If Jane Austen could see us all now, I wonder what she would think about the success of her works. She certainly did not make much money or gain notoriety for her writing until long after her death. Now her books have been made into movies, shown on television, studied in schools, and used as treatises upon the rights and roles of women in society. There are countess sequels and variations of her works, with her characters turned into werewolves, vampires, and even fighting zombies! In fact, there are books with Jane Austen herself as the heroine, a young Miss Marple, solving crimes wherever she goes.
Miss Austen created characters that people relate to, laugh at, and root for…yet none has become quite as popular as the leading man of Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. For many women, Mr. Darcy is the standard by which all other men fail! Two centuries have passed since his creation and yet there are dolls, jewelry, and even Facebook groups dedicated to the love of Mr. Darcy. Why? And is it a fair comparison?
I fell in love with Pride and Prejudice at the age of sixteen. My discovery of the novel was during a summer break where I basically lived at a used bookstore near my home. I am unsure of the reason for my choice, but history was made for me because I became somewhat obsessed and never looked back. I loved Elizabeth, strong, independent, intelligent, and unwilling to settle for less than a true esteem and love, despite harsh circumstances. I think one reason Darcy became so interesting to me was because he appreciated her first for her mind, then noticed her “fine eyes,” and then granted her his unconditional love and respect.
This was unique during this time in history. Women were still considered the property of their fathers and then their husbands. They were to be decorated with flounces and feathers, shown off in parlours, and attempt nothing more arduous than directing the servants and birthing an heir to the estate. Directly from this misogynistic society emerges Fitzwilliam Darcy, distant, brooding, a little bit awkward, noble, incredibly rich, unobtainable, and unflappable…until he was brought to his knees by his love for a woman “beneath him” in society.
I have over one hundred variations and sequels on my e-reader. Some are repellent, some are poorly written, some are humorous, and some are pretty spectacular. There is just something about a man who is so in love that he not only is willing to do anything, but also actually changes for his lady. This is not a healthy view, as it is extremely unlikely to happen in the real world…which is exactly why we love him! He is a gallant sinner, who offends his lady love and then works to regain her good opinion. He even goes so far as to assist his mortal enemy for the betterment of Elizabeth’s family and reputation. He is happy (eventually) to overlook her lower standing, her lack of fortune, and her ridiculous family to see the gem within all of that nonsense.
Most Mr. Darcy admirers have strong opinions regarding his portrayal. For example, if you believe that sodden-shirted Colin Firth in the BBC miniseries is the perfect Darcy, you are correct. All others are merely tolerable. Okay, that is my opinion (and the right one) but you see how critical and fastidious we can be regarding this most important issue.
I do hope that somewhere, Jane Austen knows how much her novels and characters have come to mean to people. She died very young, at a time when women were not appreciated for their literary genius. I do agree with her, when she said, “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not the pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” It sounds as if she was also quite opinionated, so perhaps she would have understood her readers’ reactions.