Austen in Autumn Review: There’s Something About Darcy, Gabrielle Malcolm

I am always utterly fascinated by how a literary character or even a historical figure can continue to evolve decades or even centuries after they lived or were created. Clearly, they have not undergone an alteration but as society shifts, so does the way that we read them. I have read thematic biographies on figures such as the Brontë Sisters, Anne Boleyn and even Jane Austen herself but never before someone from the fictional world. In the two centuries since his creation, Mr Darcy has become one of the most iconic characters in literature and a by-word for a romantic hero. Despite my heavy-weight Austen appreciation, I have never been a Darcy fan-girl, remaining a little mystified by the mania. When I saw this book, I jumped at the chance to understand it better – what exactly is the ‘something’ about Darcy that gets everyone so hot and bothered?

As Malcolm makes clear, the very fact that the name Mr Darcy has become so iconic has put a distance between us and the original character. There are coasters and tote bags bearing slogans such as ‘Waiting for my Mr Darcy’ or ‘I ♥︎ Mr Darcy’ or ‘Do Not Disturb Unless You Are Mr Darcy’. What he represents now is some type of ideal man. Was that what he always was? If not, how did we get to this point?

I have a feeling that this is a book best enjoyed by literature students and history nerds but since I identify as both of those things, it was right up my metaphorical alley. Malcolm dives into who Mr Darcy was when he first appeared from the pen of Jane Austen and how he has changed down the centuries. Most notably, she examines how Colin Firth diving into a lake in 1995 changed how people view Mr Darcy for evermore. The man has been on quite the journey.

The trick with Darcy, as Malcolm points out, is that he is an enigma for so much of Pride and Prejudice. Even in the closing chapters as he and Bingley arrive at Longbourn, Kitty Bennet refers to him as ‘that tall, proud man’, unable to remember his exact name. He has kept himself to himself and the wider cast have let him alone. The novel’s central character is Elizabeth Bennet. He was merely the love interest. Yet over time, Darcy has eclipsed her in cultural significance. The big question is why that has happened.

The modern reader has lost a lot of what made Darcy significant at the time of his creation. He is a gentleman of the aristocracy who is visiting a provincial back-water, leading to a classic town-and-country clash of sensibilities. He believes that these people are all his inferiors and utterly beneath his notice. He behaves rudely and is utterly dismissive. But their response is not to kow-tow to his social superiority, but rather to dislike him. When he proposes marriage to Elizabeth Bennet, she does not take it as a compliment, but rather she sends him away with a flea in his ear. Pride and Prejudice is therefore his Bildungsroman as he learns the error of his ways.

Austen is always fascinated with class and the decline of the aristocracy, a recurring theme across her work. Darcy is a character created at a crucial juncture in history. After centuries of the feudal system, we had the beginning of the self-made man. Lineage was no longer so significant. Malcolm charts how aristocratic male fashion had changed from the impractical Georgian attire to the leaner, more practical sportsman-like clothing championed by Beau Brummell. The question was beginning to be asked – what made a gentleman, was it birth or behaviour? Darcy assumed the former but Elizabeth is explicit that she does not believe he fits the category.

It is this love affair that makes Darcy vulnerable, makes him human, makes him appealing to the reader. Elizabeth has made no effort to impress Darcy. She turned up at Netherfield with her ‘weary ankles’, her muddy petticoat and her ‘face glowing with the warmth of exercise’, in an era where clean linens and pale faces were de rigeur. Darcy has been very clear that he did not think her pretty … but then. But then. Her eyes caught him off guard. Malcolm analyses this unworldliness in the face of true attraction. He does not know what is happening to him and he has no power to stop it.

Is it just that he is rich? As Malcolm points out, the Bennets are in dire straits – a mere heartbeat away from losing their home. The girls have to marry. When Elizabeth marries Mr Darcy, the family are guaranteed that they will never reach destitution. Lydia knows she will always be able to cadge more cash, Kitty is sure of meeting eligible young men, Mary will have enough to support herself if she does end up an old maid and somewhere money will be found to look after Mrs Bennet, preferably at a distance from Mr Darcy himself. This is the Cinderella element of the story and we see how this idea trickles down even to contemporary fiction such as Fifty Shades.

As Malcolm explains, Darcy has a number of relatives across fiction. From literary ancestors such as Mr B of Pamela, loudly declaring that his nobility gives him rights to Pamela’s body, right on through to Victorian literature with characters such as Dracula, Heathcliff and Mr Rochester all sharing links to Mr Darcy. Indeed, Malcolm particularly highlights the strong similarities between Messrs Darcy and Rochester. Indeed as she breaks it down, you can’t help wondering if this is at the root of the rivalry between fans of Austen and Brontë; ‘Do you favour the patrician, commanding, brooding hero on the northern edge of the Pennines in Yorkshire, or the patrician, commanding, brooding hero on his estate among the Devonshire Peaks?

This is particularly interesting because of course Charlotte Brontë was famously not a fan of Jane Austen. I found Malcolm’s analysis of the two writers’ varying outlooks to be truly fascinating. She suggests that for a Romantic writer such as Brontë, Austen’s extensive use of irony put too much distance between reader and the emotions, meaning that Darcy’s transformation from aloof aristocrat to romantic hero was too abrupt. However, Malcolm also suggests that as fashions changed over the course of the twentieth century, Mr Rochester’s popularity has waned while Mr Darcy’s star rose only higher. With the advent of feminism, Mr Rochester’s incarceration of his mentally ill wife became problematic. By contrast, Mr Darcy is a responsible landlord and considerate employer. Of course, Malcolm’s argument is undermined by the fact that she is clearly thinking more of The Wide Sargasso Sea rather than Jane Eyre, repeatedly referring to Mrs Rochester as ‘Antoinette’ and remarking that Rochester tries to pretend that she is just ‘the servant Bertha Mason’. Ahem.

Yet there are so many other Darcy-proxies elsewhere in fiction too. North and South is an almost scene-for-scene remake of Pride and Prejudice except set in the North. Darcy here is John Thornton, a proud industrialist who tries to run his factory responsibly. Malcolm further suggests that Dracula is another Darcy equivalent. She argues that Dracula is a metaphor for the decadent aristocracy, with the Count displaying a veneer of respectability and elegance which hides predatory and abusive behaviour. Other equivalents include The Scarlet Pimpernel and several of Georgette Heyer’s characters. Voyaging onwards, Malcolm traces Darcy’s evolution through historical romances and the advent of commercial romantic fiction. As the romantic fiction movement ran up against the rise of women’s rights, having a ‘feisty’ heroine like Elizabeth Bennet who could ‘break all the rules’ and who could ‘tame’ the strong, wealthy man’ was seen as a winning combination.

I found this part of Malcolm’s book to be particularly intriguing because romantic fiction is just not a genre that I know much about. I’ve never read very much to do with it and I’ve always assumed that those books tend to follow a similar sort of formula. Hearing about novels such as The Flame and the Flower made me realise how complicated the genre’s history really is – unsurprising given how it follows trends in society. Malcolm explores the difficulty in creating a ‘brooding, socially awkward hero’ without falling into the traps of having the ‘anguished male psyche’ tumble into bitterness and aggression. Rather than being sad, it is all too easy to make them just bad.

From here, Malcolm also explores Darcy on the screen. From awkward Olivier in 1940 (he didn’t want the part) to ‘classically trained’ David Rintoul in 1980 … well, we all know that the ‘definitive’ Darcy is Colin Firth. Malcolm points out that Jennifer Ehle was originally ‘the star’ of the 1995 production but Firth’s magnetic performance boosted him into co-star status. That and the wet shirt scene. By contrast, Matthew McFadyn’s 2005 appearance was much more muted, perhaps due to time restraints but as a deliberate choice. Malcolm makes the comparison between the ‘Crabtree and Evelyn’ aesthetic of the BBC adaptation and the ‘muddy hems’ look of the 2005 film. Macfadyn’s size heightens his awkwardness, he speaks less and we get to know him more through his silences. His portrayal emphasises Darcy’s masculinity, a choice echoed further in Eliot Cowan’s version of the character in Lost in Austen. This, apparently, was the Darcy for the 2000s.

As someone who believes whole-heartedly that the book is always better, it was really thought-provoking to read such in-depth analysis of Austen adaptations. Malcolm explores how the costuming choices highlight the generational conflict between the various characters. In the 2005 film, Mrs Bennet wears faded late-eighteenth century fashions, relics from her own girlhood. She is fraying round the edges, stressed to the hilt about her daughters’ dire situation. Malcolm also made me ‘get’ the point of the portrait scene (or sculpture scene as in the 2005 film) – it gives Elizabeth licence to gaze upon Darcy in a way that she would not be able to do in the flesh and seeing it on screen, we see her looking at him with fresh eyes and realising that she is attracted to this man. There’s Something About Darcy made me want to re-watch all the films and television adaptations even that bat-crazy version from 1940.

The other something about Darcy though is his many cameo appearances outside of his own book. This feels like a real chicken-and-egg thing. Did Darcy’s status go wild and so he became an easily portable character or was he an easily portable character and this led to his status going through the roof? It’s not a question anyone can answer but Malcolm makes a brave effort. Mr Darcy of Pemberley has been pulled in a myriad of different directions over the past thirty years – what does it tell us about how we see him and has it changed the man himself?

I have stumbled in and out of Pride and Prejudice fan fiction on a number of occasions and can have quite complicated feelings about it. On the one hand, all authors borrow from each other and on the other hand it can feel like sacrilege. The variations can highlight areas of the text in intriguing ways … or they can just massively miss the point. More to the point though, I am always agog about all the gossiping around the Austenite community. I read Emma Tennant’s Pemberley aged eleven, naively hoping for something as good as the original novel. To put it mildly, I was disappointed. But I had no idea about all of the internet vitriol associated against the book.

I have a suspicion that this is the ‘something’ about Darcy. Internet fans. The more I read around Austen-mania, the more I notice the similarities between the Austenophiles and the Potterheads. Both groups feel passionately about the object of their fandom and will think nothing of blowing an absolute gasket if they disagree with someone else’s interpretation of the canon. It’s not that people didn’t feel strongly about books and films before the Internet but it is so much easier now for them to group together and get each other all riled up.

Darcy’s post P and P appearances are engrossing due to the incredible variety of stories that he has inspired. In The Madness of Mr Darcy, he fails to save Lydia who is then sold into prostitution by Wickham. When she finally returns to her family as a fallen woman, she is also insane and needs constant care by Elizabeth. It is a fan fiction piece as heavily influenced by Lady Audley’s Secret as it is by anything written by Austen. Twenty years after losing his chance with Elizabeth, Darcy is a lonely alcoholic who finally murders Wickham, the author of misfortune. This in turn lands him in an asylum and thus back in the path of Elizabeth, now a matron. Then there is the more well-known murder mystery Death Comes to Pemberley and the servant-centric Longbourn. The list goes on and on. And on.

I am reminded of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series which takes place within the BookVerse – are all of these Darcys the same man or are they in fact separate characters? Longbourn‘s Darcy who utterly ignores the servant Sarah before one day lecturing her on her duty to her mistress when she asks to leave his service … yes, that’s the definitely the original. The Darcy within The Other Bennet Sister who feels uncomfortable around his wife’s annoying relatives? That still sounds like our guy.  But the man in Perception who cheerily tells people he’s only just met to call him ‘Darcy’ and who tries to keep things pretty casual? Not so much.

But then there are the ‘modern’ Darcys. William Darcy from The Lizzie Bennet Diaries still seemed the right mix of stuck-up and socially awkward, slowing settling into smitten. Dr Darcy from Eligible is actually a heck of a lot nicer than his love interest Liz Bennet. And then there’s the time-travellers – I confess that Malcolm’s descriptions of Project Darcy certainly piqued my curiousity. Even Fay Weldon’s Darcy’s Utopia sounds weird but very interesting. There’s Something About Darcy has definitely added to my reading list for the next time that Austen in August rolls around. The challenging thing about a lot of these contemporary re-imaginings is how they seek to ‘rehabilitate’ Darcy’s snobbishness for the modern era. Sittenfeld made him a dedicated doctor so it is less that he is stand-offish than that he is under pressure. Amanda Grange made him a vampire – his apparent bluntness a result of his ‘supernatural condition’. The modern audience will not accept a rude man.

There are even theories around Darcy being gay; they suggest that he likes the company of Colonel Fitzwilliam a little too much and seems to be dragging his feet around marriage to his cousin Anne. Or else it is that he loves Bingley and this is why he stops him from courting Jane Bingley. Or even that Darcy’s latent attraction to Wickham meant he could not bear to see him with Georgiana. Essentially, Elizabeth and Darcy end up in a marriage of convenience. It’s certainly interesting … but perhaps as an example of how you can get Austen’s work to say just about anything that you want it to.

What is it about Darcy that makes readers (and viewers) love him so? Honestly, even as a Darcy-agnostic, I finished this book more enthralled by him than I ever had been before. Malcolm rightly points out, Darcy is the man who values ‘substance over surface’. He falls for the ‘edgy, slightly rebellious, intelligent heroine, wanting her in preference to the glamourous, upper-class socialites’. He also is the man who is able to stop and admit that he was wrong – definitely an appealing quality. Different screen portrayals of Darcy have emphasised different aspects of his character but in all of them he is a deeply moral man willing to take risks for those he loves. Darcy represents security, not merely financial but rather emotional and physical too. In an uncertain world, it is little wonder that we still reach for him to save us. Gabrielle Malcolm’s fantastic and intelligent analysis charts how his star has risen further than Jane Austen could ever have imagined, his cultural significance comes from far more than just the original novel and he seems destined to endure and evolve forever.

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I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

There's Something About Darcy by Gabrielle Malcolm
Published by Endeavour Quill on November 11th 2019
ISBN: 1911445561

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