Many thanks to Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine, where this essay first appeared in January. Please check out the magazine’s website and consider subscribing!
Not to make all of you out there in cyber world swoon, but I’m in Brooklyn at the moment at the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Annual General Meeting, so my responses will not be as timely as usual. I’m excited to meet Diana Birchall for the first time, but will be missing the usual Austen Author crowd that gathers at the AGMs.
Without further ado…back to Mr. Darcy…
Let’s face it. If you met Mr Darcy in real life, you wouldn’t go out with him after the disastrous first date. That’s assuming he condescended enough to actually ask you out, and that you, against your better judgment, said yes.
After the first round of cocktails, you would’ve made up your mind. You drank a mojito while he sent back his Old Fashioned for remixing. You found him snobbish, narcissistic, and worst of all, silent and boring. In a word—intolerable.
Don’t get me wrong. Just like most of you, I ardently admire Darcy and have since I was fifteen years old. (Having him as a first love sets the stage for years of dating disappointments, but that’s another story. It could’ve been worse. It could’ve been Heathcliff or Mr Rochester, both veritable sociopaths, but I digress…)
How, then, did Jane Austen, in the early 1800s, manage to create an aloof, egomaniacal, fictional man that smart, adult, liberated women in the 21st century swoon over?
The answer is: very deliberately. Austen employed sophisticated literary techniques and tricks that screenwriters now use, such as the “orphan” device. Darcy’s parents are dead and he has a nasty guardian—sound familiar? Any Disney film, or even Harry Potter pulls this stunt to garner instant sympathy.
Such slight-of-hand works, hooking us on a flawed character with hidden redeeming qualities; not the least of which is integrity, something Darcy has in spades.
Most intoxicatingly of all, though, after Darcy’s failed proposal, Austen pulls the rabbit out of the hat by having him do something that real-life people (almost) never do. He listens to Elizabeth! He changes! Darcy deliberately alters his less desirable characteristics for the sake of, and because of, his love for her. What woman can resist a man that changes for her? Darcy’s transformation, of course, is carefully orchestrated, note for note, by the ultimate of composers—Austen.
So how does she initially hook us on him?
It begins before he even comes to Meryton. One literary technique is the use of a foil character, and that foil is Mr Bingley in the beginning and Mr Wickham later on. Austen cleverly sets up Bingley in a very positive way, with the anticipation of his arrival, his large income, and the possibility that he will host a ball.
Before we even see Bingley we like him, and so, by association, we like his friends, including Darcy, when they arrive at the assembly. We get the running list on Bingley: “good looking…gentleman like…easy unaffected manners.” Yet, Austen presents Darcy with such carefully chosen words that within a single sentence we sense the testosterone oozing from him:
“Mr Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien…” (Chapter 3)
Before we even know how wealthy he is, he commands the attention of the entire room by simply walking in, lending a distinguished energy to him leagues beyond Bingley’s mere “pleasant countenance.” And, of course, the room going abuzz about Darcy’s ten thousand pounds is just the icing on the (wedding) cake, because Austen had us at “noble mien.”
We thought Bingley was fabulous, but Darcy, well, he’s all that—and MORE. See the slight-of-hand here? Austen does it one sentence! What a dazzling first impression Darcy has made! As we know, first impressions are often spot on, too…
Within the very same paragraph, though, we discover Darcy’s fatal flaw, and for the bulk of the book, Austen has us playing the Bingley-Darcy-Wickham comparison game.
Putting it into modern context, let’s say you bring Darcy home for the holidays. He doesn’t say much, except that he doesn’t like cranberry sauce from a can. Meanwhile, your pretty sister Jane has this wonderful boyfriend Bingley. He roots for the same football team as your uncles in front of the TV, compliments and pours wine for Jane, you, your mother and the aunts, and even bastes the turkey. Darcy doesn’t care about football, (and you like that about him), but he really doesn’t like your mother either and he’s off in the furthest corner of the room all by himself—reading a book.
Suddenly, all is forgiven. The man is reading a book.
Is there anything sexier than Mr Darcy reading a book?
Not to a woman who is reading Pride and Prejudice—a book! And not to a woman who relates to Elizabeth Bennet, who also happens to be a big reader. Austen knew her female readers would fall for a man who reads—hook, line, and sinker. Brilliant!
Once again, she uses Bingley as a foil. Bingley, personable as he is, is not a reader. He likes to hunt. But Miss Bingley informs us that Darcy has a vast library.
Then Austen delivers the line about Darcy that seals the deal for every woman that reads, whether they’re 15 or 95, and especially for those who must settle for borrowing books from the circulating library:
“…you have added so much to it [the library] yourself, you are always buying books.” (Chapter 8)
This conjures a delicious image in our book-loving brains! We visualize Darcy in a bookshop (a smart woman’s favorite place—on the planet!!) buying an armload of books. It’s not just the books that are sold here… By Chapter 8 we’ve bought the goods, haven’t we?
Austen indulges us early and often with scenes of Darcy reading (and handling!) books in the drawing room at Netherfield. The juiciest of all these? When Darcy tries to resist Elizabeth’s magnetism with—what else? A book.
“She attracted him more than he liked…and though they were at one time left by themselves for half an hour, he adhered most conscientiously to his book, and would not even look at her.” (Chapter 12)
Mojito and an Old Fashioned, anyone?