

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