Mr. Darcy is an enigma. I find him romantic against my better judgment. I recently reread Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s most famous novel, and as always I enjoyed it. She entertains us with a portrayal of the comic chaos of the Bennet family, the charming relationship between quick-witted Elizabeth and her too-kind older sister, Jane, and the boisterous younger sisters, bold Lydia and coquettish Kitty, and tedious Mary, who insists on singing and playing the piano at dinner parties – to no one’s enjoyment.
But then we get to the sparring romance between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. How did this happen? Of course I know how – but Mr. Darcy is an enigma.
I am always cautious of Mr. Darcy. I am delighted to fall in love with him, but in the first half of the novel I ask myself, Who is that man?
Mind you, viewers of the film versions have reason to trust Darcy’s transformation. Colin Firth, in the superb TV series (1995), is apparently remembered for his wet shirt scene, which does not occur in Austen’s novel: what I remember is his believable transition into a charmer. And then there is the sullenly gorgeous Matthew Macfadyen in the movie with Keira Knightley (2005) – who can keep her eyes off him? Macfadyen, too, is a beliveable charmer, but Austen’s Darcy is Delphically inscrutable.
In the beginning of the novel, Mr. Darcy is grumpy. He refuses to dance at a small-town ball, though his friend, Mr. Bingley, who has been dancing with beautiful Jane Bennet, urges him to dance with Elizabeth, because there are not enough men. Mr. Darcy wounds Elizabeth’s feelings: she overhears him say of her, “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; I am in no humor at present to give consequence to ladies who are slighted by other men.”
That is brutal. But Mr. Darcy goes further: he disapproves so highly of Mr. Bingley’s falling in love with Jane that he persuades him to move back to London. And he convinces him that Jane is superficial, and that the Bennets’ connections are embarrassing and beneath him.
Not to give away the plot, but Mr. Darcy changes his feelings and proposes to Elizabeth. He is rude: he says he has fought against his love for her because her family and connections are so beneath him, especially Mrs. Bennet and her relations. Elizabeth refuses the proposal in no uncertain terms.
But later, Mr. Darcy does become gallant. And when we contrast him with the soldier, Wickham, so handsome, so sympathetic, and popular with the Bennet girls …well, appearances are misleading.
I love Mr. Darcy. But just once, I wish Jane Austen would (have) create(d) a male character I could truly admire. Reluctant Marianne in Sense and Sensibility is married off to Colonel Brandon (who falls in love with her in her teens, when he is 35), after her lover turns out to be a cad; Knightley in Emma is intelligent and courteous but again much older and too much a father figure, I think; Edmund in Mansfield Park, the clergyman who is kind to his cousin, Fanny, and with whom she falls in love, throws over all good sense when he falls in love with worldly Mary Crawford- is he worth Fanny’s love? The only Austen hero I love and admire is Captain Wentworth in Persuasion. He is not only intelligent, kind, and fun, but actually sexy – don’t you think?
Walter A. Raleigh, an English scholar (1879-1922), wrote of the men in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:
She knows a lot; and I believe she knows what she doesn’t know. At least, I shouldn’t like to believe that she thought she knew anything about married people or young men. Her married people are merely a bore or a comfort to the young – nothing to each other. Her young men, by Gawd! I will take only Darcy and Bingley. Of course they have no profession – they have money. But there is no scrap of evidence, no indication, that they can do anything, shoot a partridge, or add up figures, or swim or brush their hair. They never talk of anything except young women, a subject taboo among decent young men. (I find that women mostly don’t know that men never talk intimately about them. Jane didn’t know this.) Well, Darcy and Bingley have only one object in life – getting married, and marrying their friends one to another.
It is incredible, immense, yet it deludes you.
I did laugh at this, though I recall that Darcy invites Elizabeth’s uncle to go fishing at Pemberley when Elizabeth and the aunt and uncle are exploring the grounds as tourists. That is something, isn’t it? We do not, of course, see the fishing scene!
Being in love with a fictional character can be a trial. What do you think of Mr. Darcy?
This is, by the way, one of Jane’s most magnificent novels. The films are great fun, but are not to be compared to the book.