We need to talk about Mr Darcy. That much was made abundantly clear by the news this week that a four metre-high statue of him emerging, dripping in that famous puffy white shirt, has been placed in the famous Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park.
Sarah Lyall, writing for the SMH, aptly summarised the rampant Darcyphilia that has followed that scene ever since the BBC’s adaptation in 1995: “Mr Darcy… caused serious chest palpitations among those viewers who were not dead, and remains perhaps the only time a man dressed in a damp, puffy white blouse has ever looked truly hot on screen.” Which I think is horribly unfair to Jerry Seinfeld, but I digress.
It’s clear that many women still haven’t gotten over the sheer sensual, ovary-melting delight of a sopping Colin Firth. The Daily Mail (the world’s foremost authority on the trivial) published a survey in January which found that Mark Darcy was women’s favourite fictional gentleman, a result only 95% percent undermined by the fact that the sadomasochistic Christian Grey from Fifty Shades was close behind.
Mr Darcy is hardly ideal – he’s a barely-reformed monster. But I have to concede defeat on one early point: Colin Firth. He’s intelligent, classy, passionate, with that fancy accent and smouldering eyes – look, I’d probably turn gay for him. (Col, if you’re Googling yourself, please contact me via DL headquarters, okay? And also, swoon).
This isn’t an article about whether Colin Firth is the ultimate guy, because he probably is. He was extraordinary in The King’s Speech, excellent in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and wasn’t even all that bad in Bridget Jones’ Diary, which is really saying something.
So let’s look at Jane Austen’s Darcy, if we can somehow divorce the original character from Mr Firth and his fetching aqua-blouse. Elizabeth Bennet disliked him intensely at first, and she was correct. The novel’s title supposedly details both of their character flaws – but while Darcy’s certainly proud, Lizzie is far from prejudiced, because she bases her reaction on his behaviour on several occasions. Indeed, in the value system of her society, there should be a strong bias in favour of her liking him.
At the Netherfield ball, he refuses to dance with Lizzie, which is just rude – not to mention foolish in the extreme if we’re talking Jennifer Ehle – and then makes critical remarks about her appearance. That, is the behaviour of – to use language that would not be welcome at Longbourn, let alone Rosing’s – a pompous jerk. Honestly, that would be rude at a dodgy 21st party in 2013, let alone in the excessively formal, polite world of Regency England.
Then, he tries to prevent Bingley from marrying Jane, which is appalling. Jane is lovely; any notion of social status dividing them is absurd, as she is a gentleman’s daughter. Also, his suggestion that Mrs Bennet was embarrassing was hugely unfair. If any of us were judged by our parents’ capacity to make us squirm on occasion, who among us would ever marry? I bet if Mr Darcy Senior and his wife had survived to make it into the story, they would have been more unpleasant than he is.
Next, he proposes to Lizzie, but rudely. Again, a pompous jerk. If you can’t be nice when asking a woman to marry you, when can you?
Now, let’s look at the case for the defence – all the things that later endear him to Lizzie. He relents on Bingley – well, whoop de do. And he goes to considerable effort to sort out the nefarious Mr Wickham and making him marry Lydia. Yes, but he was partly responsible for creating the problem there, wasn’t he? As he acknowledges, he should have warned them.
And what’s more, he was in love with, and wanted to marry, Lizzie. Oh sure, he kept the Wickham stuff a secret – but that was a precursor to a big reveal, wasn’t it? ”Hey, you know that thing where your sister shamed your family? Sorted.” It’s kind of like how I fix women’s computers to impress them, only with fewer calls to tech support.
All the nice stuff he does for the Bennets, like being so gracious as to let them visit his stupid big estate, and paying off the other jerk in-law, was entirely motivated by self-interest. He surely hadn’t entirely abandoned hope of convincing Lizzie to marry him, so it would have been far more awkward for him to marry into the Bennet family himself if Lydia and Wickham hadn’t gotten married.
Seriously, name me one thing Mr Darcy does that’s genuinely kind and isn’t motivated by his love for Lizzie. She told him he was a twat, so he set about making himself less twatty, but honestly, so what? That’s what we all do when we want to impress someone – we pretend to be a better version of ourselves, at least for long enough to get them to sign on the bottom line.
Oh sure, he’s a nice brother too, but our families, and particularly our adoring younger siblings, are the easiest people to be kind to in the world. The real test of Mr Darcy’s character is what he does to a social inferior that he doesn’t have the hots for – and we see that when he first meets the Bennets.
So, to summarise in a thoroughly unprejudiced way, Mr Darcy can go jump in the lake. Again. Ideally never to emerge.
Although if what women truly dream of is meeting someone who is openly rude to them, tries to ruin their sister’s happiness and then is helpful and kind only a long time after they’ve professed to love them, then I guess men everywhere should be grateful that the bar has been set so low.