By Revathi Ganeshsundaram
Most female fans of Jane Austen, and of her classic novel Pride and Prejudice, would have been in love with Mr. Darcy at some stage of their lives or the other (or perhaps all their lives) although I’m not sure how many know his first name – Fitzwilliam.
I also do not know why he appealed to these women. Was it because he was tall, handsome, rich, and proud…?
Maybe the first three attributes made him a trophy husband, and maybe the idea of bowling over a proud, conceited man was exciting to the ego – I am not sure. What I do know is that, those were not the reasons why I liked him.
Certainly, his being tall and handsome did not hurt! But I did wish he had not been so wealthy.
To cynical readers (particularly male) it would seem that Elizabeth Bennet’s change of heart towards him stemmed from mercenary motives: When her sister Jane disbelievingly demanded that she tell her how long she had loved Darcy, Elizabeth replied playfully that she was not sure, but thought she should probably date it to her first seeing his beautiful estate at Pemberley.
This was however only meant to be one of Elizabeth’s witticisms, as on Jane’s pressing her to be serious, she assured her that she was indeed sincerely attached to him.
And soon afterwards, when Darcy sought Mr. Bennet’s permission to marry his daughter, Elizabeth was sent for by her father for a private interview, where he said to her that although they all knew Darcy to be a proud and unpleasant man, it would not matter if she really liked him. To this, Elizabeth tearfully replied that she did not just like him but loved him. And she entreated her father not to pain her by speaking of Darcy in those terms because he did not know what he really was.
To my mind, that was sufficient proof that she really liked the person and not just his material wealth.
But initially, like Elizabeth, I too was put off by Darcy’s hauteur: How dared he condemn the fair Eliza as someone just tolerable?
Maybe women tend to identify with the heroines of novels, as probably men do with male protagonists. I certainly did. (However, I could not sympathise with all leading ladies, only those who seemed to have some values in common with mine. For example, I found Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With The Wind, very flighty, scheming, and selfish and I could not care less about the fate of her marriage.)
I liked Elizabeth Bennet. She was cheerful, sensible, witty, an affectionate daughter and sister, and a ‘good’ girl. She was also supposed to be quite pretty, with intelligent, expressive eyes. She was a heroine that a young girl could aspire to be like. Hence, I took her early rebuff by Darcy, to heart.
But as Darcy thawed towards Elizabeth, I too thawed towards him. I followed his growing interest in her, with great satisfaction and some amusement. When she spurned his offer with unkind words and unfounded prejudice, I grieved for his broken ego, just as she herself could not help feeling a little sorry for him.
But the turning point came when Darcy himself started turning over a new leaf.
I found it touching that a man so proud, and so sure of himself, would embark upon what must have been a most mortifying introspection, and make an effort to change himself. These changes involved not only softening his manners, not only resigning himself to ‘inferior connections’ for both himself and his best friend, but also interacting once more with the caddish Wickham. This last, especially, must have been a huge sacrifice for Darcy, and one that he was making – not for a wife or a fiancée – but for someone whose opinion of him he had no reason to believe had changed for the better.
Such a proud man, who had everything in the world, changing so much just because the woman he had “permitted” himself to fall in love with, had held a mirror to him! What woman could remain unmoved by such demonstration of regard?!
While discussing Darcy, I cannot help referring to another Austen hero – George Knightley of ‘Emma’. Both were men of irreproachable moral character, and Darcy too was a kind master and a generous landlord, but Knightley came across as the better of the two.
Unlike Darcy, who in his own words, had been “… allowed, encouraged, and almost taught… to be selfish and overbearing, to care for none beyond my own family circle, to think meanly of all the rest of the world, to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own…”(Austen, 1813), Knightley was patient, kind, and compassionate towards everybody – including the poor, the old, the ill, and even the silly. Indeed, he hardly seemed to have any flaws.
Yet I preferred Darcy.
One reason was that Knightley’s personality somehow did not seem as well fleshed out. (I suspect Austen herself favoured Darcy since his character had been so painstakingly – and perhaps lovingly – crafted.)
And, torn between the two, I found it simpler to imagine that both heroes were similar, and that Knightley was just Darcy with a halo.
Thus, Knightley was more humane – but Darcy was human. And therein lay his appeal.
Austen, J. (1813). Pride and prejudice: a novel. In three volumes: By the author of “Sense and sensibility”. London: Printed for T. Egerton, Military Library, Whitehall. ***