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Throughout the Romantic Era, young women struggled to balance the traditional values of their elders with the revolutionary ideals of the period. Radical female writers such as Jane Austen attempted to give women a voice in the literary world so that they would have the opportunity rise above the restrictive societal views that limited them to the roles of obedient wives and mothers. In the novel Pride and Prejudice, Austen’s character Elizabeth Bennet is representative of the contemporary young women of her time who were in search of love rather than “suitable husbands”. Yet, in her characterization of Charlotte Lucas and Charlotte’s views on marriage, wealth, and social status, Austen reveals how women not as fortunate as Elizabeth were forced to either conform to the roles that they were born into or risk being alienated from their communities.
In his adaptation of the novel, Joe Wright attempts to capture the essence of Austen’s classic and her characterization of Charlotte Lucas on film. Without the narrative element of the novel, however, Wright uses casting, camera angles, and dialogue to reveal Austen’s theme without having to resort to creating a voice-over narration that would distract from the overall ambiance. Austen does not address Charlotte’s appearance in the novel until Mrs. Bennet discusses Charlotte on her visit to Netherfield. In her conversation with her daughters, Bingley, and Darcy, she makes it clear that Charlotte “is very plain. Lady Lucas herself has often said so, and envied my Jane’s beauty”(Austen 30). Charlotte is not as beautiful as Jane or Elizabeth, and Mrs. Bennet feels that her plain looks are a shame because it is necessary for a woman to be attractive in order to find a wealthy suitor who is similar to or above her in class. Charlotte herself realizes that her lack of beauty may be the reason she has not found a husband; therefore, her views on marriage are quite the opposite of Elizabeth’s. When discussing the idea with Elizabeth, Charlotte explains, “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least…and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life”(Austen 16). While Charlotte and Elizabeth are discussing the defects of their suitors, the mention of personal faults leads the reader to question Elizabeth’s and Charlotte’s personal character flaws. For Charlotte, whose personality is agreeable and kind, her defect would certainly be her lack of beauty. She has no control over her own appearance because it was completely by “chance” that she was born plain. Therefore, her inability to be selective about a potential husband directly relates to her misfortune regarding her looks, and she realizes that she must take a “chance” in accepting any offer of marriage she may receive and hope that happiness will be the end result.
In Joe Wright’s adaptation, Charlotte’s marital beliefs and personal appearance are revealed to the viewer simultaneously at the Netherfield ball scene. Wright cast Claudie Blakley as Charlotte, positioning her alongside Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) and Jane (Rosamund Pike): by conventional standards, she is perhaps not as beautiful in appearance as either other actress, as she is not as slim or as tall as Knightly or Pike. When Charlotte is first seen standing next to Mr. Collins at the ball, their dark features and shorter frames actually complement each other. The similarities between their appearances are striking considering the contrast between Mr. Collins and Elizabeth, who is at least half a foot taller than him and much more attractive. Casting an actress who is relatively plain looking and similar in appearance to Mr. Collins foreshadows their connection and eventual marriage. While the reader must discern Charlotte’s desperation to find a husband through her conversations with Elizabeth, the film reveals her interest in pursuing Mr. Collins the moment that he is introduced to her at the ball.
While Elizabeth and Jane appear shocked and bemused that Mr. Collins is asking Elizabeth to dance, Charlotte pays attention to him and has a friendly and hopeful smile on her face. Also, while Collins is dancing with Elizabeth, Charlotte can be seen in the background standing directly behind him while watching him dance. Charlotte’s voice is also very pleasant throughout the scene. She never sounds nagging or negative and, in contrast to Elizabeth’s, her voice has less strength behind it. The qualities that Austen develops in Charlotte throughout the beginning of her novel are all present in this initial ball room scene when the viewer is introduced to Charlotte for the first time. Before Collins proposes to her, the viewer knows that she will accept based on her plain appearance, her age, her kindness toward him, and the apparent lack of other proposals, even though Wright never fully addresses any of these issues outwardly in the dialogue that has taken place in the film thus far.
Wealth and material possessions are not as important to Charlotte Lucas as the social implications that surround them. Although Charlotte never believes that she will have the opportunity to marry someone as wealthy as Mr. Bingley or Mr. Darcy, one of the reasons she sets her sights on Mr. Collins is that “his prospects of future wealth were exceedingly fair”(Austen 83). Mr. Collins will be the heir to the Bennet estate and by marrying him Charlotte will not have to burden her brothers with taking care of her. The prospect of such financial stability is the best that she would be able to hope for as a twenty-seven year old unmarried woman. Charlotte sees Mr. Collins as her “chance” to conform to the role of wife and mother and find happiness in a domestic lifestyle.
After Charlotte marries Mr. Collins and goes to live with him near Rosings, Elizabeth visits her and notices that she has made her new home “neat and comfortable” and that the living room is in “good proportion… in its aspect and its furniture”(Austen 104). Charlotte is clearly proud of her house and her belongings, and she takes great care in making her home seem as beautiful as possible. She is content with her household because to her social acquaintances she appears to be a financially secure, proper, married woman. Charlotte believes in making the best of the opportunities she has been given: she feels lucky to have found a suitable husband and she takes comfort in being able to conform to a more traditional role because, unlike Elizabeth, she would rather be married to a man that she does not love than be considered an old maid.
Wright introduces Charlotte’s need for wealth and material possessions in the film through the dialogue between her and Elizabeth, particularly when she relates the news of her engagement and in the scene in which Elizabeth arrives at Charlotte’s new home. When Charlotte comes to the Bennet home to tell her closest friend of her engagement, she smiles and hurriedly tells Elizabeth that she will be marrying Mr. Collins. She says that she should be as happy with him as with any other man and that by marrying Mr. Collins she has been offered a comfortable home and protection. Although Elizabeth seems stunned that her friend would marry someone she does not love, Charlotte makes it clear that she is marrying Mr. Collins because with him, she has the opportunity to socially elevate herself as a married woman. She tells Elizabeth that she would never have this same opportunity as an “old maid” and that Elizabeth should not judge her for making the decision to conform to the role of the domestic housewife.
Later, when Elizabeth is invited to visit Charlotte in her new home, Charlotte tells her that she has a parlor all to herself and that she loves being able to run her own household. She never believed that she would ever be able to have control over her own affairs and she seems very happy to be able to contribute domestically to her marriage. Her happiness undoubtedly arises from her newfound social status as a married woman, and one who maintains a fairly large household, rather than from the joy of being Mr. Collins’s wife. Nonetheless, as illustrated through her dialogue with Elizabeth, the fact that it is her husband’s home that brings her happiness rather than her husband himself does not change the fact that she is content with her new life.
In order to maintain a respectable reputation as a married woman, Charlotte follows societal rules of conduct regarding her new domestic activities. She strives for the approval of Lady Catherine (the ultimate example of the upper-class elite), who could help the Collins family attain valuable social connections. Even when Lady Catherine insults her by instructing Charlotte on how “every thing ought be regulated in so small a family as her’s”(Austen 128), she remains calm and listens politely to the advice, even though Lady Catherine has most likely never cleaned or taken care of a household herself. Charlotte knows that pleasing Lady Catherine will have a positive effect on how the rest of the community views her, and that kind of high regard is consequential in her mind. Her status as a newlywed and middle class wife has not provided for many invitations to social engagements in the community because “the style of living in the neighborhood in general, was beyond the Collinses’ reach”(Austen 112). This is why Charlotte feels that she must be diligent in praising Lady Catherine, so that she will be invited to dine at Rosings more often. If Lady Catherine approves of Charlotte as a wife, Charlotte believes that the rest of the community will agree.
Although she may never be completely welcomed by upper-class society, Charlotte is content with her middle class status and believes that her decision to marry Mr. Collins has pushed her socially upward. In Wright’s film adaptation, Charlotte’s desire for social approval is revealed through the use of varying camera angles in the scene in which she, her husband, and Elizabeth visit Lady Catherine at Rosings. When they enter the room where Lady Catherine is expecting them, the camera flashes from Mr. Collins who walks in first, to Charlotte who comes in second, and then to Elizabeth who enters last. As the camera shows Charlotte walking into the room, her lead on Elizabeth seems somewhat aggressive. She appears to want to be seen behind her husband and in front of her unmarried friend. When Charlotte addresses Lady Catherine a few moments later, the camera stops first on her own face while she is speaking and then it goes in for a close up on Lady Catherine’s face as if Charlotte is searching for approval in her expression. The camera angles here reveal Charlotte’s own ideas about her self-importance as a married woman and her need for the approval of a woman of Lady Catherine’s stature. During the dinner scene, once more the camera flashes from Lady Catherine to Charlotte; however, Charlotte is slightly out of focus and all the viewer notices about her actions is that she is mimicking Lady Catherine’s movements. When Lady Catherine takes a sip of her soup, the camera then moves to Charlotte, who is also taking a sip of her own soup. These camera movements represent Charlotte’s adoration of such a wealthy and high-class woman. Her mirroring of Lady Catherine’s actions only reinforces the idea that Charlotte seeks her approval and believes that it is imperative for her to be known as a close acquaintance of the Lady if she wishes to have a reputable image in her new community.
Charlotte is an incisive representation of why women in Austen’s time were seeking husbands, material wealth, and social status. Without conforming to these societal ideals, women such as Charlotte would be alienated from their own communities and forced to rely on their parents for support. Wright artistically represents this theme in his film through his use of casting, dialogue, and camera angles. Although he does not have the narrative voice of Jane Austen to tell the viewer how to feel about each situation Charlotte finds herself in, Wright artistically replicates Charlotte’s viewpoint using visual techniques, making Austen present in every scene of the film: in the music, the scenery, the facial expressions, the dialogue, and the staging.
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