Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Austen, Katy Brand, literature, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, Mr. Darcy, Pemberley, Pride and Prejudice, Pride and Prejudice 200th anniversary
Fourth in a series on rereading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Here are Part One, Part 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.
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.
Theresa Hupp said:
My mother always said, “It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one.” So wealth is definitely part of Mr. Darcy’s appeal.
Your point about him listening to Elizabeth and changing his behavior in response is a good one. I’d also say he does things for her with no expectation of any return, like salvaging Lydia’s reputation, though he also felt some guilt over not disclosing Wickham’s character before Lydia eloped with Wickham.
A handsome, rich man who will do anything for you is a hard man to resist.
Sarah Emsley said:
Ha! Yes, “go where the rich are and marry for love,” as I once heard someone say. Although Elizabeth can’t help it that a rich man comes to visit her neighbourhood. I like your point about how Darcy is generous without expecting something in return. Thanks, Theresa.
I like your post! You might like mine too 🙂 http://contemplatinglove.com/2012/09/18/love-contemplation-no-12-the-mr-darcy-syndrome/
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For years I often wondered why I found Mr Darcy so attractive (but only in the novel and as portrayed by Colin Firth). I was not until several years ago that I realized he was ‘my type’ and that my husband shared a number of his characteristics. The question then is did I find Mr Darcy more attractive because he resembled my husband or the other way round?
Sarah Emsley said:
I found your post and all of the comments very interesting, but I think Darcy has two attractive qualities that have not been mentioned yet (although the first has been touched on by several people). First, he gives every impression of kindness to me. His tenderness toward his sister, the care he must show his housekeeper, his hospitality to the Gardiners and his charity to Wickham and Lydia are all evidence of a kind nature. Even his advice to Bingley seems to have been rooted in genuine concern for his friend. Secondly, I admire that he has the courage of his convictions. He does not allow Lady Catherine to dissuade him from engaging with Elizabeth, and he holds certain views (for example, his dislike of Wickham) firmly despite the obvious unpopularity of those sentiments among others. I think both these traits demonstrate a quality of character which is not often seen in fictional heroes.
Sarah Emsley said:
Thanks very much for your comments. I agree with you, his kindness is very important, and the way it’s gradually revealed to us through the examples you mention is effective. The earlier examples build up to the major decision he makes to extend kindness and generosity to Wickham and Lydia. And yes, he is a man of conviction, determined to judge for himself. Thanks for drawing attention to these important and attractive aspects of his character.
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For me power is very important, & IMO P&P has always been all about power, something men often go after (or are at least accused of going after) to attract women, possibly even more than about irony and wit. Who is the embodiment of power if not Darcy? He is tall, handsome, clever, filthy (and responsibly) rich, and kind. But I don’t find him compelling, even despite seeing him in this light, while Elizabeth is so dead set against him because all my sympathies are with her. Then it turns out that there is a greater power that is unknown to its possessor until it revealed with such striking force that she cannot grasp the reality that she possesses it until after she has made some very regrettable and seemingly unretractable accusations and thereby driven this powerful man to his knees. I find the way Darcy responds to being driven to his knees very attractive,
Sarah Emsley said:
Yes, it’s important that Elizabeth and her family and neighbours all dislike Darcy after he appears proud and disagreeable at the first assembly. His wealth, power, and good looks are not enough to make them think well of him. Kindness, intelligence, and humility turn out to be far more powerful than worldly power. Thanks for visiting!
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I’m a year late to this post, so it may not register much, but can hardly resist a good Jane Austen discussion.
In this case, I’m tempted to post because in my most recent re-reading of P & P, I find that Darcy has lost his appeal for me. I get the points that the previous posters have made. His basic integrity, his kindness towards those he’s taken an interest in.
Yet, I keep thinking…he criticizes the Bennets (deservedly so) while he himself travels with two of the most insipid and pettily vicious creatures, the Bingley sisters. Not to mention Mr. Hurst. Are we to suppose that really stimulating, intelligent conversation is going on amongst this crew? Not if we take Elizabeth’s sojourn at Netherfield as any guide.
Also, if Darcy is as “clever” as Austen says he is, he must recognize that Caroline’s angling for him. Is it right or wise for him to continue this intimacy?
Yes, they’re Bingley’s sisters and Bingley is his particular friend. But, I don’t think the company he surrounds himself with entitles him to look down on the poverty of conversation and wit that he finds in Meryton and surroundings. The only thing that distinguishes the quality of conversation is the amount of money some of the conversationalists have.
Then, there is Lady Catherine De Bourgh who says one of the most fatuous things in the book, “If I had ever learnt, I should have been a true proficient.” (one of my all-time favorite Austen sayings.)
Lady Catherine and the Bingleys apparently have a bit of social style or mannerisms that, on very superficial level, allow them to look better than the Bennets and others. But, only at a very superficial level. Darcy is not that young a man to be blind to this.
I realize, as I think these thoughts, that this is part of Austen’s point. That Elizabeth has drawn his attention to the importance of living his principles. (I’m forgetting how he puts it in the second proposal.) But, the idea is, she made a better man of him – striving to deserve her love, he became a better man.
And, that’s what I find unconvincing or less appealing. I want him to already have been a better man. Why should Elizabeth think well of a man who goes through life surrounded by non-entities merely because they have money? If he has that much money and freedom, he can do better.
Thanks for letting me ramble. Mr. Darcy has such a large fan base (with or without the Colin Firth incarnation), that he can stand to lose one. Plus, I will no doubt adopt the Caroline Bingley strategy of paying off all civil arrears so as to retain visiting privileges to Pemberly.
Sarah Emsley said:
What an interesting perspective on Darcy — thanks so much for sharing your recent reassessment of his character. I see what you mean about the people he travels with. I guess putting up with the Bingley sisters is the price he has to pay for the company of their excellent brother. But does he have any other friends who meet the standard set by the Gardiners, for example? He must have lived a lonely life if Bingley and his sister (and perhaps his housekeeper) are the only sensible people he sees regularly. Thanks very much for visiting. I’m always happy to continue the P&P conversation, even in the year of Mansfield Park.
Judy Konos said:
Mr. Darcy is most handsome because he is Colin Firth and for no other reason
Sarah Emsley said:
Colin Firth is certainly a handsome Darcy — but that can’t be the only reason for Darcy’s popularity as a literary hero!
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Joan Doyle said:
I am a couple years late in reading and responding to this post. You explained Darcy’s attractiveness in much better words than I could. I agree with what you have written wholeheartedly. It isn’t his appearance or his wealth, although at some point Elizabeth notices these attributes but it is the fact that he listens to her, accepts that he may have been wrong and attempts to adjust his behavior to please her. To add to all of that he rescues Lydia without looking for any thanks or appreciation. He does it all out of love for Elizabeth. In turn he becomes a better man and becomes worthy of Elizabeth’s love. To me this is the ultimate love story.
I love Persuasion and it’s romantic tale but I don’t think Captain Wentworth measures up to Darcy. He holds back too much. He declares his love only after he overhears her conversation about love. In Emma, Mr. Knightley chides and encourages Emma to be a better person. He clearly loves her even with her shortcomings. This is an attractive and romantic quality. However, for me, Darcy’s personal struggles, his strength of character and his steadfast love for Elizabeth make him the most attractive and romantic man in the literature.
Sarah Emsley said:
Thank you, Joan, for the comparisons with Captain Wentworth and Mr. Knightley. That’s an interesting point about Wentworth holding back too much. I’ll think about that the next time I read Persuasion. I like that Emma loves Mr. Knightley in spite of any faults he may have, as well.
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First of all, apologies for my bad english, I am Spanish. As for Darcy… the are a lot of reasons… a lot. He is not a romantic hero. There is no drama in his behavior. Do not flatter her with gifts: he is not a manipulator. He didn´t like Elizabeth at first glance, but he was capable of review first impressions (faster tan Lizzy). He is a smart, reasonable and sensible person, who knows how to recognize his mistakes and correct them. His reaction to Elizabeth’s rejection is unsurpassed and surprises us every time we read it. Do not whines, but justifies what he believe is his responsibility through a letter. The same for the second proposal: I still love you, bur if you don´t love me, I will leave you forever. That’s, I think, the best act of love.
After the letter, he doesn’t insist. He would have left her alone forever if it had not been because chance came back to cross their paths. Then he wanted to show Elizabeth that her reproaches had been heard, but without any indecent displays of affection. He did not hold a grudge for his bitter words, he does not make her feel guilty about being mistaken in some things, such as Wickham’s case. He is a man of acts, he does everything in his power for his loved ones without asking for anything in return. She helped Lydia by Elizabeth, knowing that her ruin would also be her family’s, and her sense of responsibility by not revealing Wickham’s true character. When he had corrected his blunders, also with Bingley, he left.
But perhaps the most important thing is… that he truly loves Lizzy for her intelligence an wit, not only for her physical appearance. And this is important because this is an indicator that he loves her as his equal, that he is not searching for a submissive or “foolish” wife. Elizabeth is a very special woman at that time, so the fact than Darcy loves her for that is really impressive.
I think you make a good defense of Mr. Darcy. I’m still in my stand-offish mode about him, but you have highlighted his integrity and willingness to improve and it is impressive of him as a character.
Tahnk you maidrya. Of course, that was just my opinion, I’m not trying to convince anyone. But I have to confess that I also prefer him because I identify with him in certain respects.
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Thanks for the fun read. Congratulations Sarah on your eight years of blogging! This article on Mr. Darcy reminds me of one of my favorites in your recent series about Northanger Abby. I think it was called something like, “In Defense of Henry Tilney.” I liked him even more after reading that, maybe even more than Darcy. Though it’s hard to say which Austen hero I like best. Mr. Knightly is also a strong contender for the top.
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Sarah Emsley said:
Thanks so much, Sharon! Those eight years went by quickly. I’m guessing you’re thinking of Margaret C. Sullivan’s post on Henry Tilney, are you? She says “He is Jane Austen’s wittiest, most intelligent, best-read, and most delightful hero, and he is entirely sympathetic to women.” (The title is “Bless Me, Henry Tilney, for I Have Sinned.”) I agree, Mr. Knightley is another strong candidate. Did you see Sarah Woodberry’s contribution to the Emma series, called “My Heart Belongs to Mr. Knightley”?
Yes, that sounds like the one about Henry Tilney. I think she defended him against the misconception that people have that he made Catherine cry. I’ll have to re-read the one about Mr Knightley. I think I read it when you first posted it but don’t remember it very well .
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