Mr. Darcy, Perennial Romance Hero

By Poison Ivy,

I finally broke down and watched the British miniseries adaptation of Jane Austen’s most popular novel, Pride and Prejudice. On romance blogs, people are always sighing over Colin Firth, the actor who played Mr. Darcy in the series. Of course, my own prior knowledge of Colin Firth comes from seeing him wear that hideous Christmas reindeer sweater in the movie version of Bridget Jones’ Diary. And I can’t get the stupid reindeer out of my head. But now I understand about Firth’s Darcy. He’s handsome in that lush, curly-haired manner that is so much the epitome of romance novels.

In a prior movie version in 1940, Laurence Oliver did a wonderful turn as an extremely genteel yet manly Darcy opposite Greer Garson, quite civilized and restrained. I’ve always thought that Olivier was extremely handsome and sensitive looking, just perfect to play Darcy. But thinking about his version of Darcy, I realized that it is missing the genuine male mulishness that Colin Firth manages to convey. And mulishness is really what Darcy is all about.

Darcy is the annoying guest who shows up at the party but is above being pleased. He makes it clear that he’s not having a good time, but still he hangs around, a visible downer to others. Darcy is in fact typical of many young men who act like silent boors in social situations where there is no woman present with whom they want to have sex. (I know; that’s a rather crude and cynical statement. But true, I believe.) Darcy can’t be bothered to do his share to oil the social waters. He wanders around the fringes of the party instead. The heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, overhears his too-loud, slighting estimation of her lack of appeal—the 19th century version of “No, I wouldn’t do her,” although couched in polite language. She spends most of the rest of the story resenting his attitude, and rightly so. It’s bad enough not to be invited to dance. It’s worse to be both dismissed and insulted by a stranger without ever having exchanged a word with him.

But I’ve noticed that—at least in romances—when a woman meets a very handsome, rich young man who is also insufferably arrogant, she doesn’t just forget about him. She wants to make him change his mind about her. I’m not so sure about the guy wearing the reindeer sweater, but Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy does inspire that kind of female aggression. And that’s the secret of his appeal. He makes few overt moves. But he’s around, and he’s watching, and he won’t reveal what he’s thinking or feeling. Isn’t that just like a typical man!? How horrid and frustrating. And what a shock when he does open up and he admits that he’s in love with Elizabeth despite all her vulgar relatives and her personal lack of fortune!

Pride and Prejudice is most convincing when Elizabeth Bennet tells off Darcy. She says out loud the kinds of things that Jane Austen herself wasn’t likely to be able to say out loud to the young men who dismissed and ignored her because of lack of looks or of fortune. And where Pride and Prejudice is most contrived is where Jane Austen gives Elizabeth and Darcy a second chance despite their hostile and openly expressed opinions of each other. Because in real life, they would never have met again. Or worse, if they had, he would never have broached the marriage topic again, and she would never have dared to reopen it. But in a romance, the mulish, unobtainable, handsome, and rich hero not only falls for the poor but charming heroine, and gets told off by her, he comes back for more as soon as he sees her again. In Pride and Prejudice, this happens via a contrivance so thin as to be the kind of situation modern editors would immediately reject. Elizabeth just happens to be touring his mansion and he just happens to show up there. Oh, come on. But that’s how they meet again and how he comes to do her such a service that her whole opinion of him changes. Not just her attraction to him, which was present from the moment they met despite her denials, but her estimation of him as a man.

So in the end, despite Darcy’s mulish manners in company, he proves that he’s a hero. And he and Elizabeth Bennet marry and live happily ever after, even though he probably still has very little to say much of the time. Kind of like a stereotypical real-life husband, come to think of it. Which may account for the story’s long-lasting appeal. The attractive, unknown man becomes the known, and his faults become a minor issue because he is revealed as a hero after all. Many of us marry men because we see their noble hearts. Like Darcy’s.

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