Kick Ass: Elizabeth Bennet

Kick ass is a new series of stuff I’m going to be writing in praise of people from TV who, well, kick ass, from BBC to HBO and everyone in between. I will start with a classic.

jennifer-ehle-pride-and-prejudice-jennifer-ehle-16177700-1986-1980Name: Elizabeth Bennet
Show: Pride and Prejudice (1995, BBC)
Played by: Jennifer Ehle

Elizabeth Bennet is the heroine of every thinking woman from about the age of five and up (it’s about then that kids can put DVDs into players by themselves, isn’t it?). Lizzy is the second (and by far the most intelligent) of five sisters who don’t have the right to inherit any of their Dad’s shit because of a loathsome thing called an entail that happily doesn’t exist anymore, so the only major expectation Lizzy and her sisters have in life is to get married and have kids, though that probably won’t happen either because her Dad isn’t exactly rich. So, while her dotty and scatterbrained Mom devotes her life to humiliating herself in any kind of way to get her daughters married, and her younger sisters have nothing but what Lizzy calls ‘love, flirtation and officers’ on the brain, Lizzy pledges that she’s not going to just marry any arsehole for the sake of getting married and that ‘nothing but the very deepest love will induce [her] to matrimony.’

If somebody was writing this story in the 21st story, they’d probably turn her into some kind of bookish version of Arya Stark so as not to confuse viewers. Refreshingly, however, Lizzy manages to maintain these extraordinary views while still being graceful, polite, witty, sensible and perfectly ladylike. She knows how to tell idiots off in a way that is so seethingly well-mannered that the average person would probably prefer a simple ‘fuck off’ to one of her tirades. She also engages in a number of very admirable activities, like scampering about the country because her sister has a cold and improving her mind by extensive reading. She’s a compulsive people-watcher and prides herself on being able to read people a lot better than that black market copy of Tom Jones that I’ve always suspected her of hiding underneath her pillow. She adores her Dad, as well as her elder sister Jane, whom she admires deeply for being able to think well of everyone and for always trying to find the good in people, no matter how repulsive they may be. Dear Lizzy finds the latter impossible for a number of reasons, the most poignant of which is ‘the more I see of the world, the more I am dissatisfied with it.’ Furthermore, instead of shutting up or turning red as a beetroot when in a tight argumentative spot with Mr. Darcy, she either throws his shit right back at him or simply smiles enigmatically, something the divine Fitzwilliam doesn’t quite know how to respond to. And then there are those absolutely delicious scenes with Lady Catherine (who is by all accounts a snobbish pain in the ass) in which Lizzy stuns the great lady and delights us with numerous examples of respectful irreverence, from politely refusing to confess her age to kicking Lady Catherine out of the house. All of this is accomplished with the demeanor of a highly-bred woman who would almost certainly have had her own salon had she lived in Paris rather than in Hertfordshire.

One of the many great things about Jennifer Ehle’s performance as Lizzy is that she portrays all of these things the way Miss Austen meant them to be portrayed and understood. Lizzy is a perfect Regency lady, but without any of the silliness, naivety and willful lack of education or desire to improve that often bear the brunt of Miss Austen’s satirical side. Lizzy’s intelligence, education and naturally outgoing personality have led to all the characteristics described above. Fortunately, however, they haven’t turned her into a stereotype: she is what this kind of person, belonging to this class in society, would have been at that period in time, something that Ehle plays to perfection and something that later interpretations of the character just don’t seem to understand, probably because in the 21st century we have difficulty imagining independent thought and general awesomeness wedded to dresses, curtseys and good behaviour.

There is something irresistible about an intelligent woman who never forgets her manners. She’s smart enough to know when she’s surrounded by fools and annoyed enough to know that she can’t put up with them with too long, but as a child of her time, she knows that being taciturn and insolent will probably land her in the same boat as Mr. Darcy, who shares both her intelligence and her intolerance and isn’t shy to express either one, making him a willful social exile on more than one occasion. For Lizzy, staying put is a lot more fun. It’s through her politeness and her wit that the Mr. Collinses of this world find themselves shaking their heads long after she’s gone, unable to ascertain whether they’ve been insulted or praised.

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