Oh, Pride and Prejudice miniseries, you must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.
The iconic BBC serial, directed by Simon Langton and starring Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet and Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, first aired its first episode 20 years ago in 2015, on Sept. 24, 1995 — which means, I hardly need point out, that the series reached the same age as its beloved heroine.
In celebration of two decades of the best Pride and Prejudice adaptation of all time (arguments to the contrary will not be received at this time), we revisited the miniseries and broke down what makes it great in the same way you watched it — episode by episode.
1. Faithful adaptation in Episode One, in which Everybody Offends Everybody Else
Jane Austen’s original title for Pride and Prejudice was the rather less catchy, entirely less alliterative First Impressions, and just about everyone, except the eternally irreproachable Jane Bennet and Mr. Bingley, makes a bad one — but the series itself, after its first 50 minutes, couldn’t come off better.
Screenwriter Andrew Davies retained much of Austen’s brilliant dialogue — but of course, why on earth would he change it, when his source material provided him with, for example, the most brutal burn of all time: “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; I am in no humor at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men”?
Davies also seamlessly works in Pride and Prejudice’s oft-quoted opening line. When Mrs. Bennet tells her family the great gossip—that Netherfield Park is let at last! His name is Bingley, and he has £5,000 a year—and suggests that the newcomer is destined to marry one of her daughters, Elizabeth responds drily, “For a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Yes, he must indeed. Very sneaky!
2. Genuine hilarity in Episode Two, in which Mr. Collins Threatens to Dance With Them All
Episode two is almost impossibly packed. It begins with the introduction of two very different characters: first, Mr. Collins, the Bennets’ obnoxious cousin, then the dashing Mr. Wickham, who wastes no time vilifying Mr. Darcy to Elizabeth. The whole squad (minus Wickham, for dastardly reasons!) attends the long-awaited ball at Netherfield, where there is much ado about dancing partners, and finally, Mr. Collins proposes to Lizzy, prompting various reactions from her family.
While Elizabeth and Darcy’s first dance, punctuated by feisty conversation, is striking (and evidently influenced later Austen adaptations: Douglas McGrath’s 1996 Emma used the same song for Emma and Mr. Knightley’s dance together) and Mr. Collins’ poor attempts at dancing are hysterical, the ball at Netherfield sticks out for a carefully paced, cringe-inducing sequence in which every single member of the Bennet family does something deeply inappropriate, humiliating Jane and Lizzy, in rapid succession. It’s mortifying just to watch, but once you’re over the secondhand embarrassment, all you can do is laugh.
3. Human folly in Episode Three, in which Lady Catherine Has a Lot of Opinions
Episode three sees Lizzy visit her best friend Charlotte Collins (née Lucas), at Hunsford, where Lizzy will be forced to spend time with her awful cousin Mr. Collins and meet his insufferable patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
“As a connoisseur of human folly, I should have thought you impatient to be savoring these delights,” Mr. Bennet says to Lizzy before she leaves, with an ironic twinkle in his eye.
Connoisseur though she may be, Elizabeth isn’t especially anxious to see Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins — though we are, of course. It’s wonderful to swoon over the romance of Lizzy and Darcy, yes, but Austen’s true genius doesn’t lie so much in her love stories as her brilliant human insight. To the miniseries’ credit, it doesn’t neglect the novel’s rogues’ gallery of sycophants, social climbers, flirts, frauds, and narcissists to serve only the romance, as so many other Austen adaptations have done.
4. The gift of Colin Firth in Episode Four, in which Mr. Darcy Goes for a Swim
Pride and Prejudice became a phenomenon after its initial airing in 1995, and Colin Firth turned into a huge star overnight. Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary was inspired by the miniseries — the 1996 novel references the serial as well as echoing its plot — and Colin Firth played the Mr. Darcy character, also named Darcy, in the 2001 film adaptation (for which Davies also co-wrote the script).
While the miniseries is a faithful adaptation in both letter and spirit, it is perhaps most famous for a scene that Jane Austen certainly never wrote: On his way home to Pemberley, Mr. Darcy jumps in a lake to cool off. Then, soaking wet, he runs into Lizzy, who is touring his historic estate — as if Darcy wasn’t dreamy enough, his house is so wonderful people visit it like it’s Monticello or something — and wants to die of embarrassment that he caught her checking out what might have been hers.
The scene is so iconic, it even inspired the installation of a rather horrifying statue in a lake in England. His performance as Darcy launched Firth’s career, but the lake scene made him a sex symbol.
5. Such drama! in Episode Five, in which Lydia Ruins Literally Everything
We’re two-thirds of the way through, and things are getting scandalous! To anyone who makes the erroneous claim that nothing ever happens in 19th-century comedies of manners, I recommend you show the fifth episode of the BBC P&P.
Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle are having a wonderful time hanging out with Darcy and the Bingleys at Pemberley when they receive word that Lydia has run away to Gretna Green with Wickham, like an idiot. We see the pair of them sneak off, Lydia wearing some truly vile new clothes, as Lydia reads her goodbye letter in voiceover. “I can hardly write for laughing,” she writes, laughing.
Mr. Collins, odious as ever, shows up at Longbourn to offer the family his condolences, telling Lizzy, Jane, and Mary that “the death of your sister would have been a blessing in comparison” before pointing out that nobody will ever want to connect themselves with the Bennets after this. All seems lost, and we long for the days when young men of £5,000 a year flocked to the neighborhood and fell all over themselves to dance with Jane and Lizzy.
6. Sweet romance in Episode Six, in which Mrs. Bennet Has Three Down, Two to Go
Not to undermine the previous assertion that there’s more to Pride and Prejudice than the love story of Elizabeth and Darcy, but it is so heart-achingly wonderful to see those two crazy kids finally get together at the end of this whole thing.
Tension builds as Elizabeth finds out it was Darcy who saved Lydia from ruination and Lady Catherine shows up to yell at Elizabeth (in a great scene for both actresses) about rumors that she and Darcy are getting married. When Mr. Darcy finally does propose to Lizzy (again), there is no sweeping music, no passionate embrace, and certainly no weird romantic declaration about being “incandescently happy,” whatever that means. Like so much in Austen, the moment is that much sweeter for its understatement and sincerity.
Lizzy and Darcy and Jane and Bingley have a rather modest double wedding, where Mrs. Bennet wears a furry hat, to everyone’s delight. “Three daughters married!” She cries to her husband, shrill as ever. “God has been very good to us!”
Hollywood and the BBC and whatever other filmmaking institutions will surely continue to adapt Austen’s most popular novel forever, to varying degrees of success, as they always have. The 1995 incarnation will surely endure, however, despite its low-key aesthetic, relative lack of star power, and 300-minute run time; whatever glossy Hollywood product follows, the miniseries has a certain, simple magic — and that, I think, is a truth we can universally acknowledge.