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Fourth in a series on rereading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Here are Part OnePart Two, and Part Three.

“Darcy is still the ultimate sex symbol” is the title of a recent article by Katy Brand in The Telegraph. The article features a photograph of Colin Firth and his famous wet shirt from the 1995 A&E/BBC Pride and Prejudice series. I can’t reproduce the image here, because I’ve promised to try very hard not to talk about the “white noise” of popular culture that surrounds Pride and Prejudice.

But now that I have your attention, I want to ask for your help in identifying what it is that makes Mr. Darcy so attractive — in the novel.

Hugh Thomson’s 1894 illustration of Mr. Darcy

He’s first mentioned as simply “another young man,” who accompanies Mr. Bingley to the first assembly. Within a few lines, however, he does become a “sex symbol,” with his “fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien; and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance of his having ten thousand a year.” He’s attractive because he’s handsome and rich. The men at the assembly judge him to be “a fine figure of a man,” while “the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley.”

Elizabeth’s prejudice against Darcy, after he has refused to dance with her, stops her from seeing other things about him that she might find attractive. Like her, he is a reader, who values books and libraries. As Miss Bingley says of him, he is “always buying books.” He thinks highly of women who improve their minds “by extensive reading.” He is also open to taking advice from Elizabeth. At the end of their argument at Netherfield about whether it’s wise “to yield readily – easily – to the persuasion of a friend,” Elizabeth offers advice – and Darcy takes it. She has only to say, “Mr. Darcy had much better finish his letter,” and he does as she asks: “Mr. Darcy took her advice, and did finish his letter.”

One of my favourite passages in the novel is the scene in which Darcy meets Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner for the first time at Pemberley, and both Elizabeth and the reader gradually realize that through his behavior to the Gardiners, he is showing that again he has listened to Elizabeth’s advice – this time about practising talking to people he doesn’t know. At Rosings, in response to Darcy’s claim about not having the “talent” of “conversing easily with those I have never seen before,” Elizabeth has argued it’s her own fault she doesn’t play the piano very well, “because I would not take the trouble of practising.” At Pemberley, Darcy demonstrates that he has learned from her metaphor, and that he is practising.

Yes, he later rescues her sister’s reputation and her family’s reputation. He does have a large estate, “his beautiful grounds at Pemberley,” and enough money to give Elizabeth, in her mother’s words, “pin-money,” “jewels,” “carriages,” “A house in town!” and “Every thing that is charming!” According to his housekeeper, “He is the best landlord, and the best master … that ever lived.” He’s handsome, and he can offer Elizabeth social status – in Mrs. Bennet’s words again, “how rich and how great you will be!” All these things make him attractive, but I would argue that one of the main things Elizabeth finds attractive is that he listens to her, and learns from her. He does so early on, when he finishes his letter, and he does so at Pemberley, when he shows he can learn how to talk to new acquaintances – and how to respect people whose social status is not equal to his own.

I can’t leave the famous Pemberley chapter behind without looking at what happens, in Austen’s own words, when Darcy suddenly appears and catches Elizabeth by surprise. There’s no description of a clinging wet shirt, but there is certainly sexual tension in the scene:

As they walked across the lawn towards the river, Elizabeth turned back to look [at Pemberley] again; her uncle and aunt stopped also, and while the former was conjecturing as to the date of the building, the owner of it himself suddenly came forward from the road, which led behind it to the stables.

They were within twenty yards of each other, and so abrupt was his appearance, that it was impossible to avoid his sight. Their eyes instantly met, and the cheeks of each were overspread with the deepest blush. He absolutely started, and for a moment seemed immoveable from surprise; but shortly recovering himself, advanced towards the party, and spoke to Elizabeth, if not in terms of perfect composure, at least of perfect civility. (Volume 2, Chapter 1)

We now live in a world that relies heavily on visual images, which is part of why “Colin Firth in a wet shirt” signifies passion and desire in Pride and Prejudice. Yet in the novel, Austen makes clear that this moment is significant not because Elizabeth is looking at Darcy and admiring his handsome face or figure, but because there is such a strong connection between the two of them already that “their eyes instantly met,” and they simultaneously blush at meeting in such circumstances. They’re looking at each other. It isn’t that the heroine and readers or audience are gazing at Darcy. Colin Firth as Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth look at each other, too, but that isn’t the main part that viewers remember after watching this scene.

Is Darcy “the ultimate sex symbol” in the novel as well as in pop culture, or is it impossible to separate his reputation in Austen’s novel from the way he has been represented by Laurence Olivier, David Rintoul, Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen, and others on film, on stage, and in pop culture generally? See how hard it’s been for me in this post to talk about Pride and Prejudice without bringing in comparisons from outside the novel?

Happy Valentine’s Day!

My page Pride and Prejudice at 200 collects all the posts in this series on rereading the novel, along with links to other essays and articles on P&P.