The grumpy, snooty hero of "Pride and Prejudice", is about to reach his double century—and he has never loomed larger. What's his secret? We asked seven authors for their verdict, starting with the columnist and novelist Allison Pearson...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, 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.
For other views on Mr Darcy, read John Carey on The damning first proposal, Adam Foulds on Jane Austen's alpha male, Helen Simpson's Not a bad boy, P.D. James on The master of Pemberley and Ali Smith on The gift of Astringency.
Allison Pearson is a columnist on the Daily Telegraph and the author of two novels, "I Don't Know How She Does It" and "I Think I Love You"
Illustration Richard Wilkinson