I made a decision to use a mostly female point of view in A Constant Love, which meant that when it grew into a series, I had committed myself to quite a few books from a mostly female point of view. In some ways, I like that, but every time I do write Mr. Darcy, I find myself wishing I did so more often. As an introvert way down on his end of the scale, I feel like I get Darcy.
We introverts have had a bit of a renaissance, of late. When I grew up, extroversion was much more known and celebrated, and I could never understand why some people enjoyed constant talking, and going out in company every night. I liked these things sometimes, but not very often. Books like Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking helped me understand that yes, I was different, and that it was more than okay: it was good. They also raised this topic for everyone. When Cain wrote her book, she described introversion as being treated like a “second-class” personality trait. Her book and others, though, have changed that, and helped the world see the value of introverts. (Just how valuable? See Brenda Webb’s post on this topic for a number of famous introverts.)
Cain’s book also helped me understand that beyond introversion, some people (like me) are also highly sensitive – while they don’t wholly go together, 70 percent of highly sensitive people are introverts. There are a number of traits, well outlined in this article on Introvert, Dear, that go with being highly sensitive, from being very emotional (but often not showing it) to noticing details others miss. Like, perhaps, “the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow.”
I suppose you can see where I’m going with this, now. The idea that Mr. Darcy was on the autism spectrum has been much debated. I agree, as Elaine Owen does in her excellent analysis, that he wasn’t. But I do think it’s very likely that he was not only an introvert, he was a highly sensitive introvert. Many of the items on Introvert, Dear’s list align with Darcy, none more so than: “You’ve been called shy, reserved or introverted.” Yes, tick that box.
It’s number 5 on their list that I want to talk about for the rest of this post, though – becoming overwhelmed in situations that most regard as normal, like those with large crowds and loud noises. It’s one of the ones I align with most – and have struggled with – because I didn’t start to experience it until my adult life.
I have bad allergies, and spent much of my childhood with my ears blocked up, so that my hearing wasn’t very good. My mom actually had to intervene with a first-grade teacher who thought my reading comprehension wasn’t good…nope, it was the hearing! Let’s fast-forward through a tale of evil health insurance companies and an aborted attempt at allergy shots to when I was an adult, and decided to try the shots again. It took years, but they worked. They worked really well, to the point where my hearing improved. All of a sudden I found this whole world of NOISE opened up to me, and I struggled with movie theaters, concerts, even bars or parties where the noise level was loud. It took some time to figure this out, but I came to realize that loud noises were one of my biggest triggers of migraines: I got overwhelmed, and boom, there came the headache.
Being highly sensitive to noise is the sort of thing that’s usually diagnosed when you’re a child, but in my instance I had to self-diagnose, to a certain degree, although I eventually went and saw an audiologist. There’s not a lot I can do for it as an adult aside from carrying around earplugs, and avoiding situations that I know will have any sort of amplified sound.
I remember very vividly being at a bar with some friends where a DJ was playing, and people were talking loudly. I had a moment where I felt completely overwhelmed, like I was unable to process any of the sounds coming through my ears. It’s made me wonder if Mr. Darcy felt the same way at the Meryton assembly.
We don’t get a lot of description of what the Meryton assembly was like; this public ball in a small market town is one of those things Austen assumes her readers would have been able to imagine, or known from personal experience. In the 1996 miniseries, it’s got a certain local-yokel flavor to it; in 2005 it goes beyond this and it’s a raucous, class-mixed event. This is one of the things I think the 2005 movie might have got right: local public assemblies could be attended by anyone who could pay the admission, and so I don’t think everyone was on their most genteel behavior. Elizabeth certainly observes later in the book that “that private balls are much pleasanter than public ones.”
So perhaps the music was loud (as loud as it could be, without being amplified), and not entirely harmonious. Perhaps there was much conversation going on, competing with the music. Perhaps it was crowded, a description we do get from Northanger Abbey: “The season was full, the room crowded, and the two ladies squeezed in as well as they could.”
I certainly would have been overwhelmed at such an event, and perhaps Darcy was, too, although hiding it under his veneer of reserve. Perhaps that is what he means by “at such an assembly as this,” rather than the more derogatory meaning it’s easy to attribute to it. Perhaps it’s this feeling of being overwhelmed that leads to his insulting Elizabeth. We may never know. But personally, I think it’s quite possible.
Are you highly sensitive? Try taking Introvert, Dear’s quiz, and if you’re comfortable, share the results in the comments.