Sunday 9 December 2012

He thinks you’re scum but he fancies you, you’re humiliated but you fancy him: the Darcy dilemma in Pride and Prejudice

Mr Darcy is the ultimate punisher. Icily condescending or outright brusque, he is eloquent only when putting others down. Noticed immediately as “fine, tall... handsome… noble,”  at a dance, it becomes obvious that he is not just lean but mean too. Within the elegantly proportioned space of one Austenian sentence after his arrival, “his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity.”

For all his apparent loftiness Darcy has been perfectly happy in the company of his class peers but mental inferiors: Bingley the nice but dim best friend, braying Mr Hurst and the mean, shallow Bingley sisters.

When he meets his intellectual equal, Elizabeth Bennet, the cruel machinery of the novel means that it is she who is constantly humbled and humiliated, not him. Darcy’s scathing presumptions about the Bennets are almost completely correct. His one mistake is to underestimate Jane’s feelings for Bingley. But his assessment of Mrs Bennet’s vulgarity and avarice, his lack of surprise at not one but two sisters’ susceptibility to Wickham’s wiles and his assumption of Mr Bennet’s uselessness are proven right. Lizzy must face the wretched truth of all this; the worst Darcy must do is admit that he fancies someone whose family are inferior in both class and etiquette, apologise to Bingley for not mentioning that Jane was in town and wonder whether he should have told people about Wickham’s true nature.

Darcy’s manner changes somewhat after he is told off by Lizzy following his proposal. But his wealth and power protect him from any greater catharsis and weight the narrative entirely in his favour. That is not to say, however, that any reader with a drop of lifeblood in her would fail to be moved by one of the sexiest and most perfect moments in literature, when the two bump into each other at Pemberley: “Their eyes instantly met, and the cheeks of each were overspread with the deepest blush. He absolutely started, and for a moment seemed immovable from surprise.”

But we know what happens immediately after that: Lydia’s ridiculous and perilous Wickham fling, which embarrasses everyone but herself and her mother in its crudeness. Darcy is the one who makes everything right; Lizzy gets no heroic moment. At the end of the book the Bennets are even less worthy of Darcy than they were at the start, for now he has the moral advantage as well as the monetary one. Nothing Lizzy can do in private will ever repay what he has done in rescuing the family from public humiliation.

The message of Pride and Prejudice is not that love conquers all but that a rich man can buy his way out of any pickle, that tricksters like Wickham always land on their feet and that women are nothing more than collateral in the dealings of worldly men. Such is the genius of Austen that long after the novel is over, one wonders whether Lizzy goes on to teach Darcy the power of laughter or whether he spends his life freezing her out over the breakfast table.

This article was originally commissioned by Intelligent Life magazine to celebrate the upcoming  200th publication anniversary of Pride and Prejudice in 2013.