In Defense Of the Perfect 'Pride and Prejudice'

When TV takes on a Jane Austen classic, devoted British fans speak up

We look at each other. ''But that took place indoors!'' we chime together.

''Indoors,'' I repeat. ''Not out in the garden.''

''Definitely indoors,'' my spouse agrees.

Still, Lady Catherine de Bourgh - out in the garden - faces Elizabeth Bennett.

''Miss Bennett, do you know who I am? I have not been accustomed to such language as this.''

This showdown between Darcy's formidable aunt and the spirited young heroine of the novel is one of the great climaxes of Jane Austen's ''Pride and Prejudice,'' courtesy of the latest BBC TV adaptation.

''Let me be rightly understood. This match to which you have the presumption to aspire can never take place. No, never. Mr. Darcy is engaged to my daughter. Now what have you to say?''

Both of us were convinced this took place in the Bennett house.

We were perfectly incorrect.

Perhaps, after all, it was the earlier television version, or the Hollywood adaptation (with Laurence Olivier as Darcy) that we were recalling. In the book that Miss Austen wrote, Lady C., with due hauteur, invites Elizabeth to ''take a turn'' with her in ''the prettyish kind of a little wilderness on one side of your lawn,'' and Elizabeth, after ''running into her own room for her parasol,'' complies.

Britain is - even several weeks after the series was aired - overrun with Austen cognoscenti. It is hard to go out for dinner, or sit next to someone on a plane, or phone a friend, without ''Pride and Prejudice'' insinuating itself into the talk. And every last one of us knows, in precise detail, how the series was true to - and not true to - the novel. (Or so we think.)

Everyone also has a theory about Darcy and why he would never have been described by Austen as diving, hot from riding, into the lake at Pemberley (his great estate). And even if she had written such a scene (which she most decidedly did not), she would never have pursued his fine figure below the surface to watch it streak through the waterweeds like Tarka the Otter. My own theory is that the film crew had recently been making a wildlife documentary and wanted to show off their underwater camera skills.

A Canadian girl on the plane back from London informed me she was one of those avid all-night, all-day book readers. Even if the TV was on, she would much rather bury her head in her book - and could apparently cut out the insistent televisual intrusion with perfect composure. It always amazes me what people on planes and trains will tell you about their preferences and virtues.

Naturally, I asked if she had watched ''Pride and Prejudice.'' She made a small noise with her breath that suggested distaste or disdain, I am not sure which.

''Well, some friends insisted I should, so I watched two episodes. Then I couldn't bear it any more. It was all wrong!''

I looked at her questioningly.

''Well, Eliza was completely wrong. She didn't look like that. But worst of all, she didn't sound like that! Not at all.''

This was getting fascinating. ''Have you read 'Pride and Prejudice' a great many times?''

''Oh, many, many times. It's my favorite novel. Oh, yes. And Mr. Collins - he wasn't like that at all. Not a buffoon like that. Quite different.''

''And Darcy? Didn't he smolder properly?''

''Well, he smoldered, yes, but - oh! and Lady Catherine! Hopeless! No dignity. Not tall enough. Voice too strident. She isn't really nasty, just tremendously superior.''

And so it went. Would Elizabeth have gone jogging as much as she did, I wondered? My informant (as I guessed) thought not. And here I agreed. While it is true that Austen's favorite heroine is described at one point as ''crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles'' - she is still walking, not running. The feet under the hem of her authentic Empire Line country frocks were, in the early 19th century, probably not shod in Reeboks.

To this TV Darcy I have actually heard few objections raised. It is an almost impossible role anyway, because he is seen so much through the eyes of Austen and her heroine and is very little imagined from the inside. Also, he is remarkably laconic. The actor certainly did smolder valiantly, and kept on smoldering even when asked to do nothing more than stand and stare.

When we were at dinner with friends last night, one Austen-commentator suggested that what everyone was interested in was not so much Darcy as the idea of Darcy. I haven't much of a notion what she meant, but it sounded rather good.

It is, however, our friend in Edinburgh whose mature Austen judgments are most to be relied upon, and she felt that while the series was delightful there was one major mistake: the frothy ending.

I know what she means.

Austen has only one brief sentence about the marriages of Jane and Elizabeth: ''Happy for all her maternal feelings was the day on which Mrs. Bennett got rid of her two most deserving daughters.''

But apparently this - and the author's brief, realistic exposition of the subsequent lives of the various main characters - was not thought ''good television.''

So the whole thing degenerated instead into a happy-ever-after soap-opera double-wedding day, all scrupulously accurate historically and not remotely the kind of thing Austen would have found worth writing about.

Worst of all, these nuptial fripperies meant - our friend points out - that the last two remarks (both gems) made by the delectably ironic Mr. Bennett (everyone's favorite Austen male character) were cut. Cut! Sacrilege!

Ah well. If you happen to have temporarily forgotten precisely what it was that this gentleman had to say in Chapter LIX, at least you can still read the book. In Britain just now it is on the bestseller lists.

TV isn't everything.

* The BBC adaptation of 'Pride and Prejudice' will air in the United States on PBS Jan. 14, 15 and 16.

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