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Mr. Darcy: Misanthrope or Misunderstood?
It is a truth universally acknowledged…that one can never truly know what lies at the heart of another person’s behavior. This makes interpreting Mr. Darcy’s character, from his insolent comment at the Meryton assembly, to his true reasons for assisting Elizabeth’s sister, Lydia, one of the most intriguing aspects of reading and writing Pride & Prejudice Fan Fiction. Jane Austen made it quite easy for us to assign a seemingly endless variety of emotions and motives to our “lightly-sketched” hero because she chose to write from Elizabeth Bennet’s point of view. And, since Elizabeth is certainly prejudiced against Mr. Darcy from the very beginning of their acquaintanceship until the closing chapters of the book, we are not provided a full understanding of Mr. Darcy’s internal life. Perhaps these opportunities to explore the character of our hero, interpret his actions, explain his motivations, and enrich his relationships, are a few of the reasons we so love fan fiction and never seem to run out of new variations even when authors stumble upon the same “what-if?” stories.
How does Austen create a character with whom we can both fall in love and not seem to know very well? Like the “Prince Charming” of fairy tales whose arrival signals the Happily Ever After, Darcy’s identity is not very essential to the transformation of Elizabeth’s feelings for him. Her insights into his character and her own feelings generally occur when he is not present. Consider that he is not actually in Elizabeth’s company very frequently. In fact, though we may hear of his activities, he is absent through most of the timeline of the novel. When he is present, a great deal of their interaction happens in social settings with the requisite amount superficial dialogue. From Elizabeth’s point of view these meetings do little to further the plot except to increase her dislike and, when the author makes one of her rare visits into Darcy’s thoughts, provides her readers knowledge of his increasing interest in her.
Considering the proprieties of the era, there are quite a number of times they are alone together. Yet, except for their dance at Netherfield, his first, infamous proposal—which itself is not part of the dialogue as written by Jane Austen, only the argument that follows it—and his second, well-received offer, they actually speak very little to one another. When they do, Austen does not always include their conversation, content to describe it through the experience—and therefore inclinations—of Elizabeth. For example, we learn he scarcely speaks ten words to her the last Saturday they are at Netherfield, even when they are alone together for half an hour, and, at Rosings, though he walks at least three times with her in the park, he is so silent that Elizabeth is disconcerted by it. They also speak in generalities when he finds her alone at the parsonage on a visit prior to his proposal and again upon meeting unexpectedly at Pemberley.
Yes, their arguments are recounted for us as they dance at the Netherfield ball and when she rejects him “with so little endeavor at civility” at Hunsford, but, setting aside the resolution of the novel, their most positive and intimate interaction with one another—the one time Darcy truly explains himself and Elizabeth responds with an open mind—is through the letter he feels compelled to write to her upon her rejection of him.
Of course the story provides many clues to Mr. Darcy’s finer traits. At Pemberley he makes a good deal of effort to be personable and gracious, goes to great lengths to assist Lydia, reunites Jane and Bingley, and becomes a truly charming suitor when he finally asks for Elizabeth’s hand once again. I, for one, do not believe that a man of truly objectionable character could so easily be redeemed by Elizabeth’s harsh strictures no matter how much they both choose to believe her words have been the catalyst. I myself have been married for fifteen years and we have yet to change one another to any considerable degree; socks are still left on the floor, toothpaste caps habitually left off the tube, and even more serious flaws persist, to the annoyance of each. If one could have such an impact on another’s behavior, one good tongue-lashing would make my son behave in an exemplary, respectful, and polite manner at all times and my parenting job would be essentially unnecessary. Alas, I have yet to find that to be the case.
Thus, I come to the point. We JAFF writers are delightfully “left to our own devices” when deciding who our Mr. Darcy will be. We are typically not faulted for choosing to take literary license when selecting which point of view our story will be told, and, many of us, myself included, offer a view into Mr. Darcy’s interior life that far exceeds canon. In On Oakham Mount I have certainly made him a sympathetic character by allowing him to explain himself rather than be revealed only through Elizabeth’s antipathy. My Mr. Darcy happens to be a man with a propensity to shyness who, upon entering the neighborhood, is distressed by his private affairs, overburdened—for his time of life—with the management of a great estate, and cynical of the attentions of “young ladies and their mercenary mamas.” Of course, he did make his injudicious remark at the assembly, but he is truly ashamed and sincerely repentant when he realizes that she had overheard it.
In my novel, he explains himself thusly: “I am not comfortable in new society…especially in large gatherings of people unknown to me. [In] my position, my circumstances are discussed a great deal and many allusions to my wealth and station are cast about; thus, I cannot enter a room of strangers with any degree of comfort or anonymity…it has led me to have a very guarded, cynical nature…” One remembers Austen’s introduction of Mr. Darcy in just this manner. “Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien, and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year. The gentlemen pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening…”
Darcy goes so far as to use this moment to explain the cause of his being so ill-mannered, bringing her into his confidence about his concern for his sister’s melancholy, his dealings with Wickham, and the pressure of his family to marry where he does not wish. Elizabeth herself is moved from resentment and dislike to sympathy and a sense of being honored at his disclosing such intimate affairs with her.
Having made the determination that it is Mr. Darcy’s oppressed spirits which have caused him to make such a terrible impression on the neighborhood, is it too much of a stretch to believe that when he has confided his story to a sympathetic listener he returns to some degree to his more authentic self? The colonel and Mr. Bingley certainly have extroverted, sanguine natures. Why would they saddle themselves with a permanently dour friend? On Oakham Mount—the book’s title, and in this particular instance the setting as well--Elizabeth learns to her utter amazement that Mr. Darcy, peppers his speech with Regency cant (due in part to author’s adoration of Georgette Heyer), has a sense of humor, and is even able to laugh at his own expense. (I freely admit to taking some license here, for in the closing chapters of Pride & Prejudice, “[Elizabeth] remembered that he had yet to learn to be laughed at, and it was rather too early to begin.” But, on Oakham Mount, having overturned so many of her assumptions, let us also lighten their future interactions by tossing this in as well. To provide an example would be an unforgivable spoiler. Suffice it to say, the scene is enough to completely break the ice between them, and give Elizabeth the last clue that she needs in order to accept his proposal: a marriage of convenience. Though they do not believe that they love one another, they decide that there is a certain compatibility that cannot be dismissed and it must be a good basis for marriage beyond the material benefits he offers in abundance and the healthy heirs she will provide.
Mr. Darcy, on the path to Oakham Mount, is also a man with a great deal of sensitivity for the emotional upheavals of young ladies, availing himself of the five years experience gained as Georgiana’s guardian. We know from canon that brother and sister share a close, trusting relationship. Indeed, what fifteen-year old girl, believing herself in love, would freely admit to planning an elopement, particularly to a such a formidable, undemonstrative man as Elizabeth believes him to be? Though he is confused and out of his depth upon meeting Elizabeth in such distress Darcy quickly draws on his experiences to offer a degree of compassion, sympathy, and even humor that not only surprises Elizabeth but calms her sensibilities as well. Thus, within the first chapters of my variation the two find a companionability with each other we do not witness in canon until the resolution of the novel.
Darcy approaches Elizabeth, who has given herself entirely up to her despair over her future as Mr. Collins wife, the wholly unexpected betrayal of her father, and the shattering of her, perhaps, overly romantic dreams of marrying for love.
[Let me digress before you Janeites rise up in outrage at that last depiction. Why should Elizabeth not have considered she would be married for more practical reasons? Consider that her mother, a woman of little fortune and a family in trade, can only provide twenty-percent of her own settlements to each of her five daughters. Elizabeth may be the daughter of a gentleman on her father’s side, but she still carries the taint of those shunned by polite society, a paltry dowry to bring to her husband, few of the generally acknowledged “accomplishments” of a lady, and none of the beauty of her sister, Jane. Add to these deficiencies the difficulty of making a love match in a society of “four and twenty families,” with little opportunity to meet an array of suitable men with whom she might fall in love.]
Indeed, the plot of Pride & Prejudice turns on the extraordinary support of her capricious father (whose character study deserves its own blog post). In spite of her agonized feelings, Elizabeth admits that: “It had never occurred to [her] before that she was a much less desirable prospect…than her own mother had been.” And “Mr. Collins, in giving preference to one of the Miss Bennets, was forgoing any improvement to his own fortune and advancement.”
From this interpretation of Mr. Darcy’s character and Elizabeth’s new found sympathy for him being accomplished early in the novel, one might think that the story would pretty much be wrapped up. This is not the case however, for there are plenty of obstacles of their own making and their respective families which conspire—insofar as obstacles conspire—to keep them apart, and we find ourselves, once again, at the end of the story with our favorite couple having “settled between us already, that we are to be the happiest couple in the world.”
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Sophia Meredith: Author of the best-selling debut novel, On Oakham Mount, which has been praised for its “authentic Regency writing style” and “delightful, witty dialogue,” is hard at work on the second in the Pemberley Departures collection of variations, Miss Darcy’s Companion. However, owing to the popularity among readers of her first novel’s epilogue, she may digress just enough to offer a novella based on the events outlined in its pages. She hopes to release Beyond Oakham Mount,” on both her website and Amazon by the end of May followed by Miss Darcy’s Companion in July. Sign up for her newsletter at SophiaMeredith.com or from her Facebook page, “Sophia Meredith – Author” to be alerted of these and other developments between Darcy & Elizabeth including a very special reader contest.
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Thank you, Sophia, for this interesting post! I agree with you regarding Darcy. He is consistently a decent person with good intentions underneath. There isn't a fundamental shift in his principles from beginning to end of the book, though there are definite improvements in his politeness and Elizabeth's understanding of him improves hugely. When you think back to Elizabeth's conversation with Wickham after Lydia's marriage in P&P:
"Is it in address that he improves? Has he deigned to add ought of civility to his ordinary style! -- for I dare not hope," he continued in a lower and more serious tone, "that he is improved in essentials."
"Oh no!" said Elizabeth. "In essentials, I believe, he is very much what he ever was."
While she spoke, Wickham looked as if scarcely knowing whether to rejoice over her words, or to distrust their meaning. There was a something in her countenance which made him listen with an apprehensive and anxious attention while she added --
"When I said that he improved on acquaintance, I did not mean that either his mind or manners were in a state of improvement, but that, from knowing him better, his disposition was better understood." - 'Pride & Prejudice' by Jane Austen
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When Mr. Bennet insists that Elizabeth marry the odious Mr.Collins, she dashes off in tears to seek refuge on Oakham Mount. There she encounters Mr. Darcy, seeking distraction from his own concerns. In a moment of emotional turmoil, they turn to each other and Mr. Darcy is moved to offer a solution to Elizabeth’s dilemma: A marriage of convenience. But when this engagement is broken almost before it has begun, why do the two feel so bereft? Could there be more between them than a simple arrangement? Can these two proud, strong-willed individuals overcome all the obstacles that seem determined to keep them apart? More importantly, can they open their hearts to each other and to love? Find out in this reimagining of Jane Austen's beloved British Regency classic.
You can read the first two chapters of the book here.
Sophia has kindly offered to give away an e-book (kindle) of 'On Oakham Mount' to two lucky commenters here. To enter, please just leave a comment on this post by the end of the day on Saturday 23 April. This is open to international commenters. Please can you leave a way for me to contact you (twitter handle etc.) so that I can get in touch in case you're one of the winners. Thanks to Sophia for the giveaway!