Peacock’s upcoming reality dating show, Pride and Prejudice: An Experiment in Romance, misses the point of Jane Austen’s novel entirely.
Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice in 1813 as a romantic comedy, satirizing the era’s obsession with finding a husband. In the 19th century, marriages were especially tied to class mobility, financial promise and a family’s reputation. A “good” marriage could bring wealth and land to a family as much as a “bad” marriage could bring inescapable poverty and shame.
That being said, Austen wrote her 1813 novel from the perspective of prideful Elizabeth Bennet and her wish to be an independent woman, unconcerned with relying on a man or his family’s wealth to bring her stability or purpose. Falling in love with Darcy was, of course, a happy accident but not a planned event — despite her meddling mother’s push for it to be. In light of this, Peacock’s upcoming dating reality show, Pride and Prejudice: An Experiment in Romance, feels especially tone-deaf to the novel’s insistence that love is something that is found, not forced into being through ball dances or walks around a courtyard.
Austen’s opening line of Pride and Prejudice reads, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Setting the tone for the rest of the novel, this opening shows the sharp-witted writer’s cynicism about looking for conditional love. For the 19th century, that line was as good as Beyoncé’s “Formation” song — calling other women readers to look at the absurdity of relying on a man for wealth at a time when that wasn’t allowed and even dare them to see themselves as more than a coveted object.
Peacock’s reality dating show seems to be keeping the Regency-era England setting of the novel and then tossing out all of its heart. As reported by Variety, the upcoming series will transport “a group of eligible hopeful suitors [who] will have to win the heart of the heroine and her court.” In order to find the right suitor, or “Duke,” the heroine will partake in carriage rides, archery lessons and hand-written love letters. Likely the only thing Austen would approve of in this unscripted series is that the heroine is in possession of a castle and a courtyard of her very own with ample resources (including a global platform) for her to use as she chooses.
However, setting a show entirely around the quest for romance — and relying on hackneyed ones at that — is bound to make Austen not just roll over in her grave but come back to life with fury. An unscripted reality show in the 2020s is as forced as a ball. Nothing in reality television is really organic (as the producers are tasked with upping the emotional ante and stakes of the episodic drama) and in that light, the production of the show itself runs contrary to Austen’s belief about love. It also casts the audience into the role of Mrs. Bennet — obsessing on the heroine’s choices, regardless of what she may or may not want for herself.
What drove the 1813 novel was the fear that — due to patriarchal land laws — the Bennet family would be doomed to poverty and homelessness should Mr. Bennet die. In fairness to Mrs. Bennet, her obsession with marrying off her daughters was coming from a place of fiscal fear. There weren’t many other options for her daughters to find wealth independently and without an inheritance. In 2021, Peacock’s show feels more like a joyful spectacle of Austen’s era. Coming from the same showrunner of LEGO Masters and Making It, the series will no doubt find a creative way to showcase Regency-era England, but it remains to be seen if it’ll contain the self-awareness necessary to make its heroine be the writer of her own story.
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