Another Janeite goodbye
The game of adapting Jane Austen’s novels for the screen has drawn some gifted and illustrious players.
In 1940, the renowned novelist Aldous Huxley wrote the screenplay for the first example of the screen-Austen genre – Pride and Prejudice, starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. Emma Thompson was already an Oscar-winning actress when her 1995 screenplay for Sense and Sensibility earned her another gold statuette. Amy Heckerling’s script for the Emma update Clueless practically invented a new dialect of English. And, of course, in 1995, the soon-to-be-iconic TV writer Andrew Davies gave us a P&P featuring Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy in a (not-in-Austen) wet shirt.
In between, there was Fay Weldon, a feminist writer better known in Britain than in the US, who scripted the 1980 BBC adaptation of P&P, starring Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul.
Weldon died last month at the age of ninety-one, and her obituaries (for instance, here, here, and here) portray a woman who lived her life at breakneck speed: She cycled through stints as a Cold War propagandist, a waitress, a hospital orderly, a tea-shop proprietor, an advice columnist, and an advertising copywriter; she married three times, gave birth to four sons, and sometimes led an unconventional sex life; and once she settled in to a long career as a writer, she published dozens of books, wrote numerous screenplays, and turned out a slew of provocative newspaper op-eds.
Her BBC P&P, the second-ever screen version of the novel, has its fans: They view Weldon’s adaptation as more faithful to the original than either the sentimentalized Huxley or the sexed-up Davies, and they adore Garvie’s delicate performance as Elizabeth Bennet. But Rintoul’s stiffly formal Mr. Darcy suffers by comparison with the virile sex symbol played by Firth and later by Matthew Macfadyen, and Weldon’s adaptation has faded from the memories of all but the most ardent Janeites.
I’ve read only two of Weldon’s books, including her rather charming epistolary sort-of-novel Letters to Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen, and I don’t count myself among the big fans of her P&P. It's hard to separate the writing from the acting, and pairing the luminous Garvie with the inert Rintoul is like forcing Steffi Graf to play tennis against a brick wall: the ball may be hit hard, but nothing comes back.
Still, even if her work was never my cup of Earl Grey, it’s impossible not to admire the unapologetic brio with which Weldon lived her life. She wasn’t always right, but she was never boring.