Last month at this time I was in Bath England, where I attended an event called “Mr. Wickham and an Evening with Jane Austen” offered through the Jane Austen Festival. I was in the UK hosting my first-ever reader tour, and a large group of us opted to attend the event. It was promoted as an evening of drama and music with actors Adrian Lukis (Mr. Wickham in the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) and Caroline Langrishe performing excerpts from various Jane Austen novels along with musical interludes by a soprano and harpist. Unknown to the audience, they also had a surprise in store for us in the form of a special guest.
When we arrived, we made our way to an empty row near the middle of the room, and headed down the line. I discovered the chair at the end held a handwritten “reserved” sign and a man’s jacket. I sat down beside it and my traveling companions filled in. A few minutes later, an elderly gentleman came down the aisle and sat next to me. He stuck out his hand with unassuming ease and said, “Hi, I’m Ben.”
“Oh, I know who you are,” I replied, with a smile that could not be suppressed.
I had instantly recognized Benjamin Whitrow, the actor who portrayed Lizzie Bennet’s beloved father in the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, my favorite adaptation and my favorite Mr. Bennet.
He asked my name and where I was from, and we carried on a pleasant conversation as we waited for the show to begin. He explained that they “had all driven down from London together”—I believe he meant Simon Langton (P & P director) and Adrian Lukis. Mr. Whitrow said they had maintained their friendship all these years later and still saw each other from time to time.
At one point, he gestured toward the stage and grumbled, “This is the last time I’m going to do one of these.” He meant, I supposed, that this was the last time he intended to make an appearance related to his role in P and P over twenty years before.
“Well, we really appreciate you being here,” I said. “Like many Austen lovers, I rewatch Pride and Prejudice every year.”
His brows rose in surprise. “Do you really?”
“Yes,” I assured him. “And you will always be Mr. Bennet to me and to many. That is quite a legacy. You will never be forgotten.”
He thanked me, and we talked for several more minutes. He asked me questions, offered me his bottle of water, and agreed to let my friend Rachel take a photo of us together.
In his long pale fingers, he held a few stapled pages—his script for the evening—which he soon turned his attention to, reviewing his lines as the show began, and now and again nodding off.
I, however, remained wide awake. I found it thoroughly enjoyable to watch and listen to Adrian Lukis transform himself into not only Mr. Wickham, but also Mr. Darcy, Captain Wentworth and even Mr. Collins. He really is talented, as is his costar, Caroline Langrishe, who capably performed all the female roles.
When the time came, Adrian Lukis announced that they were to be joined by an honored guest. Mr. Whitrow rose a bit unsteadily and walked forward to join the performers already on stage. For the first time others in the audience realized, as I had already done, the treasure we had among us. His frailty as he made his way up the steps was evident and touching. Mr. Lukis kindly and gently helped him onto the stage. “Mr. Bennet” delivered his first few lines in a thin, reedy voice, but as the audience responded, his voice strengthened and he performed his part admirably. He reenacted some favorite lines from Pride and Prejudice, like: “You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They have been my old friends these twenty years at least.”
Then, after receiving generous applause, he gingerly descended the steps and sat next to me again, but his role was not quite finished. During one of the soprano’s final numbers, he stood up and said, “That will do extremely well, child. You have delighted us long enough.” As you can imagine, that brought a rousing round of laughter and more applause from an appreciative audience.
Before I said goodbye to him that night, I took his hand and said, “God bless you.” I am glad I did.
Benjamin Whitrow died on September 28th, 2017, aged 80. The news of his passing would have struck a sad blow to my heart no matter when it occurred, but how much more poignant to hear the news when I had met and talked to the man only a few weeks before. I am so thankful I had the opportunity.
God bless you, Mr. Bennet, and Godspeed.