I'm a sucker for a good scene, dear reader; so much so, I always end up spending hours thinking about just one really fantastic scene in a movie or video. I was doing this just a few days ago about the first proposal scene in Pride and Prejudice. For me, its the pinnacle of cringe-worthy. I still don't think I've ever seen the full scene because I have to look away; its just too much like a car crash you can't take your eyes off, but you have to. And then I got to thinking...almost all the costume dramas with two proposals from the same man look alike: not just in color and tone, but also in composition and theme. The men are tortured, they shock the women they love with a proposal, and (other than Jane Eyre) end really badly. And that's not all.
Now of course, I'm going back to my old favorites with two proposal scenes: Pride and Prejudice, North and South, and Jane Eyre; and I'm also looking at both versions of Pride and Prejudice. What are the similarities? Well let's get started.
First, the individuals are always alone (which is appropriate considering the time in which the story was written). Furthermore, the men always come to the women and initiate the proposal (not a big surprise, I know); in other words, the men enter the female's world: Thornton goes to the Hale's, Darcy goes to Mr. Collin's vicarage where Lizzy is staying, and Rochester meets Jane in Nature by the chestnut tree. When alone, the characters are no longer bound to society's standards and are free to express their true feelings. This similarity is more thematic as an attribute of the novels; however, the translation to film is also powerful. You can sense the freedom the actors feel in these scenes. Having just two actors in the scene, emotionally focused and present, electrifies the tension in the scene.
Second, the heroine is always under a misapprehension. Lizzy is completely blindsided by Darcy's proposal; Margaret is the same; and Jane thinks Rochester is sending her to Ireland and marrying another woman (so SO the same). This remarkably stubborn streak of in-the-dark heroines has always been a theme of costume dramas. And its their lack of consciousness which fuels the resolution of the story and second proposal. AND makes for an insanely awkward first proposal.
Third, the main characters are always facing each other. This staging is for more than just dramatic camera angles; it is a physical representation of character opposition, a visible extension of their opposing view points. Picture: metaphorically butting heads. During the first proposal both sides are ready for a fight. For example, Thornton proposes already defending his actions, and at Margaret's pressing defends his very love for her. Darcy does the same thing. And while Lizzy is able to articulate her argument much more eloquently than Margaret, her shock is still the same as is her physical placement opposite of Darcy.
Cinematically, the first proposal is often edited full of short close-ups, highlighting how far apart emotionally and physically the two characters are from each other. The scenes rarely have the two character's in the same shot together, and if they are, their body language clearly closes them off to one another.
We can truly focus on this staging of opposition if we look at the second proposal scenes. In those, the characters are set side-by-side in bright settings, their demeanor much softer and much more calm.
Darcy and Lizzy walk slowly in the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice, neither leading each other towards Meryton, but both know where they are going. And while they do not touch, this walk together highlights their growth into mutual respect and equality. It's a vastly different scene than there cringe-worthy proposal.
John Thornton and Margaret do not walk during their second proposal, but sit together at a train station (this is one of the few major scenes from a book that the BBC changed during the adaptation process). The train station is halfway between Milton and London, and so it is neutral ground for both characters. They sit together, but are angled towards each other; most importantly, they are filmed up close with the other always in the shot as well. Their nearness is in large contrast to Thornton's first proposal where a whole table and room where in between them.
The 1988 version of Jane Eyre also follows this second proposal format, and it can be seen in the 2008 version as well. Like in Pride and Prejudice and North and South, Jane and Rochester sit side-by-side, and combined with the longer camera shots, this staging helps to empower the sense of equality and mutual determination both characters share moving forward. By having both characters sit towards a common direction and be close physically, they parallel their new outlooks towards common goals and common futures. In comparison, Rochester's first proposal may have seemed like a shared goal for Jane; however, it is not. Jane's goal is to have a loving, yet socially questionable marriage with the man she loves; Rochester's goal is to posses the women he loves, but lie to her to gain her trust.
Now I'm sure dear reader, you're sitting at your computer thinking I have WAY too much time on my hands, and you're right. I think I do too. BUT, I also think these themes are a really remarkable continuity between our favorite costume drama adaptations. We always say we love the second proposals, but can we say why? Yes we love them on screen for the same reasons we love them in print, but we shouldn't downplay the power of the cinematic set-up. Clearly, its a formula that works well, even with all the unique variations, because if we find it in our classic three favorites, I'm sure its in many more adaptations as well.