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Acting Victorian
When I translate 200-year-old English traditions into Persian, the strangeness disappears

By Mahin Bahrami
February 12, 2004

I had just finished watching a great movie and was about to retire. No doubt to give myself ample time to reflect on the scenes leftover in my mind, when I noticed another DVD on my desk. For months, a man and a woman clad in Victorian dress had been staring at me. Beckoning to at least release them from the cellophane wrapper. My usual sense of curiosity kicked in and I opened the cover, inserted the disc and pressed the play button.

By the time 2 am rolled around, some 8 hours later, I had finished watching one of the most stupendous TV miniseries, ever broadcast by the BBC. Full of gorgeous scenery, superb acting and of course, a fine plot. Adapted from Jane Austen's novel "Pride and Prejudice", the BBC had brought to life one of its finest television productions ever.

The story takes place in Hertfordshire, England, in the early 1800's. Elizabeth Bennet, a clever and captivating twenty-year old and the second of five daughters of a retired English man, is offended by a well to do yet arrogant and selfish Mr. Darcy who refuses to dance with her at a local ball.

Various side stories are drawn which include the other sisters and her friend, however, the tension and the intrigue is essentially developed around Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy's unintended meetings and witty conversation. It ends happily ever after when the two reconcile and get married.

What struck me the most, was the couple's interaction and the path taken to reconciliation. It's a story of first impressions, of vanity, of truth and falsehoods, of re-evaluations, of love and of unyielding pride and blinding prejudice. Character development is perfect and I must admit that some of the characters are not easily forgotten, especially Mr. Darcy. ;-)

One can't say that very often about most movie or TV characters these days.

Aside from the fact that it takes one on a voyage into the peaceful serenity of the English countryside in an era when Victorian elegance is ubiquitous, the captivating plot together with the wonderful and convincing acting abilities of the cast mesmerize the viewer continuously up until the end.

That all said, what persuaded me into directing the review towards an Iranian audience was that as the plot unraveled I noticed that many of the cultural values of that era, while embedded within the story, were identical to modern day Iranian culture or more generally the present day Middle Eastern culture.

The family's main problem stemmed from the father's lack of an heir. He had five daughters but no hiers. After the death of the father, the estate would be inherited by a male cousin. At the time females had no inheritance rights. The daughters' financial future and hence "happiness" hinged on finding suitable providers, i.e. rich and connected husbands for each and everyone one of them as soon as possible. The daughters age ranged from 15 to 21.

In those days chastity was of utmost importance. A wayward daughter reflected badly on the family's reputation. Perfectly demonstrated in the part where the youngest of the daughters runs away with a seducing soldier. The parents are upset because their misbehaving daughters have got the whole town talking. The mother won't allow the youngest daughter to return unless she marries the young soldier, thus saving the family's face. Sound familiar?

The young girl's misbehavior caused her sisters a lot of anguish. The sister's were worried it would diminish their chances at obtaining good husbands. To stir the pot even more, the chronological order of the marriages had to be from the eldest to the youngest. I should also mention that marriage between cousins was common practice, as well as arranged marriages from birth.

That story is almost 200 years and so is the cultural setting. The people who lived in that era are long gone. So are most of their cultural values. I live in the Middle East, but I grew up in the West. To hear and see these concepts acted out in English seemed rather odd but when I translated them into Persian in my mind the strangeness disappeared. At the end it made me wonder how much longer Middle Easterners will continue acting like Victorians and hold on to the very same values that the Victorians' descendants abandoned decades ago?

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