The Secret of Mr. Darcy’s Enduring Appeal

The Secret of Mr. Darcy’s Enduring Appeal

If you’re like me, since early childhood you have been exposed to a wide variety of romantic heroes: fairy tale princes, billionaires, superheroes, spies, cops, bad boys, vampires…the list goes on and on. But yet somehow Mr. Darcy always stands apart. He isn’t Prince Charming or James Bond or Superman or Edward Cullen, yet Darcy somehow manages to feel more real and more romantic than his fictional counterparts. Austen herself wrote some great romantic heroes, but Darcy is somehow different. Why is that? What is his enduring appeal?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. Any fictional character with such a powerful grip on our collective imagination is bound to be a complex and multi-faceted cultural phenomenon. But I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Darcy’s appeal as I’ve written stories about him, and I’ve identified some salient traits. While these characteristics are not necessarily completely unique to Darcy, they do set him apart from the majority of other romantic heroes.

  1. He is steadfast. She turns him down, but he still holds out hope for gaining her love.
  2. He is willing to overlook her family. Yeah, it takes him a while to get there, but he must love her an awful lot to put up with Mrs. Bennet, Lydia and Wickham. Talk about difficult in-laws…
  3. He likes her intelligence. This is a biggie. He does think she has fine eyes, but what he really likes is her wit, cleverness, lively conversation. Wouldn’t every woman like to be appreciated for her brain?
  4. He values her backbone. One of the first things he notices about her is that she stands up to him. I always assume most women treat him like Miss Bingley, fawning over him and agreeing with everything he says. Darcy likes Elizabeth because she’s her own person.
  5.  He defends her to other people. Isn’t this a female fantasy? A guy who will tell other people (including catty women) you’re beautiful and smart when they’re criticizing you.
  6.  He fixes problems for her. Yeah she generally takes care of her own issues, but she can’t fix the Lydia/Wickham fiasco. He wades into the scandal for her sake, and doesn’t even want to take credit for it.
  7. He’s played by Colin Firth (and that other guy who’s kind of cute too).

However, in my opinion #8 is the biggest single contributor to his enduring appeal: Darcy is willing to change his behavior for Elizabeth’s sake.

Let me say it a different way: He admits he was wrong and tries to be a better person so he can deserve her.

He essentially starts as a selfish character (at least in the way he views love and marriage) and evolves into one whose primary consideration is the happiness of the woman he loves. Who wouldn’t love that guy?

I don’t know about you, but this is a bigger fantasy for me than a guy who can play baccarat smoothly or defend me from gangsters (not just because those other situations don’t arise very often). No matter how much you love your significant other, there are always ways you wish he or she could change to make your life easier. But Darcy’s kind of change is a bit of a fantasy. Real life is far more messy. If your beloved does change his/her behavior for you, it tends to be with far more strife, more gradually, and over a longer period of time. In other words, changing one’s behavior (at least the behavior that springs from one’s intrinsic nature and beliefs) is a long, painful process.

But in Pride and Prejudice, this rich, powerful, handsome man who could wed just about any woman, changes his behavior because he wants Elizabeth Bennet. (Sigh. Swoon.) His willingness to change is a testament both to Elizabeth’s worth and to the power of love—which is part of the appeal of Pride and Prejudice itself.

34 Responses to The Secret of Mr. Darcy’s Enduring Appeal

  1. Yes, number 8 is always my first reason for loving Darcy. And he has no guarantee he will be rewarded for changing…although he does want her to know that he listened to and acted on her words…even if they were flung at him.

  2. What a delightful disquisition! Yes, it is one of his credits that he is willing to change for the woman he loves, altho’ I agree with the commenter who is not so gung-ho on Darcy’s changes. I think I’d prefer a man who accommodates me rather than changes — perhaps because that is the man I married. For example, he is an omnivore who enjoyed a meat-heavy diet when we met whereas I’m a vegan, and he is perfectly willing to accept that it offends me to have meat in my house and never even considers bringing it into the house. (He still eats meat — that has not changed — but when he wants to eat meat he goes out.)

    Regarding #7, while Colin Firth will probably always personify Mr Darcy for most of us, I’m inclined to consider Elliot Cowan a close runner-up. He played Mr Darcy in Lost in Austen and altho’ it was not an actual representation of the original story, I adored the film and adored Elliot Cowan in it.

    BTW, I loved When Mary Met The Colonel. I never thought it could work with these characters, but the story, and the relationship, played out beautifully. It was probably the most touching P&P/secondary character stories I’ve read. Wishing you a happy, healthful, and successful New Year 2017.

    • Hi Janis, Thank you for your kind words about When Mary Met the Colonel! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. With Darcy I think it’s impossible to pin down what is a change and what is an accommodation — particularly since we don’t see them after the marriage. I”m inclined to believe that he’s an essentially good person, but a bit of snob who changes some of his opinions about class after Elizabeth brings his snobbishness to his attention. If I were E. I’d prefer that change of heart over having my husband barely tolerate my relatives and continue to think them beneath him. However, one of the wonderful things about P&P is that so many things are open to interpretation and I recognize that my take on Darcy’s changes isn’t the same as other people’s.

    • You know, I have never actually thought that Darcy changed FOR Elizabeth. Rather, I think his love for her allowed her to show him that he was not who he really wanted to be. His good principles didn’t change; he just realized that his execution of his beliefs was not as good as he had thought. (Remember, Elizabeth says that she thinks “in essentials, he is very much what he always was.”) I agree that a person who changes to impress someone else can’t be trusted not to change again, but someone who’s core beliefs remain and who simply humbles themselves to put their beliefs into practice in a better way can be relied upon. Ultimately, Darcy changes for Darcy, and I think that is what shows that he is a truly good person. Like Elizabeth, I think it’s easy to love someone who is willing to do that.

  3. I too agree with your list! Darcy is human and it’s not so much that he changed, but that he tries to be a better man for the women he loves. Yes, Colin Firth certainly epitomizes the character of Mr. Darcy for me.

  4. Not for me- Darcy is not my fantasy. Having changed once what is to stop him changing again. I prefer my man to appreciate and accept me straightaway.

      • I really don’t have one, I prefer Captain Wentworth as a character. But reading romance is only a secondary genre for me, and only something I have been reading for the last three or so years. But I like reading stories about Colonel Fitzwilliam, I wonder if that is the Lydia in me

  5. Aaaah, that was a most excellent list. Yeah, Collin Firth will always be my Mr. Darcy. I simply cannot help myself. Those attributes are major swoon points to most females. I wonder what Jane Austen would think if she knew that her main character Mr. Darcy still resonated with the reading audience 200 years later? Excellent post.

    • Hi J.W., I agree about Colin Firth–he’s my ideal Darcy. I think Austen would be astonished that Darcy was still so popular, but it’s a real tribute to her writing that he still resonates with us.

  6. You summarized my opinion in #8. I do think, however, that Mr. Knightley is something of the hero Darcy is becoming. I suppose that is why I like him too. Above all, Darcy is just so human. It wasn’t really his core beliefs or character that needed changing, just behavior, and thankfully he was more attached to Elizabeth than his pride. A man who is willing to humble himself in order to help others and improve is really a man. And hey, Darcy is all man. Thanks for the post!

  7. I agree with all of that. I think you may want to add that he’s wealthy, though. I know that’s not what Elizabeth’s after, and I really think it’s not what a lot of women are looking for, in spite of some stereotypes. Still, it doesn’t hurt to know he’s financially sound. It’s like the whole princess/prince thing. No self-respecting princess cares if the man she falls in love with is a prince, or has wealth, or lives in a castle. It does add to the romance, though, knowing that, after she fell in love for all of the correct reasons, she also gets to live in a giant building with ramparts, towers, grand staircases, fancy gowns, no more worrying (it’s a fairy tale, after all) and the ability to do great good in the world.

    • Hi Summer, I wholeheartedly agree that the wealth is an important part of his appeal — as does being handsome. However, a lot of romantic heroes are rich and/or powerful. I would say it’s a prerequisite, but not something that sets Darcy apart.

      • Hi Victoria 🙂 You’re right, of course. I was just thinking of additional points, but you were doing Darcy specific points. I forgot about handsome, although I suppose that’s part of the being played by Collin Firth. I agree that his ability to change really sets him apart from other romantic heroes. I like point six the best, though, personally.

  8. Victoria,what a lovely article!

    I do enjoy lists and yours,based on the attributes of Mr Darcy,brought a big smile to my face!

    Yes,he is swoon-worthy,and to think that he,Master of Pemberley,changed to win the heart of a lowly country miss,is,I think,what makes us love him all the more!

    No wonder we read so many variations! We simply can’t get enough of ODC.
    Cheers for such a lovely article!

  9. Oh yes Victoria, I totally agree with this list. I hadn’t thought about it but he IS the most romantic hero. It’s probably for all these reasons that I love reading books about Darcy and Elizabeth to the exclusion of most others. I love both Colin and Matthew in the role, my favourite being whichever I’m watching at the time ?. Thankyou for this post.

  10. I agree wholeheartedly with your list, particularly that Darcy admits he’s wrong and is willing to change. He really is a good guy at heart. And, although I haven’t watched all of the 1995 version, I still prefer Matthew Macfadyen over Colin Firth. And the other day I learned something that backs up why. Anyway, thank you for the post, Victoria. I enjoyed it, and I love reading about Darcy…and Elizabeth. I love your books too. 🙂

    • Hi Gianna, I’m so happy to hear you’re enjoying my books! 🙂 I think the willingness to change is one of the things that sets Darcy (and Elizabeth too) aside from some of the other characters who are less sympathetic (like Wickham, Collins, Mrs. Bennet).

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