It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Jane Austen novel must end with a marriage. Some people complain that this minimizes women’s experiences, but I think it’s a reminder that Austen was an icon who created many of the rom-com tropes we still see today. And also that women in Regency England had no control of their own money and were forced to view marriage as a business in order to avoid living in poverty for their entire lives.
But enough about reality! Let’s focus on the fun side: When a story ends with marriage, it first contains a marriage proposal. And who doesn’t love a good proposal? Some of Austen’s works have multiple proposals—Emma Woodhouse receives two, so does Fanny Price. Elizabeth Bennet is proposed to three times during the course of Pride and Prejudice. With so many proposals, and so many adaptations of Austen’s books, we are blessed with roughly a gazillion proposal scenes to choose from. I’m limiting this list to Regency adaptations—no modern takes.
2020’s Emma, starring Anya Taylor-Joy, is gorgeous and hilarious. It contains a Regency ballroom dance that’s pure sex. It’s also a little bonkers, and the biggest departure from the typical Austen adaptation comes in the proposal scene between Emma and her old friend Mr. Knightley. Johnny Flynn’s Knightley is appropriately flustered, impassioned, and romantic, but just as we’re preparing to swoon, Emma gets a nosebleed. I’ll be honest, I was appalled by this. And then it just kept going, and bleeding, and I had to laugh. But I’ll be clear here—I had to laugh, I didn’t want to laugh. I wanted to swoon. In short, that nosebleed either made the whole scene or ruined it. Decide for yourself, I’m not the boss of you.
10. Emma (1996)
I read an article that claimed this adaptation, written by Andrew Davies and starring Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong, is the Emma most critics consider the best. I’m forced to disagree, and that’s something coming from a huge Strong fan AND a huge Beckinsale fan. I adore them both. I adore this story. But while Strong’s Mr. Knightley is proposing, he tells Emma “I held you in my arms when you were three weeks old.” And that, my friends, is a deal-breaker. YUCK. Watch Beckinsale in Love and Friendship instead.
This is a silly novel—intentionally so. Austen may have written it primarily to amuse her family. One could argue that it’s not entirely worthy of a film adaptation because it’s so slight. But the 2007 TV movie is charming. It’s a fun watch, lighthearted but with intelligence enough to make the serious beats land. And Felicity Jones is luminous as the ditzy Catherine, playing her innocence without making her ignorance farcical. J.J. Feild’s proposal as Henry Tilney is charming, with a bit of naughtiness as he pulls Catherine into the bushes for a snog. This movie is a trifle that doesn’t truly belong on any list, but you should watch it anyway.
8. Pride and Prejudice (2005)
You know it, the Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen one. The one with the “Mrs. Darcy” ending tacked on for us overly sentimental Americans. Does it pass the Swoon Test? Indeed it does! But here’s the thing: I’ve read P&P so many times that I can quote whole pages of it from memory. This movie has never read P&P and doesn’t even seem to realize that the Bennets are a hideously dysfunctional family headed by a father who despises his wife and a mother too stupid and self-absorbed to notice. This movie thinks Elizabeth’s love scenes with Darcy were written by a Brontë sister rather than Jane Austen. The man first proposes in a rainswept wilderness ruin, and almost kisses Elizabeth when she says she loathes him. He next proposes on the moors (shut up, it’s moor-esque) before sunrise, when they’re both in their nightgowns. He’s so overcome he stumbles over his “I love you” and says Lizzie has “bewitched [him] body and soul.” It’s overwrought and goopily romantic. Do I love it? Yes, I do. Is it Jane Austen? No, it is not.
7. Emma (1996; theatrical release)
This is Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma, and she perfectly embodies the role of a clueless rich girl who views other people as dolls to play with. I remember loving this film in theaters, but it hasn’t aged that well, and not just because it managed to make Ewan McGregor look hideous. No, it’s the underlying theme of Emma being immature, shallow, and just plain silly throughout that doesn’t sit well in a world where we now know exactly what executive producer Harvey Weinstein’s views on women are.
Austen’s Emma grows and changes during the course of the story, and while she is guilty of being out of touch and manipulative, she becomes a legitimately thoughtful adult by the time Mr. Knightley proposes marriage. None of that happens in this film. Paltrow is still pouting and using a whiny baby voice even as Jeremy Northam’s Knightley declares his love for her. His proposal includes the pompous observation that “maybe it’s our imperfections which make us so perfect for each other.” It manages to be a little self-deprecating, but it’s also a great example of negging. Northam is so dreamy that he mostly pulls it off, but it’s hard to miss the whiff of condescension in his offer of marriage.
Look, it’s a spoof and it’s only occasionally successful at being funny or exciting. But damn if Elizabeth and Darcy aren’t sizzlingly hot anyway! Both of this movie’s proposal scenes are fantastic—the first one, combative on the page, is literally combative. Sam Riley’s Darcy and Lily James’s Lizzie beat the hell out of each other while verbally sparring, and it’s basically hate sex. But the second proposal, borrowing Austen’s language from Persuasion, takes the prize for most romantic Darcy speech in movie history. That’s right, I’m saying it’s better than Matthew Macfadyen’s triple “I love you” proposal. Fight me.
5. Emma (2009)
Johnny Flynn is fire, and Jeremy Northam is old Hollywood romance, but Jonny Lee Miller is the closest thing to Jane Austen’s Mr. Knightley to hit our screens. He’s smart, funny, sarcastic, warm, and imbues Knightley’s long relationship with Emma with all the comfort and intimacy of a true old friend. This version, starring the brilliant Romola Garai, is the most nuanced of the Emma adaptations, and his proposal is the most understated and realistic, which is what makes it so wonderful.
Speaking of Miller, he’s also the best Edmund Bertram in existence. This movie succeeds by replacing Austen’s judgmental, nervous Fanny with a Fanny based on Austen herself. It is a vast improvement, and Frances O’Connor is delightful in the role. Edmund’s “I love you as a hero loves a heroine” proposal speech is lovely, but what really sells it is the kiss. Nobody kisses like Jonny Lee Miller.
3. Pride and Prejudice (1995)
Most people consider this Jennifer Ehle-led miniseries to be the ultimate P&P adaptation, largely due to Colin Firth’s sneaky charisma. But Darcy’s proposals are terrible. His first is as haughty and rude as it’s supposed to be, which is no fun to watch. His second is…barely there? Lizzie and Darcy are on a walk, he vaguely proposes again in the middle of a conversation, she sort of says yes, and they just keep on walking and chatting. Where’s the passion? Where’s the kissing? Where’s the heat? It’s very disappointing.
But there is a truly fantastic proposal in this P&P nevertheless, and it belongs to Mr. Collins. David Bamber’s greasy, obsequious Mr. Collins is hilarious as he gives his memorized speech—including self-editing his own proposal outline in real time—and essentially uses Lady Catherine deBourgh’s words as his offer of marriage. He also criticizes Elizabeth’s vivacity, reminds her that he will inherit her house when her father dies, and tells her he doesn’t care if she’s poor while quoting the specific amount she is worth. Then he refuses to accept her multiple rejections and theorizes that she may never get another offer of marriage in her life. Chef’s kiss, Mr. Collins! This proposal is pure entertainment.
The 2008 miniseries is a solid entry, but the Emma Thompson-penned, Ang Lee-directed 1995 film is a masterpiece. Sadly, we never get to see Alan Rickman’s Colonel Brandon propose to Kate Winslet’s Marianne Dashwood, though it would surely be incredible given the combination of his amazing voice and the character’s patient longing. Still, we do get a satisfyingly romantic marriage offer courtesy of Hugh Grant’s Edward. Grant is in his charming floppy-haired nice guy mode, but what really sells the scene is Thompson. When she bursts into tears of relief and cries right through the proposal, the audience feels all the release of Elinor’s pent-up emotions right along with her. Emma Thompson is a goddess, y’all.
1995-96 was a banner year for Jane Austen. Persuasion is the most achingly romantic of the Austen movies, with Ciaran Hinds and Amanda Root as long-lost lovers reconnecting after eight years. Alas, the proposal from Hinds’ Captain Wentworth to Root’s Anne Elliot comes via letter, depriving us of an in-person declaration. Even so, it’s beautiful. And as she hurries outside after him, desperate to finally say yes, we can hardly breathe. His expression when he sees her, their hunger to be alone, their tentative kiss…all of it is part of the proposal, really. The entire sequence is filled with both exhilaration and a beautiful sense of peacefulness, just like love should be. And that’s why this one is the best.
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