THE DAMNING FIRST PROPOSAL

Darcy at 200: the critic John Carey has mixed feelings about the hero of "Pride and Prejudice"...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013

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.

For other views on Mr Darcy, read Allison Pearson on The immovable Mr DarcyAdam 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.

John Carey is a literary critic and emeritus professor of English at Oxford. His books include "William Golding"

Pictured: Matthew McFadyen and Keira Knightley in the 2005 movie of "Pride and Prejudice"