On 28 January Pride And Prejudice is two centuries old, yet Mr Darcy still leaves Ryan Gosling in the shade (just). Stylist unravels the appeal of Jane Austen’s finest work
Words: Lucy Foster
I was 15 when I fell in love with Mr Darcy. It was the autumn of 1995 and Sunday evenings revolved entirely around 50 minutes of TV that would inform my opinion of men for the rest of my life. If I close my eyes, I can still picture the opening sequence showing delicate cross-stitch accompanied by a pianoforte soundtrack. Well, of course I can – I have the BBC box set. And I’ve watched it at least 50 times. Those six episodes of absolute genius have got me through illnesses, heartache, snow days and multiple hangovers. And the Keira Knightley film version? Well, put it this way – I first saw it on a lonely long haul (and then proceeded to watch it another three times on the same flight) only to go straight to the cinema the next day to see it again. The book? Devoured in the summer holidays while awaiting my GCSE results. And the rest of Austen’s offerings? Read and re-read so many times, I carry all her novels around on my iPad, for comfort more than anything else.
But, my mild Austen obsession aside, let’s for one moment focus on the greatest triumph in her back catalogue: Mr Darcy. A man so proud, so sure of his status, wealth, and position in society that he felt he couldn’t be seen in company with the poorer Elizabeth Bennet, despite a growing attraction. He takes great pains to keep her vulgar family from his friends, and when he can’t deny his feelings any longer and asks her to marry him, he feels compelled to admit it’s against his better instincts. Elizabeth rejects him angrily, but so great is his love, he protects her family’s reputation at great cost to himself without the hope of her ever knowing, or reaping any reward. That, my friends, is love.
Two centuries on, Fitzwilliam Darcy is still the man that countless women across the globe “definitely would”. In a poll conducted by the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2003, women across the generations voted Mr Darcy as the man they would most like to go on a date with. Keira Knightley, who played Elizabeth Bennett in the 2005 film version of Pride And Prejudice said, “I think every girl is looking for her Mr Darcy. I’d go for someone who is a little bit brooding and somebody you can have a good conversation with, a good fight with, someone who’ll always keep you guessing and make you laugh.” Stylist readers agree, with Jolly Brown adding, “Unobtainable. Distant. Brooding. Moral and tall!” to Darcy’s list of attributes and Nick Gabi Watson pointing out that, “Integrity is a very sexy attribute in a man!”.
My Darcy has been portrayed on screen countless times, each leading man trying to capture his essence with varying levels of success. First there was Andrew Osborn who appeared as Darcy in a television film in 1938. But it’s been the more recent interpretations which have really hit a nerve with female audiences. Matthew Macfadyen’s 2005 Darcy had bags more sex appeal than Laurence Olivier’s 1940 stiff-upper-lip version.
But when it comes to everyone’s favourite there is simply no contest. Hands down, shirt-soaked-through, it’s Colin Firth’s 1995 BBC Darcy. The attributes which Darcy possesses – he’s mysterious, intelligent, handsome, misunderstood, moral and unafraid of being mocked by a woman – still provide a template for the ideal suitor. A template which has been replicated by authors and film makers ever since; the unapproachable, difficult male figure who, although wholly unpleasant at first, turns out to be kind, gallant and selfless. And we fall for it every time.
He may come in the form of Charlotte Brontë’s Mr Rochester, Emily Brontë’s Heathcliffe or EL James’ Christian Grey but they’re still always essentially Darcy in disguise, a watered down version of Austen’s classic original hero.
Diamond in the Rough
The pursuit of a male ideal feels a little naïve but if there was one, would it be Darcy? With one look at the thousands of websites devoted to him, it would seem so. So, just what is it about Darcy’s formula that still connects so pertinently with the female psyche? “Human beings are not perfect but they are perfectible. Darcy is not a perfect man. He has lots of flaws. But that’s what makes him interesting,” says Professor Emmy van Deurzen, author of Psychotherapy And The Quest For Happiness. “Women are not attracted to perfection. They’re attracted to somebody who is passionate and warm-hearted, who is willing to love and willing to change.”
And that, right there, is the key to Darcy’s allure. Because, although it might grate to admit it, who can honestly say she hasn’t hoped her other half will change for her, just a little? Who hasn’t tried to make a partner a bit tidier, a little more organised, a bit better with money or more interested in their friends? Of course it doesn’t take long before you realise it’s a war that will never be won. Yet Austen managed to do the impossible and create a man who actually changes for love.
When Elizabeth stings Darcy with a verbal attack where she cites his “selfish disdain of the feelings of others” and how she might have felt sorry for refusing his marriage proposal had he “behaved in a more gentleman-like manner,” he leaves, mortified. When she happens upon him at his estate some time later, he stuns her with his kindness and generosity. “We need to look at how men react when they’re rejected,” says Dr Paula Byrne, author of The Real Jane Austen: A Life In Small Things. “Elizabeth turns down Mr Collins and from that point on he’s not terribly nice to her. But Elizabeth turns Darcy down and he doesn’t stop loving her. He’s not resentful. He is humbled by the fact that he is rejected and he tries again. This makes him a new sort of hero. Someone who is prepared to change; who is prepared to be transformed by love.” When Austen penned Darcy in 1812 she perpetuated the myth that a woman can change a man and it’s a model our favourite love stories have clung on to ever since. Although it took her the best part of six series, Carrie Bradshaw, who admitted that she was, “Just looking for slight alterations,” with Mr Big, eventually managed to change her perpetually selfish commitment-phobe lover into someone desperate to share a life with her.
Despite its nauseating references to Anastasia’s inner goddess, women bought into the story of Fifty Shades Of Grey, undoubtedly because Christian Grey actually – god forbid – gives up his red room of sin (or whatever it’s called) because he realises that Anastasia is worth it. Julia Roberts becomes the first woman to make Richard Gere actually sleep in Pretty Woman, such is his love for her. Despite having little experience of physical love herself (Austen was supposedly a virgin when she died in 1817) her view into the female psyche was progressive. She managed to tap into our ‘because you’re worth it’ culture where we have come to expect that we should be able to have a man who ticks every box. We’re so familiar with changing what we do and don’t like with our lives – making our careers, bodies, homes better – that we’re less willing than ever to settle for a romantic hero. And with Austen’s Darcy, we don’t have to.
And though we don’t want to spin you a yarn, the idea that a man can change for love isn’t completely misguided. “Research shows that there are certain genes in your body that have different possibilities, in that they can be ‘on’ or ‘off’,” explains Professor van Deurzen. “Certain aspects of yourself are brought out in certain circumstances while other aspects are dormant and that is one of the ways we can be changed by the way we live and the connections we make in life. It’s been scientifically proven that better relationships really do bring out the best in us.” In other words, if you’re with the right person they might just flex for you.
To love and protect
Darcy’s nobler instincts were revealed by criticism from his object of affection; Elizabeth’s company and expectations made him a better man. Yet, there is more to Darcy’s appeal. Let’s not ignore the fact that his money and status were able to provide and protect Elizabeth; two factors which still have currency with women today, despite our independence and fight for equality.
“Lots of women I see will say they don’t need men to protect them, but there is something quite attractive about knowing your partner has your best interests at heart and wants to take care of you,” explains Relate relationship counsellor, Denise Knowles. “Although today relationships are so untraditional, we still have a romantic yearning for romance, protection and provision.”
The idea that we secretly want someone to protect us seems horribly prehistoric but it’s innately hardwired. Evolutionary biologists discovered that the nuclear family evolved when men discovered women preferred males who provided for them and their children to those men constantly clubbing each other. And this desire is probably more pertinent now than ever before.
In 2013 women in their 20s out-earn men, are better educated and twice as many single women are home owners than single men. It may be a vastly different culture to Austen’s but that’s possibly why her writing hits such a nerve. Women have become so independent that the idea that every so often a man will come along and just solve something – not because they’re the decision maker in the relationship, but because they’re being thoughtful – is enough to knock us off our feet.
“Obviously I am capable of ordering (and paying for) a new mattress,” says Stylist’s associate editor Francesca Brown, “but when my boyfriend took it upon himself to do it without consulting me, it was just a lovely thing. To have the whole process taken out of my hands – choosing the damn thing, organising delivery – was just a blessed relief. I’m not saying I’m a helpless woman who wants to be looked after – it’s just nice when someone shoulders all the responsibility every now and again.”
The role of protector is only permissible thanks to another of Darcy’s qualities – that while he brings money and security to the relationship, Lizzie brings sparkling wit and intelligence. And, most importantly, he encourages this. They both contribute to their relationship, and for today’s woman, that’s the modern equivalent of enjoying protection. “Men and women now bring different things to the table,” explains Knowles. “What we need to be able to negotiate is an equal relationship and that’s not one where it’s all 50/50, but one where it’s give and take; where our partner can compensate for our shortfalls and vice versa. The desire to be looked after and protected is still there, it’s just in this different format.”
Then, of course, there are his looks. Or lack of them. Mr Darcy is a blank canvas – described only as “tall and handsome with a noble air” – meaning that women can project their own private fantasies onto him. Austen worked out that far from hair colour or physique, simple broodiness is enough to make women swoon. A study by the University of British Columbia (UBC) found that women were more attracted to men who looked brooding, proud and powerful than those who appeared cheery. “Broodiness can also be related to increased confidence and self-belief, which in turn equals greater protection and security,” says chartered psychologist, Dr Jane McCartney.
So that’s it. A man who is generous and kind-hearted; who can protect, provide and listen, and who is prepared to change; that’s what Darcy stands for and if you think about it on those terms, he’s really not too far removed from the men we know and love.
Who needs wet breeches after all?
Picture credits: Rex Features
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Is Mr Darcy Jane Austen's most memorable character? See more of her iconic creations here.