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Friends Forever: Adapting Female Friendships in Pride and Prejudice

A pivotal episode of the 2013 web series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries ends with Charlotte storming out of the room, before a tearful Lizzie shuts off the webcam, after an argument about Charlotte’s decision to take a job with the odious Ricky Collins. The title of the episode—“Friends Forever”—as well as the acting, reinforce the series’ focus on female friendship, as Elizabeth and Charlotte’s estrangement becomes a parallel plot to the growing romantic relationships. This adaptation, created by Bernie Su, as well as the 2005 Pride & Prejudice film directed by Joe Wright, depict a version of female friendship that more closely resembles modern friendship ideals of equality and acceptance, than what Austen depicts. Two notable estrangements occur in Pride and Prejudice; the one between Elizabeth and Charlotte, and between Elizabeth and Lydia. In the novel, these friendships are threatened by the choices the women make, as choice illustrates irrevocable differences in character. Many adaptations, however, emphasize feelings and emotions instead of judgement and respect. Female friendships become even more stereotypically feminine in these 21st century adaptations than this 19th century novel, as conflicts become not about clashing values, but hurt feelings and a lack of empathy.

Emphasizing female friendships at the expense of nuanced characterization subtly reinforces the image of Austen as a women’s writer, and lessens her complexity. Friendships between women pose many more problems in Austen’s novels than adaptations are willing to show, as this omission lessens her conflicting characterizations. After her death, her family sought to portray her as genteel and retiring, a woman first and a writer second (Duckworth 97). Modern adaptations support this idea of Austen as a women’s writer by rendering crises in relationships as purely emotional, instead of also involving questions of discernment and judgement. Although Austen is a woman, and her novels focus intently on women, it does not go to follow that she is uncritical of the female experience, even if the 2005 and 2013 adaptations ease this critical eye in order to depict friendship between women as purely emotional. Deborah Knuth writes that “one touchstone for true happiness in Jane Austen’s world [. . .] is close friendship with other women.” But true happiness is rarely found in the friendships of Pride and Prejudice, because friends are often unequal in terms of how they view the world and what they value, creating an unstable foundation for close relationships. Although Elizabeth desires female friendship, she is ultimately disappointed. Laura E. Thomason points out that while Austen’s heroines desire intimate female friends, these relationships are prone to break down due to inequality perpetuated by the hierarchies in Austen’s society (227). In Austen’s time, friendship was not a relationship as strictly defined as other social relationships; “Broadly conceived and extensively theorized in philosophical treatises and conduct books, friendship was understood to be both egalitarian and hierarchical, both utilitarian and frivolous, both morally improving and morally risky” (Thomason 228). However, the breakdown of the friendship between Elizabeth and Charlotte, as well as the relationship between Elizabeth and her sister Lydia, point to the dangers inherent to female intimacy. In the 18th century and into the Regency period, the ideal of friendship based on equality existed—“the element of choice was integral to friendship” (Thomason 228). At the same time, however, this ideal differed sharply from reality, and it is this disconnect that Austen explores in Pride and Prejudice, as Thomason rightfully points out how Austen’s novels support the idea that “both classical models and conventional rhetoric suggest that friends are and must be equals, but the moral necessity for one friend to correct another’s actions creates a hierarchy” (238). Two recent film and digital adaptations, however, offer only a depiction of female friendship that exists as an ideal. In these adaptations, Elizabeth fully reconciles with Charlotte, in the case of the YouTube series, Lydia. That these friendships endure causes the viewer not to question the faulty basis these relationships are based on—namely, inequality not of status or wealth, but values.

Elizabeth and Charlotte are presented as friends who are poorly matched in character, and their differences lead to a breach in their friendship that is never depicted the way the novel presents it. Adaptations like the 2005 film and 2012 web series make Charlotte more sympathetic by lessening Elizabeth harsh judgement, and thus blunting the critique done by the novel about failure in intimate relationships. In the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, the friendship between Elizabeth and Charlotte is unquestionable: “The eldest of [the Lucases], a sensible, intelligent young woman, about twenty-seven, was Elizabeth’s intimate friend” (Austen 15). The qualities of sensible and intelligent imply a relationship between intellectual equals, as Elizabeth has already been described by her father as possessing “‘something more of a quickness than her sisters’” (3); in status too, they are both genteel but not wealthy (15). The danger Thomason identifies that friendship poses by creating intimate relationships between unequal women is not immediately apparent between Elizabeth and Charlotte. It is only when their different natures, specifically their views on marriage, are revealed, that Austen hints at potential imbalances in their relationship. Charlotte’s declaration that “‘happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance’” (20) is met with laughter by Elizabeth—critically, Elizabeth reveals her lack of knowledge about her friend by declaring that Charlotte would never act on her beliefs (21). However, the difference between Charlotte’s pragmatism and Elizabeth’s strong feelings is well-documented in adaptations, and both the 2005 film and 2012 web series depict a version of this conversation.

What is left out of these adaptations, though, is how their differences contribute to the eventual demise of the friendship; it is Charlotte’s practical nature that guides her toward accepting Mr. Collins’ marriage proposal (127), or in the case of the web series, accepting his job offer (Ep. 42 “Friends Forever”). In the novel, Elizabeth’s views this acceptance as a failure of sense and judgement; “[Elizabeth] could not have supposed it possible that when called into action, [Charlotte] would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage. Charlotte the wife of Mr. Collins was a most humiliating picture!” (128). Austen does present the situation from Charlotte’s perspective as well, as she considers both her need to marry and dreads Elizabeth’s reaction (125). Elizabeth’s belief that “it was impossible for that friend to be tolerably happy in the lot she had chosen” (128) is treated in the 2005 film as an unjust condemnation, as the film gives Charlotte a speech; “Not all of us can afford to be romantic. I’ve been offered a comfortable home and protection [. . .] I’m twenty-seven years old. I’ve no money and no prospects. I’m already a burden to my parents, and I’m frightened. So don’t judge me, Lizzie” (Wright). This speech, and the vehemence with which actress Claudie Blakley delivers it, subtly shift the scenario, to present Elizabeth as unreasonable, and her subsequent trip to Hunsford becomes a way for her to atone for her initial harsh judgement. But the novel does not present Elizabeth as repentant; “[Elizabeth] looked with wonder at her friend that she could have so cheerful an air, with such a companion” (157). An important outcome of this marriage is that Elizabeth turns to Jane, and away from Charlotte; she visits Hunsford, but their friendship is forever sunk in her opinion; “Elizabeth felt persuaded that perhaps no real confidence could ever subsist between them again” (130). The 2005 film and the novel ultimately present two diametrically different views of this friendship; while in the film Elizabeth regrets her initial judgement, and resume her closeness with Charlotte, the novel represents their relationship as a failure. Elizabeth and Charlotte grow apart not necessarily because of the latter’s marriage to Collins, but because defects in character the marriage reveals.

The web series moves even farther from this characterization of Elizabeth, by having the estrangement with Charlotte become a central plot point. The series has Charlotte Lu, played by Julia Cho, as a central role, and her absence in Elizabeth’s life for many episodes causes a great deal more pain than in the novel (Ep. 51 “Together Again”). Their reconciliation is meant to represent growth in Elizabeth’s character, as she becomes less judgmental, and more understanding; “‘She’s my best friend, I should have known she was unhappy’” (Ep. 43 “I Miss Charlotte”). Both adaptations emphasize the importance of female friendships, as maintaining a close relationship between Elizabeth and Charlotte becomes more important than examining why Elizabeth rejects her friendship. Although this change seems to satisfy a desire to see stronger female relationships in Austen, complexity is sacrificed for the sake of an intact friendship. Elizabeth apologizing to Charlotte lessens the impact of Charlotte’s choice, and the subsequent scrutiny it receives; lost is the fact that Elizabeth judges Charlotte harshly because she is in nearly the same situation as a woman with few prospects, and acts very differently. However stringent Elizabeth is, her rejection of Darcy illustrates her commitment of her beliefs and values about marriage based on respect—and it is precisely these qualities that Charlotte does not share. These adaptations render friendship between women as something based solely on emotions, as injured feelings become the basis of arguments, and not the symptoms of deeper fissures. This emphasis on feelings reinforces a simplification of the female characters; it is not Elizabeth judgement and intelligence that is offended, but her feelings. She and Charlotte view the world in fundamentally different ways, and the novel asks if two women whose actions and beliefs bring them farther apart, should remain friends.

Female relationships breakdown in Pride and Prejudice not only between friends, but family, specifically between Elizabeth and Lydia. Although the two of them are not as close as Elizabeth and Charlotte—indeed, they can hardly be considered friends—the fact that they are sisters gives their relationship intimacy. It is interesting to note that, while Elizabeth and Charlotte are better friends, Elizabeth and Lydia are much more similar, at least in temperament; the assessment the narrator gives of Lydia—“She had high animal spirits, and a sort of natural self-consequence” (44)—mirrors the Bingley sisters’ critique of Elizabeth—“‘She really looked almost wild [. . .] It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence’” (33-34). This similarity is further underscored by their shared interest in Wickham—their values are totally different, and it is impossible to imagine Elizabeth eloping, but their shared liveliness at times pushes the boundaries of acceptable female behavior. How they become estranged, then, is important not only in terms of the plot of the novel, but for illustrating how their individual characters determine their fates. Lydia’s elopement and subsequent estrangement are aspects of the novel that have not translated well to modern audiences. The 2005 film does not give Lydia a lot of screen time, and remains relatively faithful to the novel. But the web series takes a departure that not only changes the action of the novel, but alters Elizabeth and Lydia’s characters by avoiding critiquing Lydia’s choices. Again, the web series emphasizes the relationship between Elizabeth and Lydia, and is unwilling to judge Lydia for becoming involved with Wickham; it seems to be more than a modern sensibility that causes this change, it is desire to make Lydia into a different character.

The web series develops Lydia’s character far beyond her characterization in the novel, but in doing so alters the meaning of Lydia and Elizabeth’s relationship. In the series, Lydia, played by Mary Kate Wiles, is featured almost as much as Jane, and eventually she is given her own spin-off YouTube series (Ep. 1 “Boredom”). It is a clever storytelling device, one that allows her to chronicle her growing relationship with Wickham, but also one based on a premise that makes her relationship with her sister a focal point of the story. In the web series, Lydia is frustrated with Elizabeth, as she feels she is judgmental, and so decides to make her own videos (Ep. 74 “How to Hold a Grudge”). As with Charlotte, Lydia is depicted as sympathetic, while Elizabeth must eventually reconcile with her; furthermore, the situation Lydia becomes involved in is not by her own choice. In a scenario suitable for the digital age, Wickham records a sex tape of him and Lydia, and threatens to release it (Ep. 84 “Ugh”), and this causes Elizabeth and her sister to repair their relationship; “‘I don’t know how the help, Lydia. What can I do? [. . .] You don’t deserve this’” (Ep. 87 “An Understanding”). While this change is an intriguing adaptation for the 21st century, it sacrifices complexity to restore harmony between the female characters. Although salvaging these relationships is supposed to represent growth in Elizabeth’s character, they are only part of her emotional development, and not her moral one. The disdain Elizabeth has for Lydia in the novel—“Elizabeth was disgusted [. . .] Lydia was Lydia still; untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy, and fearless” (310)—does strike modern audiences as harsh, but it is perhaps the only way we are able to now comprehend the extent of Lydia’s folly, and her selfishness. The novel certainly judges an attitude like Collins’, as he coldly writes that “‘the death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison’” (292). But Lydia’s lack of awareness about the magnitude of her actions speak to not simply her character, but a dissolution of the social fabric. Austen creates a world in which characters’ actions reveal their values, and these actions have consequences that affect others. The focus on forgiveness and reconciliation in these modern adaptations reflects a modern sensibility, where people deserve a second chance, and the idea of relative morality. But for Austen, certain things are not relative; choices have a greater resonance in the novel than in these adaptations, because we see how certain choices irrevocably alter lives.

This desire to soften Austen lessens her social critique, as the novel contains reservations about female friendship that are not reflected in these adaptations, even though they should be to complicate the characters involved. Austen shows how character, sometimes despite strong feelings, can push people apart. The extent to which Elizabeth judges her friend Charlotte and sister Lydia makes the modern reader uncomfortable, perhaps, but is an essential aspect of her character, and the high standards to which she holds other people. Rendering these relationships less complicated does no service to the novel or its characters. Austen creates female characters that are more than creatures of emotion; they have complicated value systems and ideals, and their minds are as active as their hearts. Adaptations that only focus on the latter, and create friendships that rely on only an emotional bond, instead of respect and integrity, render women as ultimately less complex. Austen does a service to female friendships by exploring and critiquing the ways in which it can fall apart.

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