But one question did strike me on a re-read of the book: why the continued adoration of Mr Darcy? I had forgotten what a gloomy man he was, how chilly and peculiar his character, how frighteningly rude he could be. Sebastian Faulks labels the man a self-centred depressive – not the first depressive to feature in an English novel, but almost certainly the first to be a romantic lead. Surely, in the two-hundred years that have passed, what women want from a man has changed? We want men who are sensitive, emotionally intelligent, men who actually do things, who are fun. Right?
Yet as a heartthrob to millions Mr Darcy remains. Educated, literary women the world over can’t get enough of the man. Austenland, a film about a Jane Austen devotee who owns a life-size cut-out of Colin Firth, recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival – a comedic take on the whole wet-shirt effect that still rings disturbingly true. Elizabeth Bennet, it would seem, was far from the last woman to fall for Mr Darcy’s curious charm. Just what is it that makes him so, well, delicious?
Mr Darcy likes Elizabeth Bennet just the way she is.
She’s far from the ideal wife. She’s ‘beneath’ him, she’s slightly rough. She prides herself on her good judgement which she backs against the mores of the fashionable world. He doesn’t even find her particularly attractive, at first. But Elizabeth Bennet is all sparkle and wit, and this is what draws Mr Darcy in. He admires her spirit, grows to love her because, well, she’s herself. Never does he try to change her, despite the terribly high price he’ll need to pay to take Elizabeth for his wife, the social and geographical barriers the two of them will have to cross. Compare this to the plight of Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte, married to the irksome Mr Collins, whose attachment to her ‘must be imaginary, but still he would be her husband’. Nobody strives for that kind of love. Much better Mr Darcy’s brand of unstoppable love, whereby nobody else will quite do.
There’s light beneath the darkness.
Mr Darcy is a troubled and complicated character. He wears two faces: there’s the smouldering, arrogant snob of a man that most of society sees, but then there’s that alternative persona he begins to show around Elizabeth, all charm and honesty and wit. ‘It cannot be for my sake that his manners are thus softened,’ Elizabeth thinks, and yet it’s true – for Elizabeth Bennet Mr Darcy shines. It’s as if he needs an equally interesting woman to bring out his inner eloquence. Can this be Mr Darcy? For Elizabeth, and only for her, it can.
Mr Darcy intrigues.
Too ‘light and bright and sparkling’ Jane Austen critically judged her own book. And perhaps at times there is a brightness and a sparkle to unfolding events, as the characters take their places in the social comedy that was their life. But never does such a criticism apply when the narrative’s focus is on Elizabeth and Mr Darcy. Then, the storyline is as complicated as the lives that all of us live, their unfolding love for each other vivid and tangled and alive. Mr Darcy walks from the page and into the mind as a real person, someone who, despite ourselves, we want to know. We’re desperate to find the key to unlocking his tortured, troubled soul; it becomes unaccountably important that Mr Darcy and Elizabeth unite. For reasons such as these Pride & Prejudice gives us one of the most satisfactorily happy endings in English literature. And for that, over centuries, the man remains.
So happy birthday to you, Mr Darcy, you lovely, miserable man.