Slow Love for Darcy, or Slow Awakening?

Slow Love for Darcy, or Slow Awakening?

John Tierney, a regular commentator on psychological issues for the New York Times, wrote an article discussing the concept of “mate value,” which confirms a long-held notion that people tend to marry others like themselves in terms of looks, wealth, and education. He holds out hope for mismatched couples, however, through a process called “slow love.”

Studies show that the longer someone spends with a potential but mismatched mate, the higher they rate the other in sex appeal. Over time, an individual has the opportunity to uncover the other person’s strengths, which can outweigh the initial impression. (See Tierney’s article, for couples time can upend the laws of attraction.)

This phenomenon of “slow love” accounts for what Tierney calls the “schlub-gets-babe” movie formula, such as Knocked Up, in which the unkempt Seth Rogen lands the gorgeous Katherine Heigl. There’s a whole category of beast and the beauty TV sitcoms in which a not particularly attractive and often bumbling male somehow ends up married to a wife who is not only more attractive but usually smarter than the man. Kevin James has made a career of such roles in The King of Queens and Kevin Can Wait, paired with the unlikely mates, sharp-witted beauties Leah Remini and Erinn Hayes.

Tierney may be off the mark, however, in his other example, Pride and Prejudice, which he cites lovingly throughout his article. He notes that there are “hundreds of romance novels” in a category that some have named “Plain Jane and Hot Stud,” a theme that was equally popular when Jane Austen wrote her novels.

Tierney distinguishes between the features of Darcy and Liz on sociological grounds. Darcy, with his “fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien,” must find someone of equal attractiveness and class. His first reaction is to dismiss her looks: “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.” And of course she has the poor, gauche family hanging about.

That Darcy and Liz eventually get to know each other shows the workings of “slow love,” in Tierney’s view. He doesn’t challenge the assumption that Liz’s appearance is no better than “tolerable.” Based on Darcy’s initial negative reaction to Elizabeth’s looks, at least one movie production has made Liz a plain young woman.

But Tierney and the movies miss a fundamental point: All the other characters in the ballroom are described objectively by the narrator—Bingley is “good-looking and gentlemanlike,” his sisters are “fine women with a decided air of fashion,” Darcy is a hunk—though his “disagreeable countenance” soon “turned the tide of his popularity,” and so on.

Elizabeth, however, is never described objectively—she is seen only from Darcy’s eyes. Did Darcy’s sharp eye really see a plain woman or did his prejudiced eye overlook an attractive one? At the same ball, for instance, Bingley sees “several … uncommonly pretty” girls, including Liz. Bingley, of course, is intoxicated with Jane—the one acknowledged beauty in the room—and may feel he’ll make a better impression if his friend is more sociable. But he could have just as easily observed that, despite the lack of lovelies, Darcy should at least try to enjoy himself and not be such an obvious grouch. But Bingley doesn’t—he specifically points out Liz as being both available and “very pretty.”

Later, when Darcy begins to see more of Liz, he experiences contradictory feelings, and so Tierney is right about the effect of additional time: “But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she hardly had a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. … Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing; and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness.”

Two things about this paragraph: First, I risk heresy and expulsion from Austenia by asserting it contains the one line Austen got wrong. It would not be that Liz’s features were “rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes” but rather that her features were “rendered uncommonly beautiful by the intelligent expression of her dark eyes.” Unless, of course, she was physically gorgeous! Second, and more important, it is not the narrator describing Liz’s features, it is Darcy. His view of her is changing and along with it his perception of her physical attractiveness.

One of the charms of Austen’s sly prose is that the reader can never know whether Liz’s intelligence and wit eventually outweigh her poor looks, or whether her physical beauty becomes apparent to Darcy only when her many other attributes overwhelm his social bias.

After all, the book’s original title was not Plain Jane and Hot Stud but First Impressions.

16 Responses to Slow Love for Darcy, or Slow Awakening?

  1. Excellent post, Collins! I’m slow in reading the latest blogs, and just read Regina’s wonderful analysis of Keira Knightley as Elizabeth in the 2005 movie. Much of what you note here is why, personally, I thought the casting of Knightley was brilliant. To quote what I wrote on Regina’s blog:

    “One thing I especially loved is that Kiera, while undeniably beautiful, isn’t “perfect” in the supermodel, Hollywood tradition. Her features are asymmetrical, lips a tad too big, and her body not exactly lush. Personally a bit more bosom would be nice and Keira always looks like she is in desperate need of a dozen juicy hamburgers! Yet, the fact that she doesn’t scream “sex” is a plus in this role. It always felt to me that while Darcy clearly desires her, it isn’t solely the immediate rush of lust that just about any red-blooded man would experience when seeing a sexy woman. Rather, he desires everything about her, or perhaps desires who she is inside DESPITE her not being classically a beauty or with a voluptuous physique.”

    Granted, what is considered “beautiful” and “handsome” varies from era to era, so what Austen imagined as the looks of Jane, Elizabeth, Wickham, Darcy, etc. is probably vastly different that what we envision today. Yet, taking modern considerations into account, I believe the casting of Knightley fits the bill.Taking all the varied emotions and circumstances as they were, one can easily comprehend why Elizabeth/Kiera would not immediately strike a WOWZA response in Darcy.

    Thanks for a great post!

  2. Then there is the whole phenomenon of “Opposites Attracting” and “Sexual Chemistry”. Who can say for sure?

  3. Thank you for the post, Collins. It took me back to when my second husband began courting me. He was just a friend that I didn’t take seriously for a while, but after ‘slow love’ he won me over. He was funny, very kind, and one of the most humble men I’d ever met. I couldn’t help but love him. And I agree that Elizabeth couldn’t resist Darcy after a while when she learned what a wonderful brother, friend, and overall good man he was. It seems to help if one of the couple falls in love a little sooner than the other person. Kind of gives a nudge to the slowtop. 🙂

  4. I always thought it was interesting that Austen’s rare deviation from Elizabeth’s POV gave us Darcy’s perspective on Elizabeth’s appearance. We do know that Colonel Fitzwilliam thought her pretty, and so did Lady Catherine. So I consider it well established that Elizabeth was pretty, but Jane was beautiful.

  5. I always thought Darcy’s initial reaction to Elizabeth and the residents of Meryton, as a whole, is colored by his recent experience with Wickham at Ramsgate. Darcy wants nothing to do with “hangers-on” – ignoring any possible merits.

    • Regina, we’ve all acted poorly at a social event because of something happening immediately before–hadn’t thought about this being the case with Darcy. I’ll have to go back and check out the timeline.

      • I also thought Darcy’s reaction was due to being tired, irritated, and mostly still smarting from what happened at Ramsgate. The assembly was in the fall, and Wickham’s planned elopement was in the summer. I imagine, for a while, Darcy remained quite testy when around anyone other than family or friends like Bingley.

  6. Hi Collins,

    Thank you for an interesting post.

    I’ve always thought Elizabeth was meant to be pretty and that Darcy only said she wasn’t because he was being churlish. I actually agree with your flippant impression of this line: “rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes.” I think Jane Austen was making fun (because she so often seems to have been) by pointing out that attractive people are credited with other good traits as a matter of course. Take Wickham. He’s attractive and therefore ascribed all sorts of laudable characteristics he doesn’t deserve.

    To your slow love point, if Darcy can be said to have fallen in ‘slow love’ (which I may debate because he started to change his opinion of Elizabeth’s attractiveness almost immediately), Elizabeth must be in the same boat. She was the slower of the two. It took a great deal of getting to know Darcy for her to come to appreciate his finer qualities.

    • Elizabeth was the slower of the two to come around, no doubt. Darcy put a lot of obstacles in her way! The way Austen handles her astonished rejection of Darcy first time through is pure gold.

  7. I’ve always pictured Elizabeth as being very pretty in a way that’s noticeably different from her older sister. After all, Caroline Bingley tries to use Elizabeth’s obvious physical appearance to draw Darcy’s attention to herself when they are all at Netherfield together. And later, she criticizes Elizabeth’s features to Darcy. Why do that if she didn’t think Elizabeth’s beauty was somehow a threat to her?

  8. Yes you are right. I don’t think I had noticed that Jane never actually described Elizabeth as such but as Renata says her beauty was implied by others. I love Elizabeth in the 1995 & 2005 versions (and Darcy? ) and obviously his opinion soon changes for the better anyway. Thanks for this post.

  9. Quoting from Pride and Prejudice: Bingley “had entertained hopes of being admitted to a sight of the young [Bennet} ladies, of whose beauty he had heard much” and “Mr. Collins had only to change from Jane to Elizabeth—and it was soon done—done while Mrs. Bennet was stirring the fire. Elizabeth, equally next to Jane in birth and beauty, succeeded her of course.”

    Although the first statement merely implies that there were reports of the attractiveness of the Bennet girls, I believe the second implies Elizabeth is beautiful. Perhaps it might be taken only as a statement that she was more beautiful than her three younger sisters.

    But beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I agree that Darcy did not find her beautiful until he got to know her better. It may be a case of her intelligence making her beautiful.

    • Renata, excellent point that we have indirect reports of the beauty of the Bennet sisters, and several of the film adaptations show different girls, each attractive in her own way. I agree that this one statement by the author presumes that Liz is relatively attractive; but whether that means she is very pretty (as Caroline Bingley seems to think, see Elaine’s comment), or merely “tolerable” in Darcy’s view, is hard to say. What is “pretty” in a village may only be “tolerable” in London. My focus was on the ball, when all the other players, including Darcy, are described objectively, and only Liz is seen through the eyes of another character, who turns out to be an unreliable narrator!

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