Men just don’t get Mr Darcy and how could they? For Darcy is not a man at all; he is the anti-man. He is everything a man is not and therefore we women adore him. Unfortunately for the fevered brows and beating hearts of Pride and Prejudice fans, he remains a work of fiction.
It’s not about the wet shirt, though that gratuitous scene from the BBC series set our pulses racing. It’s not about Colin Firth, though he is beautiful and the casting director deserves an award for that act of genius. Matthew McFayden, the Darcy of the current film of the Jane Austen novel, is not fit to wipe Firth’s shoes. Yet even he cannot destroy the overwhelming attractiveness of this great romantic hero.
Austen wrote a story that could never happen, and it never will. Elizabeth Bennet bravely points out to the rich, handsome and aloof Fitzwilliam Darcy that despite his many attractions, he also has serious faults. Crushed by her criticism, he chooses not to resent her rejection. Instead he reforms himself in a public and determined fashion in order to make himself worthy of her.
He even thanks her profusely for correcting his character: “You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled.” Her integrity and bravery do not lose her his love. Instead it deepens and Darcy renews his proposals and is accepted. This is the ultimate nagger’s fantasy.
It would never happen in real life. The normal course of events is the complete opposite of Austen’s romance. Overwhelmed by his superiority in social status, money, age and good looks, most women would work very hard to please Mr Darcy. We are very practised in the art of indulging men with smiles and reassurances. Only when she has managed to inveigle him into a marriage would the process of dismantling and rebuilding his character begin.
It is highly unlikely that he would appreciate these efforts. Do you think the husbands of the world ever say: “My object was to show you by every civility in my power that I was not so mean as to resent the past; and I hoped to obtain your forgiveness, to lessen your ill-opinion, by letting you see that your reproofs had been attended to.”
Sadly, no. Strange as it may seem, most people, especially men with their precious egos, do not like being told that the arrogance bred into them by their proud parents is an overbearing and dispensable quality.
Would-be Elizabeths should act with caution. Attempts to reform flawed characters will rarely find a grateful recipient. Typically, they will be greeted by outrage and disdain; she wouldn’t see Darcy for dust.
The entire Darcy-Elizabeth relationship runs counter to everything our own bitter experience has taught us. In the beginning he doesn’t fancy her at all. He finds her merely tolerable. His admiration for her grows as he gets to know her. Most relationships begin with intense attraction which peaks within three months and inevitably declines once the parties get to know each other. Usually, there will be a huge row and a break-up. At best, a combination of platonic regard and fear of being alone will keep things trundling along for a while.
Then there is all that repressed passion. Darcy and Elizabeth never kiss. She can’t even look at him when he makes his declarations of love. Women love repressed passion. Pride and Prejudice is 350 pages long, which if you’re watching the BBC version translates into six hours of foreplay. I’m not sure there is a man alive who can keep a woman excited for that long without so much as loosening his cravat, even if he does get the shirt wet.
The new film fails utterly in this respect. Apart from the unavoidable cutting of time and courtship, Kiera Knightly’s Elizabeth accepts the marriage proposal by taking Darcy’s hand and rather ridiculously remarks that it is cold. He makes creepy references to being bewitched body and soul. Then they lean their foreheads against each other. Sweet in any other movie, but not my Pride and Prejudice. Had over-ripe vegetables been available, I would have fired them at the screen. Darcy and Elizabeth don’t do touching.
Firth’s Darcy only needed to look at Elizabeth to convince us of his love. Their language is formal and even when they are hostile to each other, manners and politeness reign. It heightens the tension until it is almost unbearable. It’s tantric sex, but in conversation.
But above all this, Austen’s Darcy has one outstanding quality. We can put aside his wealth, looks and reformation. His greatest achievement is that he loves Elizabeth; ardently, violently and passionately. And we are Elizabeth, so he loves us. And oh, to be so loved.
Elizabeth is not the prettiest girl in the room. That distinction is reserved for her sister Jane. She hasn’t got the nicest clothes; Caroline Bingley wins the fashion stakes. She can’t even play the piano as nicely as Darcy’s own sister Georgiana. According to the measures of the day, she falls short of the accepted standards.
Most women will identify with her position. At every party there will always be somebody better looking, better dressed, with a better job, and who plays tennis or sings or cooks or does something, anything, better than us.
Therefore we have to hope that somewhere out there exists a thoughtful and intense man who is unimpressed by looks and clothes and charm. Because he is not distracted by the wiles and tricks of prettier women, he will notice that we are good and intelligent and worthy of love. He will forgive us if we temporarily fall for the charming but evil Wickhams of this world. In short, we can do no wrong. He is the perfect lover.
Real men need not apply.