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Mr Darcy’s 200th birthday

Mr Darcy is about to reach his double century — and he has never loomed larger. What’s his secret?

January/February 2013

One night in the winter of 1995, I had dinner with Mr Darcy at a fashionable Italian restaurant in Covent Garden. I could barely eat, so busy was I drinking in the man beside me. His figure was elegant, his manners unshowy but delightful, and his eyes deep pools in which it would be a pleasure to drown. By my reckoning, I had first fallen in love with Darcy almost 20 years earlier, and I was glad I could still recall what he admired in a woman. "Be playful and intelligent," I told myself. Playful and intelligent. Like Elizabeth Bennet.

Female diners in the restaurant took elaborate detours to the loo so they could pass by our table, just to gaze on him. Mr Darcy blushed. He admitted he was disconcerted to be the object of such vulgar fascination.

"Be not alarmed," I said, quoting (playfully and intelligently, I hoped) the opening of Darcy’s devastating letter to Lizzy after she turns down his proposal of marriage. "You’d better get used to all the attention."

My dinner companion that night was not, strictly speaking, Mr Darcy. It was the actor Colin Firth, who had recently sprung—or, more accurately, strode out of a lake in a clingy wet shirt—to fame, playing Darcy in Andrew Davies’s adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice" for the BBC. After filming was finished, Firth left the country for a job abroad. By the time he got back, England was in the grip of Darcymania. When I asked him about the adulation, Firth wore the slightly sheepish expression of a mere mortal who knows he is taking credit for the potency of a fictional hero (Robert Pattinson, star of the "Twilight" movies, bears the same look today). A modest chap, Firth volunteered what had happened when he told his elderly aunt, a Jane Austen devotee, that he had been chosen to play Darcy. "Don’t be silly, Colin," replied the aunt sternly. "Mr Darcy is devastatingly handsome and attractive."

It is 200 years since "the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world" stalked into those assembly rooms in Hertfordshire and declined to dance with Miss Bennet because she was "tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me". Age has not withered Mr Darcy, nor inflation dimmed the power of his £10,000 a year—half a million in today’s money. For ever after, the love story of Darcy and Elizabeth would be the template of thwarted romance: let us to the marriage of two true minds admit plenty of impediments, then remove them, one by one. In "Pride and Prejudice", it is Lizzy’s inferior social position (and ghastly relatives) and Darcy’s hauteur which keeps them apart for some of the most blissful chapters in the language.    

I was 16 when I made the acquaintance of Fitzwilliam Darcy. It wasn’t love at first sight; nor is it meant to be. Austen’s genius in "Pride and Prejudice" is that she makes you see Darcy through Elizabeth’s affronted gaze. Just as Lizzy is hardening in her conviction that this arrogant man with a vast Derbyshire estate is a bad lot, so a mortified Darcy finds himself ever more drawn towards the lively young woman. "No sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes."

No author has so made us feel the way love’s chemical attraction starts to fizz and crackle, no matter how resistant the elements. Darcy and Elizabeth were not just for the 1800s, but for all time. Here they are in 1954, encapsulated by the great lyricist Johnny Mercer: "When an irresistible force such as you/Meets an old immovable object like me/You can bet as sure as you live. Something’s gotta give/Something’s gotta give."

Lizzy Bennet is the irresistible force that every girl secretly longs to be. Looking back now from middle age, I see that this must be the most abiding female fantasy of all—to meet a proud, bad boy and to make him love us and only us. What else is Christian, the aloof billionaire in "Fifty Shades of Grey", but Darcy with a red room of pain instead of a ha-ha? 

At least, that was my teenage response to Mr Darcy. Heady stuff for a booky, agonisingly self-conscious girl in the 1970s. Until I read "P&P", my notions of romance were gleaned mainly from the photo-montage stories in Jackie and from brief encounters brokered by friends of one’s would-be suitor in the local Wimpy bar. "Dave fancies you. D’you wanna snog him, then?"

The heart did not race at the approach of Dave and his Quavers breath. All young females are romantic novelists, feverishly plotting their own futures. Dismayed by Dave and his acned ilk, I began projecting intricate courtship fantasies onto the face of David Cassidy—handsome, rich, wonderfully unavailable. What these scenarios lacked in plausibility, they made up for in yearning. So, when I first read Austen’s masterpiece, I found what I had often thought, but never come close to expressing as well. 

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when Jane Austen wrote the first draft of "Pride and Prejudice", she was 20, the same age as Elizabeth Bennet. By the time the novel was revised and published in 1813, she was 37 and an old maid. Austen had had her day in the marriage market, that circus of young flesh, income and connections. Gifts such as hers had no currency at that place and time in history. The owner of a real Pemberley would never deign to notice a dazzlingly clever woman of modest circumstances, forced to move away from her childhood home by the brutish rules of male inheritance. In her fictional world, Austen could write that wrong, and she could right it too.

I always want to cry when I read the part where Elizabeth tells Darcy that his idea of an "accomplished woman" is quite a tall order: "Yes, I do comprehend a great deal in it…All this she must possess and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading."

Extensive reading? Oh, Jane, bless you. Thank you, beloved author, for speaking for all us booky girls down the generations, waiting for handsome multi-millionaires to be brought to their knees by our in-depth knowledge of 18th-century literature.

Fantasy? Of course, it is. No one knew more keenly than Aunt Jane, reworking her manuscript in an icy room, that Fitzwilliam Darcy was not coming to rescue her. I reckon you can see the novelist’s ironic smile when Lizzy is asked from what point she knew she was in love with Mr Darcy. "I believe I must date it from first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley," replies our playful, clever heroine. Lucky girl.

Four years after the publication of "Pride and Prejudice", Austen was dead. But the love of Darcy for Elizabeth is immortal. Why? Because his creator wanted to believe that a man could love a woman for herself alone and, by believing it and writing it with transcendent talent, she made it true. That was the case two centuries ago and it will always be thus. So long as there are immovable male objects and irresistible female forces, you can bet, as sure as you live, something’s gotta give.

Adam Foulds Novelist

I first met Mr Darcy at school and he didn’t make much of an impression. We studied "Pride and Prejudice" at the same time as "Wuthering Heights". Now that did make its mark. In Emily Brontë’s prose I found my own impatient, exorbitant teenage emotions, alienated and majestic, and envied the harsh and changeable landscape that was equal to them. 

Against this overwhelming natural light, Jane Austen’s world of conversation and dances, comparative incomes and social nicety was candlelight that paled almost to invisibility. Mr Darcy struck me then as something of a cipher, composed for the fulfilment of a fantasy that wasn’t mine but that I saw girls in my class responding to. He was very rich. He was proud and disdainful, an alpha male who was satisfyingly revealed to be sensitive, moral and considerate. He was decidedly attractive but not too handsome. This is a relatively subtle part of the fantasy fulfilment: too handsome is not attractive, therefore by not being too handsome Mr Darcy is actually maximally attractive, the equivalent of a Bond girl for a different audience. 

Most importantly he sees the heroine particularly, he notices the almost unnoticeable ways that she is exceptional, and he loves her. Wealth, status, a sincere, attentive, lasting love and moral solidity—who wouldn’t fall for this? Well, I didn’t. None of those were romantic priorities when I was an adolescent and I found Mr Darcy as a character to be not much more than the shape inflated by other people’s desires. I still do, but now my circle of empathy has widened and I feel the intensity of this hopeful daydream.  As a result it was the Austen that I read years later that I finally connected with. My interest in Darcy remains limited. I’m a Captain Wentworth man through and through.

John Carey Critic and professor

I have never met a man who likes Darcy, though most women seem to. Perhaps men are jealous of his possessions and his success in wooing Elizabeth. My own feelings are mixed. Sometimes I think of him as a monster, sometimes as noble, and I’m not sure I believe in either.

The monster is what you see in the first half of "Pride and Prejudice". It’s not so much his behaviour at the assembly-room ball that seems unforgivable. To say, "She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me," and to say it so that Elizabeth can hear, is, admittedly, gross. But you might excuse it as the awkwardness of a conceited, shy young man. Much more damning is his first proposal, where he starts by telling Elizabeth how unwilling he is to be linked to her ("In vain have I struggled"), and proceeds to dwell on his sense of her "inferiority" and on its being "a degradation" to marry her.

It’s the stupidity rather than the discourtesy that disconcerts. We are told that Darcy is intelligent—more so than Bingley. How could an intelligent young man address the woman he loves in this way? How he could imagine it would win her heart? When Elizabeth rejects him he is furious and amazed, and asks, "Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections?" When she accuses him of deliberately putting a stop to the romance between Bingley and Jane, he admits it unashamedly, "I rejoice in my success." The letter he gives Elizabeth the next day is couched in the same insulting, arrogant terms.

But that is the last we hear of the monster. The next time we see Darcy is when Elizabeth and the Gardiners come upon him unexpectedly while walking round the grounds at Pemberley, and this is a quite new character, a polite, affable young man who enters into a friendly discussion of fishing with Mr Gardiner, without the least indication that he is addressing a tradesman. This new, astonishingly improved Darcy is the one we see for the rest of the novel, tracking down Wickham and Lydia, paying out thousands of pounds to persuade Wickham to marry her, and insisting that the Gardiners keep his generosity secret.

How do we account for the change from monster to paragon? Do we say it is a flaw in an otherwise flawless novel? Or do we take it as evidence of the transforming power of love? Sometimes I think one, sometimes the other.

Helen Simpson Short-story writer

"Pride and Prejudice" was certainly my first Jane Austen novel. I was 11 or 12, and I remember being gripped by the scene in chapter three when Elizabeth is sitting out a dance at a ball and overhears Bingley urging his friend Darcy to ask her to dance. Darcy glances at her and replies, "She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men." At some subliminal pre-teen level I was very struck by Elizabeth’s way of dealing with this fearsome snub. She is not happy about it but she is not reduced to a weeping heap blaming the size of her nose or needing to write to Cathy and Claire—instead, "she told the story…with great spirit among her friends; for she had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous." Yes, that’s the way to be, thought my subconscious, acted upon by the novel’s jubilantly Augustan pedagoguery.

Mr Darcy is haughty and exacting and used to his own way, having been sucked up to all his life by snobbish toadies. He’s not a bad boy at heart though, and beneath the disdainful exterior he is—like all Jane Austen’s heroes—a man of integrity. It would be interesting to learn how many women have been persuaded to take on a bad-tempered control freak as a direct result of reading this book at an impressionable age, imagining that his habitual moodiness will be overcome by their own invincible blitheness. Good luck to them!

I asked my daughter what she thought of Mr Darcy. "We were 15 and we were supposed to have read it over the holidays," she told me, "but lots of us hadn’t. So Miss R--- was going through it, telling us the plot, and someone burst out, 'ohmigod, so Elizabeth got with Darcy!'  Then Miss R--- said 'Jane Austen couldn’t write it in so many words because of the times she was living in, but it’s very clear that Elizabeth and Darcy would have had amazing sex.' We all sat and stared at her open-mouthed, we couldn’t believe she’d said that." And of course she was right.

Meanwhile I remembered something else and looked up a story in my third collection, "Hey Yeah Right Get a Life", called "Burns and the Bankers". Hadn’t I needed to check a quotation from "Pride and Prejudice" while writing it? Yes, there it was, the bit where Nicola Beaumont, stuck at a tedious corporate dinner, covertly assesses her companions—"She eyed her table…and considered the men…Iain wasn’t bad-looking but for some reason he came nowhere. Tolerable, she smiled to herself, but not handsome enough to tempt me." Even stevens, Mr Darcy.

P.D. James Novelist

I came under the spell of "Pride and Prejudice" as a teenager, loved it then and have re-read it at least once a year ever since. My attitude to Mr Darcy is however ambivalent. He has lasted because, as the hero destined from the first to win one of the most attractive heroines in English literature, he is an essential part of a novel which will never be out of print. From my first reading, however, I found Darcy irritatingly arrogant, over-fastidious and occasionally abominably rude to people less important than he, and it was hard to believe that a gentleman of any century would have proposed to the woman he loved in the terms used by Darcy to Elizabeth. However, he did redeem himself by the end of the novel and I was always aware that as he was handsome, extremely wealthy and the master of so beautiful a house as Pemberley, it would be a considerable temptation for Elizabeth to fall in love with him. I have never been attracted to arrogant, Byronic heroes in the mode of Mr Rochester or Heathcliff and, although Mr Darcy had changed by the time he proposed successfully to Elizabeth, our relationship will, I think, always remain precarious.

Penelope Lively Novelist

"Pride and Prejudice" has been corrupted for me by film and TV adaptations. I can’t revisit it now without the faces of various actors floating above the text. I must once have read it untarnished, as it were, and I wish I could return to that original reading and recover my responses then. It isn’t actually my favourite Austen, which is "Sense and Sensibility": those sisters are more compelling, to my mind. As for Darcy, I am entirely resistant to his charms, especially when disguised as Colin Firth. If he intrigues at all, then it is because of the vacillations of the Elizabeth/Darcy relationship, which is so elegantly plotted. I think the novel turns on that subtly prolonged suspense, and my preferred characters are the wonderfully obnoxious Mr Collins, and poor Mrs Bennet. Where Darcy is concerned, I share Elizabeth’s initial indifference. I suppose his subsequent actions do redeem him somewhat, but he never appeals. What I take from the novel is ingenious narrative, vibrant minor players and the beautiful nuances of the authorial voice.

Ali Smith Novelist

Perhaps predictably, it isn’t Darcy who does it for me, it is always Elizabeth Bennet, whose quickness of wit, cleanness of expression and layered human fallibility has won me over since I first read "Pride and Prejudice" at 16. I was off school, in bed with something unidentified and dermatological; by the time I had got to the end of this first experience of reading Jane Austen, laughing, mind-sharpened and properly in thrall, my skin was healed and intact again. Clinique or Elizabeth Bennet? They’re both a gift of astringency.  

Fiction, though, goes deep, and it’s still the confluence of Austen and Elizabeth (who share a skin themselves) that delights me in this great work. Austen’s intelligent, unflinching, mischievous eye, part-caricature, part-forgiveness, works a miracle that’s humane, moral, but above all satisfying; her heroines get what they deserve, and we don’t just want them to, we need them to.  In "P&P", Elizabeth deserves the transformation and revelation of Darcy in the hall of mirrored transformations and relevations of herself.  There’s no better way to end the story and it will never stop being a perfectly calibrated piece of narrative satisfaction, with Austen working, both warmly and drily, as in all her fiction, on that deep cellular level of getting the balance right. 

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