Pride and Prejudice was published over 200 years ago, but Mr. Darcy continues to inspire romantic leads and cause fluttering stomachs in English classes across the country. Why has a man who never cracks a smile become a romantic icon?
It’s certainly not because he is friendly. Darcy is severe, brooding, and condescending. Our first introduction to him is at a ball where he sullenly refuses to dance. Within Lizzy’s earshot, he describes her as “tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.” Even when Darcy proves to be honorable and loving, he is not approachable.
Clearly something about Mr. Darcy is charming. Perhaps it is that he is so direct. In his eventual profession of love, Darcy tells Lizzy, “In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” In a society of pretense and propriety, Darcy sticks out. Darcy’s charm also lies in his ability to take action. When Lydia runs away with Mr. Wickham, Darcy takes it upon himself to find her and solve the problem. And he does so quietly, without a show. Still others say Darcy is appealing because very little about his appearance is described, allowing readers to imagine their own versions of a rich brooding stranger.
For many fans, film and television adaptations have put a face to the name. Perhaps the most memorable Darcy moment to appear on the screen, is known by adoring fans simply as “the lake scene.” In the 1995 BBC miniseries, Darcy, played by Colin Firth, emerges from a lake, walking towards Lizzy in wet breeches. The video of the scene posted online by the BBC has 4.6 million views. The title has likely driven up the view count: “The Lake Scene (Colin Firth Strips Off).” The Guardian critic John Mullan writes, “I suppose it is inevitable that Pride and Prejudice be best known for a scene that Austen never wrote.” The scene has become so well loved that a twelve-foot tall statue of Darcy stands in London to commemorate it. Firth went on to play Mark Darcy, a modern version of the character, in Bridget Jones’s Diary, of which the latest installment is due in September. Firth has been Darcy for over 20 years.
Some Austen purists take issue with the portrayal of Mr. Darcy in the 2005 Keira Knightley version. Part of the distinction has to do with different audiences for a Hollywood movie and a 6-hour series on the BBC. A lot of it has to do with resistance to any Darcy who is not Colin Firth. While Firth’s 1995 interpretation is truer to the original text—flat out rude and haughty—Matthew Macfadyen in the 2005 film is distant and shy. Where Firth is polished and aristocratic, Macfadyen is a little more rugged.
But they both get to the core of Darcy—a character who is good but does not usually show it. The two actors create different interpretations for Darcy. Mr. Darcy’s final proposal to Elizabeth begins, “You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged; but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever.” Firth delivers the line assertively with a straight face, perhaps slightly humbled but still confident. In the same scene, Macfadyen speaks softly—nervous, embarrassed, and hurt from rejection. For Firth’s Darcy, pride is the reason for his rudeness. The 2005 Darcy is still prideful, but he is also awkward. In some ways, Macfadyen’s is more believable—his social awkwardness explains how Darcy can be so rude and yet so sweet.
Then there is the painful question: is loving Mr. Darcy anti-feminist? The Economist published a study that measured the popularity of both Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. The study judged the popularity of both characters by counting how many times each character was mentioned British books. While Elizabeth Bennet’s popularity is fairly steady over time, Darcy’s fluctuates from decade to decade. Darcy was hardly mentioned during two historical moments of female empowerment: the suffragette movement and the second-wave feminist movement.
But perhaps this trend is a rejection of the oppression of women in Lizzy Bennet’s society rather than an indictment of Darcy himself. Bennet defied societal expectations by refusing to marry herself off for money. Yet even as Lizzy resists pressures on women, her marriage to Darcy saves her from falling into destitution when her father dies. She is, as a woman in the Regency era, dependent on her husband.
Maybe this explanation is wishful thinking and Darcy’s entitlement can be read as domineering and patriarchal. But Darcy’s affection for Lizzy, and hers for him, should count for something. Darcy looks down on Lizzy when he meets her, but not because she’s a woman. He is an equal opportunity snob: miserable to everyone because no one is as rich or as smart as he is. Darcy also says an “accomplished woman” will focus on “something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.” So although he is elitist, he grows to respect Lizzy for her wit. That is why Darcy does not feel antiquated. He is only able to shake off his pride because Lizzy challenges him.
Part of the reason Darcy never gets old because is that he is so closed off that it’s impossible to say what he is really like. He is haughty but generous, rude but thoughtful, assertive but loving. It will take another 200 years (and another dozen movies) to figure him out.