Revisiting “Pride and Prejudice”

During my junior year of high school, English class featured what I would call “girly literature.” It began with Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, which I loathed. I remember very little about it, only bits and pieces, really. I know there’s a character named Heathcliff and he’s involved in some kind of love triangle (I’m pretty sure the heroine, whose name I’ve long-since forgotten, is passionately in love with him, though she chooses to marry the other man), but that’s pretty much it. The only thing I’m crystal clear about is the fact that I thought it was excessively melodramatic and couldn’t wait to move on to the next novel.

I can’t recall what the following book was, but I disliked it immensely as well. While most of the girls in my class swooned after Heathcliff and his brethren, I stood firmly with the boys, who were bored and unimpressed with these supposed works of classic literature. I began to dread the introduction of subsequent stories we would be forced to read, dissect, and discuss. Luckily, it turned out that our required readings were not all gothic romances; there were two works that shone out of the darkness of the shadowy, foreboding moorlands. One was Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I suspect at least part of my enthusiasm for the play stemmed from seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of it in New York City. Instead of the customary trees and period costumes, the forest was represented by different colored lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling and Puck was shirtless, wearing bright yellow pants with matching suspenders. This non-traditional production woke me up to all the possibilities of Shakespeare, and I grew to appreciate his works in a way that I hadn’t before.

The other bright light in my dreary literary year was Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.

I was initially skeptical about the novel, an understandable reaction considering what preceded it. However, I was won over in the first chapter with the rapid-fire conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet about the rich, young man who had just moved into the neighborhood. Though it was clear that Mrs. Bennet was hell-bent on having him marry one of their five daughters (a potentially tiresome plotline), Mr. Bennet responded to her hopes with increasingly clever, sarcastic comments. That’s when I knew this book was different. It wasn’t simply going to give me a peek into the traditions and societal norms of the early 1800s, it was going to do so with a critical eye, scrutinizing them to expose the humorous side of each while acknowledging the harsh realities of life during that time period, especially as they pertained to women.

The BBC’s now-infamous Pride and Prejudice miniseries aired in the United States around the same time. I’m unable to pinpoint the precise order of events—had I already finished the novel, or was I in the middle of it?—but I’m confident I watched it during that school year. I tried to convince my mom to watch it with me, but her own memories of high school English class and the mandatory books they were assigned resulted in a wildly false preconceived notion of the literary masterpiece that had me under its spell. As a result of her unjustified prejudice (see what I did there?) against it, I giddily watched the miniseries alone on the television in the rec room while my parents watched shows of their own choosing upstairs. Since the text of the novel was fresh in my mind, it was no small feat that I was thoroughly impressed with the production—everything about it seemed perfect, so much so that the actors, costumes, and locations became the definitive representation of the novel, at least in my imagination. Other Elizabeths, other gowns, other Pemberleys may exist, but none will ever compare to those that occupied my original viewing. That’s not to say that I dislike other versions, or that those other versions can’t be great in their own right. But none will ever be able to accomplish the same level of meticulousness that the miniseries did.

Since then, I’ve read almost all of Austen’s books (I still haven’t gotten to Persuasion although I somehow own a mysterious copy which I have no recollection of purchasing or receiving) and watched some of their adaptations. My introduction to the author happened to occur during a kind of Jane Austen renaissance, with the movie Emma coming out shortly thereafter and Mansfield Park a few years later. Then there was a lull in Austen-related media and my passion cooled until the 2005 release of the latest version of Pride and Prejudice, an event that reignited my affection for both the author and the story itself. A couple years later the movies Becoming Jane and The Jane Austen Book Club were released, temporarily fulfilling my hunger for anything Austenian. This was followed by the publication of the most unlikely of mashups, the wonderfully fun Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith. I haven’t read it in years, but I remember being impressed how well the author (who shares credit with Austen for the work, listing her as his co-author) wove zombies into the existing story. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the movie version doesn’t capture the magic of the book. It does undoubtedly have its moments, but those are far better appreciated by fans of Austen’s original work, since they will be able to recognize how familiar plot points have been skillfully transformed in the zombie-riddled English countryside.

The past few years have been quiet on the Austen front after my brief but burning obsession with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies subsided. Yes, there were other related miniseries (like Death Comes to Pemberley) and movies (like Austenland), but I avoided those for a variety of reasons that aren’t worth mentioning. Suffice it to say there are aspects of each that I found objectionable, and we’ll leave it at that.

But I never forgot my first love, making it a point to watch the BBC miniseries every year or so. And whenever the 2005 movie version (or, the admittedly not nearly as good as I had hoped it would be, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) happened to be on television, I’d watch that too. Thus I grew to be content with this occasional foray into Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s world in its many forms.

All that changed, however, when my friend’s long-standing plan to return to England came to fruition. For years my friend Marie has talked about returning to Wroxton College, the English campus owned by Fairleigh Dickinson University, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of our studying abroad. Between her resolve, my wanderlust, and the desire to do something big for the milestone birthday I would be celebrating in July (I’ll let you do the math—I’ve left enough clues for you to figure it out), I agreed that traveling to England was a spectacular idea. This tentative plan quickly grew into an overwhelming collection of ideas as to what else I could do while I was on holiday—from the prospect of going on multi-day tours that would take me across England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales to smaller day trips to Stratford-upon-Avon and Oxford that I could take while staying at Wroxton Abbey. While I came to the conclusion that the day trips were entirely possible, the longer tours weren’t for me. They all stopped at so many towns in such a short period of time, it didn’t seem like I’d get much out of it other than “get out of the bus, snap a picture, get back on the bus.” I wanted so much more than that.

It was at this point that inspiration struck—Jane Austen lived in England and all of her books take place there… Could I do something related to that? Thus the Google searches for locations, Trainline searches for transportation, and Expedia searches for lodgings began. Early on I discovered Buzzfeed’s 16 Gorgeous Locations From Pride And Prejudice You Can Actually Visit, and used it as my initial guide to determine where I wanted to go. When it became clear that it would be exceedingly difficult (not to mention expensive) to hit all the locations that were on my “must” list, another wave of inspiration hit me—what if I could find a Jane Austen tour? Or, better yet, specifically a Pride and Prejudice tour? Old searches were pushed aside, though the tabs were kept open just in case, and I began a new round of queries focusing on my most recent idea.

I won’t bore you with the details of my quest. Let’s just say it involved numerous websites, all with different tours of varying lengths visiting different places, and a chart I made in order to organize which ones went where. After much internal debate and a long discussion with my mother, I settled on the “Pride & Prejudice 1995 4 Day Tour” with an additional day tacked on (“Pride & Prejudice 2005 Tour, Option 3: The Inn, the Peaks and Pemberley) provided by Classic British Drama Tours. This decision began my e-mail exchange with Deborah (Debi) Hill, the director of the company, who was kind and patient and answered my many questions in a timely fashion. Once dates were set and money was exchanged, all I had to do was wait for the agreed upon meeting time and place.

In the meantime I decided this would be the perfect time to rewatch the miniseries and the 2005 movie, so both would be fresh in my mind when I visited the locations used in the productions. I also thought I should go back and read Pride and Prejudice for the first time since high school. And so, a little over a month and an half after I sent my first inquiry regarding the tour, I boarded a much-delayed plane (my flight was delayed for a total of 12 hours in a series of 10 separate shorter delays) with a copy of the novel in my hand and images of the miniseries and movie in my head. I was ready.

I began reading Pride and Prejudice in the airport, then continued on the plane. This particular edition included an excellent introduction that examined Austen’s life, the social norms of the time, and the novel itself, which I found helpful during discussions with my tour guides. Along with the footnotes and endnotes scattered throughout the text, it proved enormously useful by providing me with explanations and insights I was previously lacking.

During the week I spent in England before my tour began, I continued to wade through the story. I was pleasantly surprised to discover—or re-discover—not only how close the 1995 miniseries was to the novel (aside from a couple scenes that were cut, it’s almost an exact match) but how wonderfully well-written it is. It’s been a long time since I last read Austen, and I can honestly say that it’s truly a pleasure. There’s a reason her works have been celebrated for so long, made and remade into television series and movies, and adapted by adoring fans to include diaries, zombies, and murder mysteries. She is, quite simply, a literary genius whose realistically flawed characters and universal themes never go out of style.

With this realization, my tour couldn’t begin soon enough.

Jane Austen’s former residence, 4 Sydney Place in Bath

I wisely booked a room in Bath the night before the tour so I wouldn’t have to worry about navigating the English rail system early in the morning, and arrived at the specified train station promptly at the appointed time. This is where I finally met Debi, who was just as warm and accommodating in person as she was in our e-mail correspondence, and Jamie, who would be my guide for a walking tour of Bath. Up until this point I was a little unclear as to whether I would be on my own or part of a larger group (my own fault because I was too embarrassed to ask), and learned that the next five days would be a private sightseeing experience. Jamie and I leisurely strolled the streets of Bath, where he pointed out local landmarks, recited the history of the city, and described Jane Austen’s experiences there. He seemed pleased that I already knew a little about Austen’s background (thanks to the introduction in my copy of Pride and Prejudice) and readily answered each and every question I had. He was charming and funny and not averse to getting wet, playfully mocking the other tourists who scampered for shelter when it began to rain, delighted that I was happy to press on despite the weather. After taking me to some of the more infamous sights, like Pulteney Bridge, the Royal Crescent, and the Circus, we stopped to take pictures in front of the two addresses Austen occupied while she lived in the city. Our time together ended in the Jane Austen Center, where we reconnected with Debi and enjoyed tea and cake in the Regency Tea Room.

Then Debi and I were off on our Pride and Prejudice-infused adventure. Armed with an iPad full of screenshots from the series, Debi first took me to the village of Lacock, used for the Meryton scenes as well as the exterior of the Bell at Bromley and the shot of Mr. Darcy walking down a hall in Cambridge. Subsequently, a short drive took us over to a convenient collection of sights—the corner Elizabeth turns and the path she runs down after seeing Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy in the distance at the very beginning; the Bennet family’s church, seen shortly after that first scene and where the couples marry at end of the series; and Luckington Court, used as Longbourn. Unfortunately, although we were able to walk down the path and enter the church, only a brief glimpse of Luckington Court over a stone wall was possible (its previous owner didn’t mind fans stopping by, the new owners apparently do). Even so, it was exciting to see.

Day two consisted of stopping by Edgcote Hall, used for Netherfield (now office space that we were unable to enter) and Lord Leycester Hospital, used as the streets of London when Mr. Darcy is searching for Lydia and Wickham. The day ended at the Old Rectory in the tiny town of Teigh. It’s a lovely old house owned by the even lovelier Victoria (Tor) Owen, and was used as Hunsford Parsonage in the series. She’s since converted her home into a charming bed and breakfast, and I had the honor of staying in the room Elizabeth was given during her visit to Charlotte and Mr. Collins. The closet with the shelves still stands in the corner (though most of the shelves have since been removed so it can act as a functioning closet once again), the wallpaper in the “first proposal room” remains on the walls, and Tor’s own dining room chairs, which were used in the breakfast scene, continue to stand around her table. A wonderfully gracious hostess, Tor provided us with tea when we arrived, dinner and a bottle of wine at night, and a delicious breakfast in the morning, not to mention detailed tales of her experiences during filming.

Day three found us at Belton House, used for Rosings Park, and Sudbury Hall, used for the interior shots of Pemberley. It was here, while Debi was talking to one of the members of the National Trust about the room we were in, that another woman approached me. She had presumably overheard Debi pointing out the details of the room that matched the screenshots on her iPad, so she knew why we were there. She and another lady had been standing off to the side next to a collection of costumes mostly meant for children to dress up in so they could pose for pictures. “You need a bonnet,” she declared matter-of-factly, “Would you prefer green or gold?” Rendered momentarily speechless by this unexpected interaction, I just stared at her, so she decided for me, “Gold, I think.” She proceeded to place the bonnet on my head and tie the ribbon beneath my chin. When Debi finished her conversation and turned back to me, she lit up. “We have to take a picture of you looking out over the grounds with that on! Just like Elizabeth!” As silly as it sounds, it’s perhaps my favorite picture of me from the tour. Several minutes later we made our way up to the portrait gallery, a vision in soft whites, powder blues, creams, and golds that was so stunningly beautiful, it may very well be my favorite room of my entire trip. In the series, Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle walk through the long room, admiring the portraits during their tour of the house; in a later scene, Mr. Darcy strides across it at night with his dogs beside him. Neither my photographs nor my words can begin to do it justice. It was completely spectacular.

Day four was supposed to be the big day; the grand finale of the four day miniseries leg of our tour, as it was mostly dedicated to visiting Lyme Park, used for all the exterior shots of Pemberley, including the famous pond Mr. Darcy takes an impromptu dip in. Tragedy struck the area, however, and Lyme Park was out of the question. Just a few days prior, massive amounts of rain flooded the grounds, washing away gardens and sending volunteers scurrying to protect artifacts within the mansion. What’s worse, the town of Whaley Bridge, which we’d have to drive through to get to Lyme Park, had been evacuated due to fears that the nearby dam would completely collapse and flood the entire town. (Note: Lyme Park has since been reopened and the residents of Whaley Bridge were allowed to return home after about a week.) Debi was devastated by this turn of events, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed. But frankly, we were more concerned about the people whose lives were deeply affected by these events than we were about our inability to visit the location used in a miniseries. In fact, the only time I turned on a TV during my entire trip was that night, when I watched the news for updates on the status of Whaley Bridge and the Toddbrook Reservoir Dam. In any case, Debi had spent the night trying to figure out an alternate plan, which she laid out after breaking the news to me over breakfast. She thought it was best if we changed the order of some of the places we visited—instead of finishing up the miniseries and doing day one of the 2005 movie the next, why not have a bit of a compare/contrast day? Additionally, we could now spend extra time at two other locations, exploring more of the houses and gardens than we would have not been able to otherwise.

Our day started out with a brief stop in the village of Longnor at The Olde Red Bull, used for the external shots of the Inn at Lambton in the miniseries. Next we were off to two distinctive locations within the Peaks District, the first used in the miniseries and the second used in the movie. It was quite interesting how different the two sites were even though they’re part of the same general area. Both were absolutely breathtakingly beautiful, and as I said about the portrait gallery earlier, neither could be adequately captured in words or pictures. One must experience them in person to truly appreciate them. Our last stop was Haddon Hall, which was used for a ridiculous amount of television series and movies (other than 2005’s Pride & Prejudice, I was most impressed by the fact that parts of The Princess Bride were filmed there, and though I personally don’t care, I should probably mention that it was used for just about every adaptation of Jane Eyre ever made). For our purposes, it was the interior of the Inn at Lambton in the movie. After snapping photographs of the rooms in question, we took our time wandering through the castle, examining the glass panes etched with people’s signatures (apparently using diamond rings to leave your mark was a thing at some point) and meandered through the multi-level garden.

The entirety of our final day was spent at Chatsworth House, a magnificent 126 room mansion currently owned by the 12th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, used for Pemberley in the 2005 movie. Because of the way Debi had rearranged things, we had ample time at the estate to thoroughly appreciate the house, gardens, and grounds of Chatsworth. In addition to seeing the rooms used in the movie, like the distinctive black-and-white checkered entrance hall and stunning sculpture gallery (Mr. Darcy’s bust has been removed from the gallery proper, but it found a new home in the gift shop, where you can take your picture with it. Although be forewarned, it’s accompanied by a sign forbidding ardent fans from kissing it), we walked along Canal Pond (its shape reminiscent of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C.), admired some of the extensive gardens, and hiked up the hill next to the Cascade, a 24-step waterfall that was crafted so that each step is unique and produces a slightly different sound as the water falls from it.

Our adventures complete, Debi was kind enough to drop me off at my bed and breakfast before heading home. I can’t begin to express my gratitude towards her—she was the consummate professional at all times, happy to spend as much or as little time with me as I wanted (she informed me early on that I shouldn’t be afraid to tell her if I’d like to wander around a bit on my own, and said that she was open to having meals with me, but wouldn’t be insulted if I’d rather eat by myself) and chock full of information. Not only was she well-versed in every version of Pride and Prejudice I wanted to discuss, she possessed a great deal of knowledge about Jane Austen and was able to convey the historical significance of all the locations we visited in detail. Of course, our conversations didn’t always center around Jane Austen and British history (I inevitably brought up the subject of horror movies), and I found her to be an intelligent, articulate companion whose company I enjoyed immensely. The fact that we were so compatible was an unexpected bonus, especially considering I’ve been told that I’m not the easiest person to get along with. If you’re going on a trip to England and are interested in period dramas, I highly recommend you check out out Classic British Drama Tours. I promise they will exceed your expectations.

As for me, I remained in England for a couple more days before returning to the good ol’ U. S. of A. I completed reading the novel on the flight back, utterly satisfied with my entire experience revisiting Pride and Prejudice. If you’ve never read it, you absolutely need to. I insist. If you’ve never seen the miniseries, you should definitely watch that too. If you don’t think you can manage both, go with the book because no matter how good a miniseries or movie is, the book is always better. And if you’re considering visiting some of the locations I did, you should go. As soon as possible. You won’t regret it… I certainly don’t.

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