Watching Pride and Prejudice is not the same as reading the book

The 1996 BBC series with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. A thought occurs.

Why are all the parents and parent figures (such as Lady Catherine, and Mr and Mrs Gardiner) portrayed as though they were in their sixties in so many adaptations of Pride and Prejudice? If you read the book the ages of Mr and Mrs Bennett, Lady Catherine etc. are never mentioned explicitly, unlike the younger characters, but simple mathematics suggests they aren’t meant to be in their sixties. Take the Bennett’s as our illustration. The Bennett sisters like the other younger characters are between fifteen and twenty-eight. Even if their parents/aunts/uncles etc. were in their late twenties by the time they were married and the eldest children (Jane Bennett/Mr Bingley/Mr Darcy/Miss De Burgh/Charlotte Lucus) born then they’d only be in their mid to late forties at the time of the story, if not already dead.

So why are they often portrayed as being in their sixties and seventies?

Part of the narrative tension is derived from the desperation of the Bennett parents to marry off their five daughters, because if their father dies before then they will lose everything as they are unable to inherit the family estate.

The average life expectancy in the nineteenth century was 41, but it wasn’t unheard of for people to live into their seventies and eighties. The aristocracy and gentry had the advantages of regular meals, not having to work in dangerous or back breaking conditions, and with the financial means to obtain access to rudimentary health care, compared to the majority of the population.

In the book, it’s obvious that their fears – as there was no respectable profession for unmarried gentry women – are based on an economic reality, though their fate may be many years distance. This was the reality for many eighteenth and nineteenth century women, no added impetus was needed in the form of aged parents. This fear is no longer relevant, and hasn’t realistically applied for almost a century.

That being the case is it possible that television and film makers exaggerate the ages of the older characters in order to replace the tension that original readers of P&P would have understood implicitly with the fear of parental death?

Or have they just not read the book closely enough?


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