The Darcy Perplex

Inspired by a need to understand the market, and my potential readers, I’ve recently embarked on a different kind of Jane Austen Project: reading more widely wildly a thing I’d been largely avoiding until now, out of fear it would either make it me give up in despair or unintentionally become a plagiarist: fiction inspired by Jane Austen.

So far, I am left with one overwhelming impression: astonishment at the iron hold that Mr. Darcy (specifically, as depicted by Colin Firth in the 1995 A&E film version) has left on the imagination of the producers, and, one can only suppose, the consumers of this kind of fiction. I’ve joked about the wet shirt scene

as much as anyone, but I shall do so no longer, for at a certain moment this notion stopped seeming funny to me, and become horrifying. It also struck me it could be an excellent subject for a book — popular, yet scholarly, something like the excellent What Matters in Jane Austen, which I have also just read. But I can’t write that book; just thinking about this for the length of time it takes to write this blog post makes my heart sink.

I really need to know: Is there truly an entire population of modern women (the disorder seems particularly, though not entirely, American) who truly feel that Jane Austen has ruined romantic love for them, by creating unrealistically high expectations in the fictional person of Mr. Darcy? Is there truly a significant number of otherwise functional modern women, who can drive cars, study engineering or medicine, enjoy the privileges of suffrage, birth control and a freedom to determine their own lives such as Jane Austen could never have imagined, who truly believe this bullshit?

And if not, what makes people keep writing novels that use this as their starting point?

It seems such an absurd, insulting premise that I dismissed it from the first few ones I read, but this fictional archetype kept turning up, a relentless meme: the girl (or woman) perpetually disappointed in love in real life, clutching her dog-eared copy of “Pride & Prejudice” despite the goodnatured ribbing of her friends and relatives. Some insist they have given up on love; some still insist their Mr. Darcy is out there, but all have been warped in a highly disturbing manner by their encounter with this fictional character, a trauma for which they blame Jane Austen.

To which I can only say, really? Seriously? Are you kidding me? You BLAME JANE AUSTEN? Who wrote works of sparkling wit and tremendous psychological insight, who did things with the English novel that had never been tried, who paved the way for Henry James and Virginia Woolf and James Joyce?

Is it possible that reading Jane Austen actually makes an entire population stupider instead of smarter? Or is this just a cynical marketing ploy, a way of giving your romance novel a touch of class? Is it a failed attempt at satire? Is the reader supposed to laugh at these women, instead of identify with them? I am deeply troubled. I really want to know.

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2 thoughts on “The Darcy Perplex

  1. I think these women haven’t really read Jane Austen, or if they have, they didn’t understand it. They ignored all the wit, social criticism, proto-femminism and the fact that the “happy ending” is such because Elizabeth, Emma, & c. find their equal. A partner who respects them, who cherishes them, who likes them as persons, besides passionately loving them. It’s sad and a bit worrisome. Elizabeth Bennet knew what was at stake if she didn’t marry a “good” man: for her it was a financial and spiritual issue, for us only the spiritual remains, but it’s not the least iportant of the two. Sorry for the pessimis, but lately I have started to notice a pattern in my friends and I am worried. Relationships above all, but superficial, based on the obsession for marriage, and so they end up like Lydia Wickham 😦 Of mr. Darcy they only see the brood, but he had much more than that to offer.

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    1. Very true. Everyone kind of has his or her own way of reading Jane Austen, depending on what people bring of their own life to the book. Part of what made Austen such a genius is that P&P works perfectly well as a simple romance novel: spirited, appealing girl meets hot, rich guy and overcomes obstacles to find love with him. There is so much more there of course — but it can be ignored.

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