The subtitle of this book by Dr Gabrielle Malcolm, an expert in Austen’s place in popular culture and the global fan world associated with Austen, is The curious appeal of Jane Austen’s bewitching hero.
How has he managed to get under our skin and why do we love him so much? If you watched TV in the Nineties you would know at least part of the answer, but in case your memory requires jogging, here is the Lake Scene from Andrew Davies’ ‘sexed up’ 1995 BBC production of Pride & Prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, in which Darcy has tried to cool his passions and dampen his emotions with a quick dip in the cool water only to encounter the object of his ardour Lizzie Bennet taking a tour around his magnificent ancestral pile.
On the face of it, Darcy is not a prepossessing hero – he’s humourless, alpha, sexist, stubborn, rude – so it is difficult to understand why women who are otherwise strong and independent would love him. In Colin Firth’s incarnation, he was supremely handsome (yes, he is my favourite Darcy, you can keep Matthew McFadyean) but he is also aloof to the point of rude, snobbish, and embarrassingly socially awkward. But ‘on the face of it’ is the point; Austen lets us know that there is much more going on below the surface. Her first choice for the title of P&P was, after all, First Impressions. He reveals himself as tender, kind, compassionate and caring.
Gabrielle Malcolm clocked the phenomena of Darcy-worship when she noticed a young woman waiting for a bus in Bath and carrying an ‘I ♥ Darcy’ tote bag. She began to consider that the demand for Austen and Darcy-related things went far beyond Austen’s original work and to ask herself why that should be.
She does a magnificent job in tracing Darcy’s literary DNA, which shows strains of Sheridan and Frances Burney, as well as his literary progeny: the more gothic Rochester (Charlotte Brontë’s dislike of Austen’s work notwithstanding) and Heathcliff, Thornton, the hero of Mrs Gaskell’s North and South, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and through Georgette Heyer’s heroes and Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel. E.L. James’s Christian Grey could be considered a great-great-grandnephew.1
Malcolm goes on to look at the numerous film and TV adaptations of P&P. I was surprised and happy to learn that Fay Weldon’s 1980 screenplay included Lizzie Bennet reading Mary Wollstonecraft and that the pairing of Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul was just as successful as Colin Firth plus Elizabeth Ehle (who were apparently having a ‘thing’ at the time of filming so brought an extra fizz to the action).
The last part of There’s Something About Darcy is a discussion of the numerous works that have taken P&P as direct inspiration and provided prequels, paraquels and sequels, or have used the characters and plot to riff off into different time dimensions or fantasy worlds. I loved Jo Baker’s Longbourn, the story of the Bennet household from the point of view of a servant, in which Darcy scarcely features, but cannot say I am familiar with many other of these works. Perhaps that will change now.
This is a serious and carefully considered work, consistently interesting and referencing the author’s huge store of knowledge of Austen-related culture. She wears her deep expertise lightly, using an accessible, straight-forward style that makes the book a pleasure to read.
There’s Something About Darcy: The Curious Appeal of Jane Austen’s Bewitching Hero
by Gabrielle Malcolm
Endeavour Quill (2019)