How can Esther Summerson be Elizabeth Bennet?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that actors need to work. If you have ever lived with a jobbing thespian you’ll know there is no hesitation when a gig is offered. It is also a truth universally acknowledged that the BBC loves to do adaptations of classic novels and that the ABC relies heavily on filling its older demographic time-slots (Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights) with the re-imagined worlds of Austen, Dickens and Trollope.

The problem for those of us who are not that old, and who are also confined to our homes on these party nights – due, mainly, to the frustrating legal requirement to actually be in the house for our sleeping children – is how many of the same actors crop up in these adaptations, again and again.

Sometimes, I long for the faulty memory of the aged, so I wouldn’t be able to recall that the actor playing Elizabeth Bennet in Death Comes to Pemberley (Anna Maxwell Martin), currently playing on ABC on Friday nights at 8.30pm, was the same one who played Esther Summerson in Dickens’s Bleak House.

 Yes, it’s a First World problem, and we all know actors are supposed to be talented enough to erase the residue of their former roles. But Elizabeth and Esther? How can the same woman possibly embody such different temperaments?

Let’s go back to the original sources. In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is described as having ‘a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in any thing ridiculous’. When Darcy first begins to fall in love with her, it is for her ‘easy playfulness’ and her face ‘rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes’.

In Dickens’s Bleak House, Esther describes herself as ‘such a shy little thing that I seldom dared to open my lips, and never dared to open my heart, to anybody else.’ She is, by everyone’s definition, a mouse of a thing, admired for her stoic composure in the face of tragedy but without any kind of sparkle. She is about as far away from the light, dancing Elizabeth as it is possible to be.

But, of course, Death Comes to Pemberley is, in fact, not Austen’s world. It is PD James’s recreation of the world of Pride and Prejudice, six years after the marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy.

Does the casting imply, then, that Elizabeth has turned into Esther after only six years of wedded bliss to the best of men? Oh, Elizabeth, has your spirit really been so crushed?

While she does not, exactly, have her eyes downcast, Anna Maxwell Martin struggles to make Elizabeth seem truly happy and it is left to a rather dull Georgiana to state the situation of the house, rather than have it shown: ‘You’ve brought such laughter to Pemberley, Elizabeth’. Really? As played by Maxwell Martin, I can’t imagine a single snigger in the place. While Austen did produce a more-Esther-like heroine in her last novel, Persuasion, Anne Elliot is not an older Elizabeth Bennet. Getting older does not have to take away the sparkling wit of youth or give us the flat-footed dourness which Elizabeth has in this version.

And don’t even get me started on the difficulty of adjusting to Matthew Rhys as Darcy, not too long after seeing him as a cold-hearted Russian spy in The Americans.

The fairy-tale marriage between Elizabeth and Darcy envisioned by Austen we know to be just that. The whole point of ending the novel with getting hitched is to block out the realities of life after ‘happily ever after’. In many ways, it is unfair to continue the story, although this hasn’t stopped hundreds from doing so.

Yet in all my imaginings of Elizabeth’s life with Darcy (and most Austen-philes would probably admit to spending some time doing this), the couple never became as grim as they appear in Death Comes to Pemberley. Yes, the plotline centres round a murder, so there isn’t much room for light-hearted banter. Yet the two main characters just don’t gel as the famous couple. Or is this just because the ghosts of their former roles are hanging in the air?

Perhaps one of the reasons the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was so successful was because both the main actors, Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, were relative unknowns at the time.

When it comes to adaptations, I think the less we have seen of the actor, the better. Then you don’t have to spend your time trying to forget how “Darcy” once shot three Afghan dissidents in the head or “Elizabeth’s” face was covered in smallpox.

Can we get fresh, clean actors for every adaptation? Probably not. Perhaps I’ll have to develop dementia instead.