Dienstag, 10. Dezember 2013

Why we're all longing for Mr Darcy

In case you're so pitiful as not to know who on earth Mr. Darcy is, you can skip this article completely. Its object is to summarize the techniques employed by Jane Austen in her most acclaimed novel Pride and Prejudice in order to make us feel the longing of the heroine to come together with her romantic interest, Mr Darcy.

If that doesn't interest you, go read something else. (Or go back to work, for that matter.) Mr Darcy's christian name, by the way, is Fitzwilliam. Not, that that was of any importance. (Obviously not, since his name's not Earnest.) Custom of the time has it that this name is mentioned seldomly, only twice in the whole of the novel - both times as if by accident (but surely on full purpose just to let us know), and never by the heroine.

That Ms Austen succeeds in inciting the heroine's wish in us is widely documented, leaving no need for us to join in behindhand. Accordingly, I won't narrate any basic plot or character constellation. Go read the book and come back here. This is just for people who've read the thing too often and are wondering: why?

So. Well then. Let's start with the obvious. It turns out we're likely to like people that (a) do like us, (b) are like us, (c) are handsome. (Or pretty, but as handsome was in use for females then, we can skip the gender part.) Starting with:

(c) Of course he's good looking.

He is tall, has a fine figure (person in the language of the time) and all that. Not that that matters anyhow, insofar as it's a novel and we imagine any good looks we want to anyway. (Or, rather, none: I for my part don't see distinct faces before me while reading.) As Jane Austen puts it herself in 'Northanger Abbey' (ch. 31):
[Eleanor Tilney's] husband was [...] to a precision the most charming young man in the world. Any further definition of his merits must be unnecessary; the most charming young man in the world is instantly before the imagination of us all.

(b) He's like her.

And necessarily like us - of all characters in the book, the heroine is easily the nicest, funniest and wittiest. In real life, that's us. Aren't we all?
We are. (It's a dead on description of me, to be sure.)

Also, do note that she is pretty pretty, but not the prettiest. Nobody really nice and sympathetic thinks herself the prettiest. Mr Darcy may be not very funny, but he is one of the rare sane people in the book, and the most clever. His conversations with Lizzy, even while she still hates him, are the most interesting dialogues. They are deep, and thoughtful - and bore the hell out of Mr Bingley, by the way. So, Mr Bingley is nice, but Darcy is the better match for Eliza.

(a) He likes her.

He proposed, payed addresses, or what other courteous expression you prefer to "asked her to marry him." In spite of her having scorned and hated him. Regardless of her intolerable family. Even though she's poor (relatively: her dowry is 1/10 his yearly income; his sister's dowry is 30 times as high). Maugre all her incivilities to him (well, rather because of them). That's what I call love.

So, what else do we have?

We like her.

This is paramount. We're not longing so much for Mr Darcy - we're longing for the two of them to be together, for Eliza to be happy. She deserves it. (Remember: she's like us – funny, charming, and no one really understands her.)

It cannot be Mr Darcy alone. For the first half of the book, we're convinced he's the most disgusting man in the world – and we're still enjoying the read. How come?

Because of the heroine, Lizzy.

(Did you notice she's called by two nick names just to show how dear she is to everyone?)

But we're interested in him long before he gets to be the heroine's romantic interest.

One of Mr Wickham's various functions in the plot is to provide for a reason to make inquiries about Mr Darcy. Though still detested, Mr Darcy is an object of interest in the first half of the book. He's talked about, if only for the evil he supposedly did.

Until it turns out:

She has wronged him.

In most works of fiction, the bad guy (or woman) is the most interesting character. One rule of creative writing is that your book is only as good as your bad guy is. Think Voldemort, Darth Vader or Golum.

And then, all of a sudden, the bad guy turns out to be the good one. And as the stakes of the former good guy are sinking way down, those of his adverser are rising and rising. (Out of the lake with a wet shirt, if you get my drift.) So, to the interest he raised by being so utterly evil is added the mighty attraction of being the object of a great fault which the heroine committed.

How can she ever correct her fault and remove her guilt?

He's so far away from her.

She can't just call him up. Nor can she write a letter: that would be rather improper. And some things have to be said and can't be written.

(Great plot construction: the very moment they could talk face to face about her changed feelings, she breaks down just before he enters the room, because of Mary's elopement. She reveals the news to him, he hurries off immediately. She supposes, this is because he wants to avoid this now intolerable family. So the breech is complete.)

Well, maybe she could write a letter, although that would be unthinkably ungenteel. Anyway, there is a strong suspension created by this constellation. She has to wait for him to come to her. And then she has to wait for an occasion on which they happen to be alone. And all the while nobody's to get suspicious.

They're sharing a secret.

Several secrets, rather. There's firstly the secret, that only the two of them know about his attraction, his proposal and her refusal of it. Then, only the two of them know he's rather the good guy and the wicked Wickham is the evil one. She's the only one to understand him! Well, maybe not the only one in the world, but certainly in Hertfordshire.

He's rich.

Come on, let's admit it: It's not bad being well-to-do.

And Mr Darcy's not only well-to-do. The walk round his park is 10miles (16km) long, so the estate should be at least around 10 square miles (16 km²) large.

Add to that: The house in London. His uncle is a Lord. He has £10000 a year.

By the way: to have a rough idea as to what the financial sums mean, you can multiply them (roughly) with 65. (Here's a research paper relating the purchasing power of the British Pound through the centuries.) Given these figures, Elizabeth would have a dowry of about 65000 quid today. Sounds a lot, but it's not nearly enough to maintain her status for long. But £650000 spending money per year should do.

What's so great about all this is not (only) the splendour. For Lizzy, it means a liberation from her former restrictions. Her world is filled with endless rules: to whom to talk, what not to say, when to speak, where to go, not to go on foot, what the others might think. The connection (i.e., marriage) to Mr Darcy puts an end to all that. She is free.

He saves her.

He doesn't only save her, but her whole family from the utter shame of a daughter living together with a man without them being married. Without his interference it would have meant the social ruin of them all. As well as the financial ruin of the girls, since they had no hope of attracting men of any consequence (i.e., wealth) thereafter.

Instead of turning from her after the news are broken to him, he literally storms out of the building, eagerly searching for the next phone booth to get rid of that tuxedo he's wearing over his Mr Darcyman super hero suit.
(You know, the one with the wet shirt.)

He singles her out.

The visit to Pemberley is the turning point of our heroine's feelings, and it is beautifully done. By and by, during the long approach through the park and the long walk through the house and long recommendations of the housekeeper, she comes (and we come) to thinking that she might have thrown away something. When Mrs Reynolds says "I do not know who is good enough for him", we pride ourselves, thinking, "we do".

And just as this conclusion is reached, he turns around the corner and is exceptionally nice to her, strives to meet her, invites her uncle to fishing and herself to meet his sister for tea. He is the prince, and she is Cinderella. Well, she's not that poor. But she has bad connections, while he is often on horseback - what more is there to ask for?


Lizzy has two other admirers, and consequently, both are intolerable in their own way. Mr Collins is a flattering blockhead, and Mr Wickham is rather pleasing, but a general malefactor. (Again, Mr Wickham puts himself forward as an immensely useful character. We would recommend Mr Wickham to any serious author.)

Mr Darcy, contrasted against them, can only shine and excel all expectations. Even more so, as both cannot be said to be interested in her thoughts or feelings (having but few of each themselves).

There is, however, a third young single man, very agreeable and rich. Colonel Fitzwilliam is a compository necessity as he provides a different view on Mr Darcy, a little romantic tension, but mostly because he breaks the news of Mr Darcy having prevented Mr Dingley proposing to Janet. But he is quickly done away with, not being handsome and being much too rich (and much too titled) to be in her reach.

So, to conclude, Mr Darcy is not only the best match of all, he is moreover the best match for Lizzy, whom we all love so dearly.

And we can feel exactly what she is sad to feel. Of course, our social rules are quite different today. But we, too, experienced first love in a surrounding where almost everything is seen and heard by someone else, where it was very hard to get to talk to that special someone alone without causing any suspicion. It's called secondary school.

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