It is a truth universally acknowledged that Pride and Prejudice is the single greatest work of fiction to have been written in the English language. OK, there might not be universal consensus, but I love it. Jane Austen’s novel, published 202 years ago to the day, certainly has to be the most popular book never read. No, that’s not a typo – I did mean to write never – and that’s because it’s a story everyone thinks they know inside out without necessarily having read a single page. When Cosmopolitan magazine published an article entitled ‘Our Mr Darcy Obsession Needs to Die’ I assumed it was going to confirm my suspicion that Darcy has become a byword for perfection – a veritable Prince Charming in a shining white shirt – even though that’s not what the book is about, or, as it happens, this article. I do love Darcy, but he is definitely not perfect – far from it! The clue’s in the title! He can be proud, arrogant, judgemental, and has a tendency towards the taciturn. The Cosmo piece takes this and runs with it, casting Darcy as some kind of Byronic bad boy – suggesting women are wasting their time dating men who consider themselves superior and treat them badly, in the hope that they’ll be the ones to change them and bring out their ‘inner nice guy’. I have to say, neither interpretation fits my idea of Darcy. He is not the perfect man, but neither is he inherently bad, or even a cad – he’s moody, emotionally repressed and has an elevated opinion of his self-importance, but Elizabeth is not the kind of woman to take a snub lightly. As a gentleman’s daughter, she considers herself to be his social equal – if he doesn’t notice how great she is, it’s his loss. She doesn’t run around trying to attract his attention, or change herself to snare him for her husband.
You can probably tell this is one book I could happily write about for ever, and that’s probably why I’m challenged about it so often. Only last month I was confronted at my best friend’s wedding and asked how could I possibly reconcile a love for Jane Austen with my supposedly feminist principles? My answer? Quite easily actually. It turned out his preconceptions of Jane Austen’s novels were based around the marriage plot, from which he’d got the idea that the heroines have to change in order to attract a rich man, inspiring young girls to do nothing more than get married. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but it’s suffice to say this is not how I read Jane Austen. Her heroines are independent and intelligent. Take Elizabeth Bennet; she is lively, witty, feisty and resolute that she will not marry unless she can love and respect her husband. I would argue that she doesn’t change to attract Darcy, but they both learn that their first impressions can be wrong. With limited property rights and means of making a living, life for a single woman in the Regency period would not have been easy, but even so the choice to marry is not taken lightly. The fact that Charlotte Lucas chooses marriage to Mr Collins rather than remain a financial burden on her parents shows it was not always a romantic fairy tale. Austen is not reformist, but neither is she accepting of the status quo, finding fault in a patriarchal society where primogeniture entails estates away from the female line when women still need somewhere to live.
It was the humour and the history rather than the romance of a happily-ever-after that first drew me to Jane Austen’s work, but that doesn’t mean I escape the patronising assumption that I must be a silly girl swooning over Mr Darcy. Now, I could watch Colin Firth on repeat for hours – I’m only human after all – but that doesn’t mean I don’t take Austen scholarship seriously or have something academically relevant to contribute to discussion.
It’s a credit to Jane Austen (and Colin Firth) that women are still obsessed by Darcy 202 years after Pride and Prejudice was published. Her characters are so vivid it’s all too easy to compare to people you meet in real life to those on the page. We’ve all met a Mrs Bennet, Miss Bingley or Mr Collins at some point. Mr Darcy remains more elusive, but the bust of Matthew Macfadyen’s Darcy can still be found at Chatsworth – the need for a polite notice reading ‘Please do not kiss’ itself evidence of the Darcy-mania the character excites. 20 years on from the BBC TV adaptation and 10 years on from Joe Wright’s film that have brought Pride and Prejudice to new generations, I think it’s about time for another version. The problem is that we all feel like we own Pride and Prejudice – and there would be uproar if the casting failed to live up to our collective literary imagination. My vote goes to David Oakes for Darcy (pictured above in the role in Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production, 2013).