Jane Austen is thus a mistress of much deeper emotion than appears upon the surface. She stimulates us to supply what is not there. What she offers is, apparently, a trifle, yet is composed of something that expands in the reader’s mind and endows with the most enduring form of life scenes which are outwardly trivial.
—Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader
JANE AUSTEN’S NOVELS AND HEROINES ARE COMMONLY ASSOCIATED with witty, sparkling dialogue. Her most popular creation, Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy, however, is quite the opposite: he is repeatedly described as gloomy and reserved, and at one point Elizabeth even accuses him of being “‘unsocial, taciturn,’” and “‘unwilling to speak, unless [he expects] to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the eclat of a proverb’” (103). This description of Darcy is reflected in characteristics typical of Austen’s novels: she is also famous for her lack of physical description and her preference of indirect over direct speech.
In the past twenty or so years, however, a downright cult has developed around Mr. Darcy: “Darcymania.” Because there are so few descriptions of Mr. Darcy in the novel, and although most of what he says and does, even what he looks like, is left rather vague, this phenomenon is based primarily on those aspects of Darcy that are not part of Austen’s original descriptions. Both popular culture and scholarly reception have put a strong emphasis on Colin Firth’s iconic dive into the pond at Pemberley in the1995 BBC adaptation, a moment that has since been identified as marking Darcy’s “escape into iconicity” (Cardwell, “Escape” 243)1. The scene that supposedly turned Firth into an iconic figure, however, is not part of the novel. As Devoney Looser phrases it, “Ever since Colin Firth’s dashing Mr. Darcy emerged from a lake in a wet shirt, we can almost forgive first-time readers for mistakenly believing they’ll find such a hero in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.”
Various scholars have tried to explain the continuing popularity of Colin Firth’s Darcy by analyzing the visual techniques of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice. This adaptation uses a number of additional scenes focusing on Darcy, a phenomenon that Monika Seidl has termed “extra-Darcy” (“Medialising”). Lisa Hopkins and Sarah Ailwood (“What Men Ought” 146) have argued that the adaptation offers Darcy up to the female gaze as an aestheticized and eroticized object of visual pleasure. They have rightfully observed that it is the 1995 adaptation’s focal shift to Mr Darcy and his emotions that contributed to Colin Firth’s unique appeal.
While these studies are certainly convincing, I propose a different reading that can be understood alongside their lines of argument. In this essay I argue that it is the very lack of explicit description in Austen’s text that enables viewers to create their own image of the character. Austen’s narrative creates information gaps that enable an active process between text and reader. Since each reader fills those gaps differently, a full image of Austen’s world, including a complete image of her hero’s character, can ever only exist within the individual reader. The 1995 BBC series created “Darcymania” because it was the only adaptation to successfully translate this narrative technique onto the screen.2
Using the example of Darcy’s two proposal scenes, this essay will analyze exactly how three different adaptations—the famous and decisive 1995 series as well as the adaptations immediately before it (Cyril Coke’s 1980 BBC miniseries with David Rintoul as Fitzwilliam Darcy) and after (Joe Wright’s 2005 film starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen)—differ from one another in their way of dealing with the gaps Austen’s technique generates. While the 1980 adaptation takes only the explicit elements of Austen’s text and thus fails to provide a structure to guide viewers’ interpretations, the 2005 adaptation imposes an interpretation of Darcy’s character and motivation, leaving no room for the viewer’s active imagination.3
“Darcymania” and the role of the reader
In his influential essay “The Death of the Author” (1967), Roland Barthes argues that there is never a fixed or universal meaning for any text but that its meaning always resides in the reader and can therefore never be final, pure, or objective. The pleasure one derives from texts, according to Barthes, derives primarily from the reader’s practical collaboration in the creation of meaning (“From Work” 1331). Barthes’s idea was developed further in the 1970s by scholars such as Wolfgang Iser and Robert Jauss, who added a new layer to his understanding of the relationship between text and reader. According to Iser, a text provides an explicit, revealing narrative frame for readers that structures their reading experience, but it also inevitably contains certain information “gaps” that readers need to fill with ideas of their own. Such ideas will always be based on readers’ own characters, experiences, and environments. Within these gaps, communication is supposed to arise so that a text can acquire meaning (1524-26): “Communication in literature, then, is a process set in motion and regulated, not by a given code, but by a mutually restrictive and magnifying interaction between the explicit and the implicit, between revelation and concealment. . . . Whenever the reader bridges the gaps, communication begins” (1527).
In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen most elaborately makes use of such gaps by revealing strikingly little about Mr. Darcy, thereby ensuring that her readers become essential to the creation of meaning. Readers’ experience of “creating” Mr. Darcy according to their own wishes and expectations of the ideal man thus becomes particularly creative and pleasurable. Of the three adaptations of Pride and Prejudice examined here, only the 1995 BBC series manages to translate Austen’s narrative technique onto the screen and to inspire its viewers to imagine its Mr. Darcy as their ideal.
Love and silence in Austen
Although Austen gives the impression of providing factual information, her narrator’s unreliability actually generates information gaps that we are encouraged to fill with our own interpretations. Austen enables this interpretative process by a combination of techniques. She obscures Darcy’s appearance: he is merely described as well-built, “tall,” and “handsome,” with a “noble” expression (10). Most important, his thoughts and motivations are concealed. Austen obscures Darcy’s emotions through the use of various filters, conveying his actions through other characters (e.g., Mr. Wickham, Mrs. Gardiner). In addition, Austen employs Elizabeth’s point of view to obscure Darcy’s inner feelings. Although it is explicitly stated that Lizzy often avoids looking at Darcy, the narrator nevertheless provides us with her interpretation of his feelings and thoughts. Whatever she makes of his actions, of course, must consequently be mere interpretation, if not fabrication. For example, “Elizabeth dare[s] not lift up her eyes” (372) when Darcy visits Longbourn with Bingley and “to him . . . [has] hardly courage to speak” (371). She is later vexed that Darcy has been so “‘silent, grave, and indifferent’” and then speculates at length about his motivations (375).
The only time Darcy explains himself fully to Elizabeth is in a letter. Moreover, whenever Darcy does speak his emotions, the narrator obscures what he actually says by relating it through free indirect discourse and narrative summary. This technique becomes especially obvious during the two proposal scenes. Although we might expect an honest and powerful expression of Darcy’s feelings for Elizabeth, his words during the two proposals are left rather vague. His first proposal promisingly opens with his famous declaration of love: “‘In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you’” (211). Although this language is widely read as extremely romantic (googling parts of the phrase turns up mugs, notebooks, shirts, tote bags adorned with these words and offered for sale), it is not actually an open-hearted declaration of love. He speaks primarily of repression, and although the essence of his words might be reduced to “I love you,” his feelings are phrased so clumsily and indirectly that his words cannot actually be considered a true insight into his mind.
After his opening statement, no explanations of his feelings, thoughts, or motivations are given directly by Darcy himself. Even “the avowal of all that he felt, and had long felt for her” (211) is cut short by the narrator. Having declared his love for Elizabeth, Darcy is described as immediately proceeding with all his objections to the match, and it is only after Elizabeth has justified her dislike of him that Darcy talks again. His reactions to her words are described through narrative summary—“anger, and the disturbance of his mind,” and his “struggling for the appearance of composure” (212)—rather than through a representation of his actual thoughts and feelings. The same technique is used during the second proposal: we are merely informed that Darcy calls Lizzy his “‘dearest, loveliest Elizabeth’” (410) and otherwise “expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do” (406-07). Each reader must now provide his or her own interpretation of what Darcy might say to Elizabeth. In both scenes, most of what Darcy says, aside from a few sentences of little relevance, is obscured, therefore providing abundant gaps to be filled by readers as well as producers.
The 1980 proposal scenes
Although true to the novel both in terms of plot and dialogue, the BBC’s 1980 adaptation failed to make a lasting impression on viewers. The reason for this failure is related to Iser’s notion of the interaction between reader or viewer and text.
The first defect of the 1980 Pride and Prejudice lies in its failure to provide a structure through what Iser calls “terms set by the text.” As Iser emphasizes, there needs to be a balance between the implicit and the explicit in a text: “What is concealed spurs the reader into action, but this action is also controlled by what is revealed” (“Interaction” 1527). The BBC’s 1980 adaptation does not provide a structure that stimulates but also controls the viewers’ imagination, and what Devoney Looser has described as “David Rintoul’s ultra-stiff attempt” at Darcy contributes to that failure. There is a significant lack of material for audiences to work with as Rintoul’s acting remains unvaryingly flat and cold, offering nothing to his audience from which to create a picture of “their” Mr. Darcy. Partly, this absence might be due to the series’ strong focus on women, which, as Stovel argues, is a reflection of the 1970s wave of feminism. While Lizzy’s friends are convinced that Darcy loves her and say so, up to the second proposal, there is almost no emotional or character development detectable. In the novel, as Elaine Bander has demonstrated, Darcy changes his opinion of and behavior towards Elizabeth quite early, although she cannot yet make sense of it (Bander 26). There are no hints of this change in Rintoul’s Darcy, however—nothing that suggests any degree of affection. Throughout the series, his facial expression and body language almost never change. What is more, Rintoul’s words and body language do not match.
In the first proposal scene, neither the words nor the body language of this Darcy conveys conquered doubt, insecurity, or even love. He speaks his declaration of love towards the wall and only turns toward Elizabeth when he is almost finished. Rintoul paces the room, sometimes with his back turned toward Lizzy, at other moments walking behind her back, all of which suggests insincerity. He does not seem to speak to Elizabeth but to himself, and when he does, it is as if she were a child being lectured by a parent.
© 1980 BBC
Due to Rintoul’s stiffness, this version does not provide the structural frame that Iser deems necessary. While Colin Firth, for example, underlines Darcy’s emotional struggle with longing gazes (Blum), Rintoul’s unchanging expression and body language fail to provide clear reference points for viewers and to establish an interpretive framework that could enable active viewer involvement.
The series also fails in creating the “structured blanks” through which audiences can conjure their own worlds. Rintoul’s Darcy does not develop coherently. Moreover his radical change after the second proposal creates a break in the character that goes beyond a mere information gap. Throughout the series he is consistently taciturn, haughty, and arrogant. According to Elinor Lipman, “We don’t see, until Darcy’s last-try declaration that his ‘affections and wishes are unchanged,’ anything but unadulterated pride of the unmelting kind, manifested in his posture, his top hat, his smirk, surely the misapprehensions of the director.” His last sentence before the actual proposal, “I did it for you,” is shortened and comes across rather brusquely (especially as compared to the 1995 and 2005 adaptations). Even when Darcy asks Elizabeth to marry him a second time, he seems unchanged, and his change of character after her acceptance comes too late.
Not only is Darcy’s revolution of character in this second proposal scene too extreme, but the camera work also obscures the very moment of change. Until this turning point Rintoul has portrayed Darcy without the slightest suggestion of his true feelings. When Elizabeth accepts Darcy, Rintoul’s acting becomes implausible: he offers her his arm and smiles broadly. The couple is then shown in a wide shot, two very small figures walking underneath giant trees. In this moment, when they are barely distinguishable, Rintoul removes his hat, and his Darcy transforms entirely; the camerawork even suggests a kiss.
Rintoul’s characterization of a relieved, warm, and friendly Darcy is too stark a contrast to what we have seen in the previous four episodes and comes too abruptly to be credible.
Rather than providing Iser’s “structured blanks” that “stimulate the process of ideation to be performed by the reader on terms set by the text” (1527), this Pride and Prejudice creates fissures that cannot be closed. The series gives viewers a confusing mix of contradictory, imprecise, and incomplete information, thus failing to transfer Austen’s skillful narrative technique onto the screen.
The 1995 proposal scene
The BBC’s 1995 adaptation, by contrast, translates Austen’s gaps skillfully onto the screen. Colin Firth does not express verbally more emotions than Rintoul, but his body language and the camera work suggest them all the more intensely while still obscuring the exact degree and nature of his feelings.
Darcy’s intense emotional confusion becomes most obvious in the way he is positioned within the mis-en-scène during the first proposal scene, thereby serving to underline the gaps in his words. Having entered the room, Darcy is immediately drawn to the fireplace topped by a mirror at the other side of the room, a symbol with which he is frequently connected in this series (Hopkins 113). In nineteenth-century British country houses, the mantelpiece-mirror combination, first popularized in 1690s France, had become particularly prevalent (Azzarito). In the series, this combination is a symbol for Darcy’s contradictory feelings: in his heart rages a fire, but it is confined and finds its outlet merely through the rational coldness of the mirror, which reflects the fire indirectly. Throughout his proposal, the mirror at the parsonage offers us views of Darcy from every angle, exposed and vulnerable, and at the same time emotionally contained by its frame (Seidl, “Framing” 45; “Medialising” 85). The mirror enables us to see him from the front and in profile at the same time, symbolically expressing the duality of his feelings: while Darcy can only see part of himself in the mirror, as he is only able to connect to a very limited repertoire of emotions, the mirror allows us almost a 360-degree view of Darcy, hinting at the wide range of emotions that he cannot yet connect to.
After entering and walking to the fireplace, he then symbolically puts away the objects of his social power: hat and stick. Throughout his proposal the camera hints at what is going on inside of him. As long as he considers himself successful, standing in front of Lizzy and looking down upon her, he is filmed from below, the camera emphasizing his height and position of supposed superiority. Darcy’s positioning within the mis-en-scène, however, emphasizes his dangerous emotional condition: Firth’s movements are those of an animal in a cage, torn between conflicting sides of himself. While Lizzy sits in front of a window, Darcy quite literally stands with his back to the wall, trapped between her and the corners of the room. Feeling temporary relief after he has lightened his heart, he can bear physical proximity to Elizabeth, but as soon as she has refused him, he needs to get as far away from her as the room will allow. When the subject turns to Wickham, Darcy walks back to the corner, his emotions metaphorically imprisoned, and when he asks her for her reasons for rejecting him, he stands in front of the mirror again, trying to connect to his innermost feelings. In this first proposal scene, Darcy is visibly at the height of his struggle of reason against emotion: while he is conscious of the social obstacles to the match, he cannot suppress his love for Elizabeth. Yet, the precise nature of his feeling for her is left rather vague and can only be deduced from his position in the room. The scene is symptomatic of this adaptation: throughout the entire series Darcy’s emotions are hinted at, but their true nature remains subject to our interpretation. Firth successfully conjures on the screen the enigmatic and inscrutable Darcy that Austen does—and does not—describe in her text.
The 2005 proposal scenes
Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice differs from both BBC serials in that it chooses to close definitively the gaps Austen leaves in the text. Much of the information that is conveyed indirectly in the novel and thus left rather vague acquires definite shape and content in the 2005 film. Macfadyen’s Darcy is also considerably more expressive and emotional than the Darcy either of the two BBC series or of Austen’s novel. While Rintoul makes a rather arrogant and disagreeable Darcy, Macfadyen’s Darcy is far too nice and transparent. Paradoxically, his portrayal fails to leave a lasting impression. Sheryl Plant weighs the mixed effect: “Yes, women found McFayden [sic] sweet and lovely, but did they find him passionately and violently attractive like they did with Colin Firth? The answer to that one is no. In fact, the most common comment when discussing the new film is . . . ‘Colin made a much better Mr. Darcy.’”
First, a prime gap in Austen’s text, the question of whether Darcy is in love with Elizabeth, is never really a question in the 2005 adaptation. As a result of the narrator’s focalization through Elizabeth in the novel, readers must pay careful attention to the few hints in the text that suggest at least some degree of admiration for her in Mr. Darcy (Bander 29-31), but the exact nature or goal of this admiration is left equally in darkness. Although in contrast to the 1995 adaptation Wright provides the audience with only as much information about Darcy as Elizabeth has (Ailwood, “What Are Men”), this Darcy is not at all the emotional mystery he remains in that 1995 adaptation. Darcy first declares his love for Elizabeth during the first proposal scene, but he has followed her around so sheepishly that there can have been little doubt as to the nature of his admiration. This Darcy is too shy to express his emotions. As Sarah Ailwood points out, “Wright . . . foregrounds the Byronic features of Darcy’s personality . . . to present him as a Byronic hero who is driven solely by his love for Elizabeth” (“What Are Men”).
His declaration of love opens with a version of Austen’s line: “I have struggled in vain and I can bear it no longer.” What follows, however, is changed decisively from the novel. Instead of declaring his love for her immediately, Darcy first tells Elizabeth that he has followed her to Rosings. This major departure from the novel, in which they meet accidentally, allows us an insight into Darcy’s deep, maybe even obsessive, feelings for Elizabeth. He is so physically and forcibly drawn to her that he follows her around, first at the Netherfield ball, then to Rosings.4 Although he then numbers all the objections against his attachment, the social obstacles he has considered are delivered rather quickly and take up only a very small part of the entire dialogue in this scene. What is more, the sentence “I love you” comes as a climax to his litany of objections. Darcy’s expression of his feelings thus frames and thereby negates these objections, reducing their insulting potential to a minimum. There can be no doubt that he is deeply in love with Elizabeth. By making Darcy’s feelings unambiguous from the beginning, the film negates Austen’s most important gap.
Although scriptwriter Deborah Moggach appears to take a major part of the dialogue directly from the novel, she makes a few, almost unnoticeable minor changes in the dialogue that change its implications for our perception of Darcy and his relationship to Elizabeth entirely. Macfadyen’s Darcy, although verbally inferior to Lizzy, is much more expressive of his thoughts than either Rintoul’s or Firth’s Darcy. During the first proposal, when the conversation turns to Jane and Bingley, he explains his motivations in detail to Elizabeth and justifies his actions convincingly. Just as in the novel, Elizabeth states that she could not love “the man who has ruined, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister” (213). But while both Austen’s and Firth’s Darcy listen to her accusations silently, leaving it to the audience to come up with explanations for Darcy’s feelings, Macfadyen’s Darcy constantly tries to justify himself, engaging Lizzy in an angry exchange of words as he attempts to explain his motivations. Lizzy has the upper hand throughout; although he tries to interrupt her several times, he does not get a chance to speak. What is more, in the 2005 script, all negative feelings are obliterated from Darcy’s speech. He does not “‘rejoice in my success’” at separating Jane and Bingley or state that he has been kinder to Bingley “‘than towards myself’” (213). Macfadyen’s Darcy has acted from just motivations in separating Jane and Bingley, wishing to help his friend because he believed Jane to be “indifferent to him” after having “watched them most carefully, and realized his attachment was deeper than hers.” His actions are consequently much more understandable to a modern day audience.
Darcy’s second proposal reveals his feelings even more explicitly. Its setting heightens the romance. While in the novel the second proposal occurs during a day in which Elizabeth and Darcy are in the company of others, the 2005 couple meets accidentally, at dawn, as if destined, because neither of them can sleep. In Austen’s text, Elizabeth takes the initiative, wishing to thank Mr. Darcy for what he has done for her sister. In Wright’s adaptation Darcy opens the dialogue by referring to his aunt’s visit, evidently intending to tell Lizzy about his reawakened hopes. Moggach generally reorders, rephrases, and condenses most of Darcy’s direct speech from the novel, combining it with information from the narrative as well as words of her own creation. As a result, Darcy has an entire speech to himself without interruption from Lizzy. In the film his account of his reawakened hopes, which in the novel occurs after the proposal, is mixed into the proposal itself:
You must know. Surely you must know it was all for you. You are too generous to trifle with me. I believe you spoke with my aunt last night, and it has taught me to hope as I’d scarcely allowed myself before. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes have not changed. But one word from you will silence me forever.
Skillfully, Moggach turns the indirect speech from the novel into direct speech spoken by Darcy. “Elizabeth . . . gave him to understand, that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present assurances” (Austen 406) becomes Darcy’s “If, however, your feelings have changed . . . .” His monologue ends with an emotional avowal of his love: “you have bewitched me, body and soul, and I love . . . , I love . . . , I love you. I never wish to be parted from you from this day on.” For once, then, this Darcy, who has up to this point been portrayed as a rather boyish and insecure postmodern new man, has the entire stage to himself and can give expression to his feelings most romantically and eloquently.
Although the novel obscures Darcy’s feelings, Wright’s Darcy puts every thought in words, leaving no gaps open to interpretation for the viewer. While, for example, Austen’s Darcy hopes to “be rewarded” (212), as if he had succeeded in a masculine trial of strength and restraint, and Firth’s Darcy asks Elizabeth “to consent to be my wife,” this 2005 Darcy uses words such as “torment” and “agony” and politely asks Lizzy to do him “the honor of accepting my hand.”
Because the 2005 adaptation exploits the romantic potential of the novel to the full, even exaggerates it in its “drastic additions” (Camden) that lead to an over-the-top alternative ending, it does not leave any room for the viewer’s imagination. All the gaps generated by indirect speech and narrative summary during the novel’s proposal scenes are closed. We know from the beginning that Macfadyen’s Darcy loves Elizabeth, so suspense derives from typical romance elements rather than from information gaps. Since Darcy’s feelings have been completely explained by his words and actions, a large part of Darcy’s mysterious attraction is thus eliminated.
The gaps conceptualized by Barthes and Iser are essential to Darcy’s development as a cultural icon, allowing readers to go beyond what Barthes calls the mere “pleasure of consumption” and to create Darcy themselves. In order to enable this creative process, visual adaptations need to translate the gaps to the screen. The novel lays the foundations for Darcy’s iconicity by constructing his basic translatability. It provides readers with a narrative frame and gaps, primarily generated by indirect discourse and narrative summary, for them to participate in the creation of meaning. Therefore, Darcy’s potential iconicity resides specifically in the degree to which producers succeed in transferring Austen’s narrative technique onto the screen without denying their audience the same creative process.
Rintoul’s 1980 performance, lacking emotions and credible development, is too unvarying and flat to provide the narrative structure and the gaps to be filled; in Iser’s terms, there is no “interaction between the explicit and the implicit,” no revelation but only concealment. Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation is the very opposite, avoiding all blanks and evoking a definite structure as all questions are answered, all Darcy’s feelings are made evident or explained very early on. In contrast, Firth’s performance brings Austen’s structured blanks to the screen, suggesting but not explaining or defining Darcy’s emotions. Only the 1995 series manages to portray a man as incomprehensible to us as the man of the novel, leaving the ultimate interpretation of the character to the viewer. It successfully achieves a balance between what is revealed and what remains concealed, between what Iser terms the structure and the gaps within. The true nature and intensity of Darcy’s motivations, thoughts, and feelings remain a mystery to viewers, thereby turning Colin Firth’s interpretation into the ultimate, iconic version of “Mr. Darcy.”
The clips used in this essay satisfy the criteria for fair use established in Section 107 of the Copyright Law of the United States of America and Related Laws Contained in Title 17 of the United States Code.
1See for example Lisa Hopkins’s essay, revealingly entitled “Mr. Darcy’s Body.” The 2016 exhibit Will and Jane at the Folger Shakespeare Library, curated by Janine Barchas and Kristina Straub, makes the shirt Firth wore as Mr. Darcy in this scene a centerpiece.
2The pond scene may have acquired such extensive popularity because it gave expression to Darcy’s confused and increasingly irrepressible emotions. Darcy’s body is still obscured by the clothes he wears, however, translating Austen’s gaps onto a visual level.
3Later adaptations clearly tried to jump onto the “Darcymania” bandwagon but were considerably less successful in inciting the same passion for their Mr. Darcys. See, for example, Guillaume, Lipman, Looser, Plant, Profitt, Ramirez, and Walker-Arnott.