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Deciphering Mr. Darcy: Gendered Receptions through Time

In 1813, Fitzwilliam Darcy strides into the assembly room at Meryton and intrudes not only into Elizabeth Bennet’s life but also into the largely—though not exclusively—female collective imagination of the last two hundred years.  This striking man—“his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien” as well as his ten thousand pounds a year (10)—draws the attention of those around him.  But is it the same Mr. Darcy, or has he, chameleon-like, changed with time’s passing? 

Thanks to John Sutherland and Amanda Vickery’s “The Real Mr. Darcy—A Dramatic Re-Appraisal,” and perhaps to the chagrin of many of us, we now know that Darcy would not have looked like Colin Firth or even like his shaggier, smudgier reincarnation, Matthew Macfadyen.  Most likely, Sutherland and Vickery argue, he would “have smooth, unmarked skin, . . . pale as marble,” sloping shoulders and a modest chest to match, but the well-defined calf muscles and powerful thighs of a horseman.  No square jaw or muscular chest on the original Mr. Darcy, then.  As I read this description, my imagination vacillating between a composite of the real Tom Lefroy, Admiral Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, and a Regency-attired BBC Colin Firth, I wondered:  is Darcy essentially the same man despite metamorphoses such as this latest one, or does he fluctuate according to shifting tastes or understandings of masculinity?  In particular, how has feminism—one of our most important critical lenses—shaped our current understanding of Fitzwilliam Darcy?  Has it taught us to delight in and/or deplore him? And if so, to what degrees? 

To illuminate the past as well as the present trajectory of Darcy, I will examine eighteenth- and nineteenth-century notions of manhood and the way these play out in Austen’s novel.  Then, I will discuss how these conceptions of masculinity play out in contemporary films.  I suggest that the laconic textual Darcy resembles the inscrutable hero of contemporary movie adaptations as well as the rugged yet genteel Victorian man more than the polished, polite gentleman of the eighteenth century precisely because Austen firmly anchors Darcy’s masculinity in female needs and desires. 

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century masculinities 

Critics such as Michèle Cohen, Sara Ailwood, and John Tosh observe that the second half of the eighteenth century marks a change in the construction of masculinity.  Part of this reconstruction, as Tosh points out, is “the reform of manners” among “the propertied classes of the 1790s” marking the shift between eighteenth-century gentlemanliness and Victorian manliness (456).  By the time Austen draws the Darcy prototype in the initial First Impressions, politeness has begun to be distrusted as “no more than a mask to facilitate and conceal the ambition of the social climber” (455–56), as Wickham so perfectly illustrates in the later draft. 

The eighteenth-century gentleman’s refinement and easy, sociable manners give way to a masculine individualism based on a serious moral tone and a strong sense of purpose.  Manliness rather than gentlemanliness is what Darcy so openly displays and what Pemberley so loudly advertises.  Darcy displays what Tosh defines as the criteria of “frank straightforwardness, not only in action . . . but also in speech,” paying more attention to “the promptings of his inner self” than to the “dictates of social expectations” (460).  Often crossing the boundaries of propriety and appearing taciturn, brusque, and certainly rude, Darcy’s words are, in Tosh’s terms, “direct, honest, and succinct,” not designed to please or shield his listeners from the unpleasant, but “to convey meaning without equivocation” (460).  Valuing honesty and authenticity in his own character, he says nothing if he cannot say it from the heart. 

And though Darcy is perhaps closer to the emergent rugged yet genteel Victorian man than to the polished, polite gentleman of the eighteenth century, I suggest that Austen makes Darcy’s masculinity unique and enduring because she fastens it neither to perfunctory civilities nor to the business of the public sphere but to female needs and desires:  never a courtier, whatever degree of politeness Darcy attains is a direct response to Elizabeth’s expectations.  As Sarah Ailwood observes, “the alteration of Darcy’s understanding of appropriate masculine identity is inextricably linked to his fundamental need to be desirable to Elizabeth, who requires a man to have an expressive emotional life which she can shape” (142). 

Mr. Darcy’s textual masculinity 

With some of English literature’s most recognized lines, Pride and Prejudice opens with the universally acknowledged truth that “a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (3) to present the dominant masculinity of the gentleman engulfed by the concerns of a matchmaking—and by extension, a primarily female—community.  More than meddlesome mammas, this community is “a kind of disembodied collective consciousness” that “shaped perceptions, elicited judgment of value and established a sense of collective reality” not just for individuals within the novel such as Elizabeth Bennet but for Austen’s audiences as well (Deresiewicz 504, 530).  This collective feminine voice constructs a narrative of desirable masculinity by evaluating a suitor’s interactions with the neighborhood’s daughters and measuring his conduct against the behavior of other men. 

When Mr. Bingley appears at the Meryton ball with two other gentlemen in tow, the communal voice summarily dismisses Mr. Hurst as merely looking the gentleman and hones in on Mr. Darcy.  Soon, however, the tide of his popularity turns as “he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend” (10–11).  Identified only as “gentlemanlike” (10) rather than as a “as a fine figure of a man” like his friend, Bingley fulfills the community’s notion of masculinity. 

Bingley is identified as the true gentleman because, as Michèle Cohen notes, “the ‘compleat’ eighteenth-century gentleman was a man of conversation, distinguished by his civility, good breeding, manners, and his ability to please and make others feel easy” (325).  Jane Bennet’s admiration reflects the community judgment, its standard of masculinity.  Though having no estate of his own and a family fortune deriving from trade, in appearance and behavior, he is “‘just what a young man ought to be, . . . sensible, good humored, lively,’” possessing “‘such happy manners!—so much ease, with such perfect good breeding!’” (15).  Compared unfavorably to another man of lesser fortune, lineage, and physique, Darcy’s initial popularity followed by his repudiation illustrates that masculinity is not a stable, fixed category but “multiple, complex and contested” (Stafford 51). 

Though born a gentleman, Darcy’s masculinity is far from being unassailable.  Rather, it is subject to a great deal of anxiety.  The recognition that he is “‘ill qualified to recommend [himself] to strangers’” (196) proves to be painfully accurate during his doomed proposal.  Assuming that Elizabeth’s precarious socioeconomic standing will guarantee her grateful assent to the match and that his own dominant masculinity will be sufficient to gain her hand, Darcy is unpleasantly—and quite visibly—surprised at her refusal.  No small part of the unpleasant surprise is Elizabeth’s questioning of his already wounded identity as a gentleman:  “‘You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner’” (215).  With this arch statement, Elizabeth demolishes Darcy’s notion of his privileged masculinity. 

© 1995 BBC

According to Elizabeth, it is neither wealth nor status nor connections that make the man but the kind of behavior to which she has exhorted him earlier, the kind of politeness that requires, as Michael Curtin defines it, “self-control and discipline of body and tongue, . . . the effect of artful mastery over one’s manners and conduct” (313).  Though Darcy is a gentleman by birth, his masculinity is complicated by the lack of ease required to develop the manners and conduct that will recommend him to others. 

Elizabeth’s recrimination is a source of much anxiety for Darcy and informs Darcy’s more thoughtful, civil behavior for the remainder of the narrative.  Months later, he confesses to her: 

“Your reproof, so well applied, I shall never forget:  ‘had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner.’  Those were your words.  You know not, you can scarcely conceive, how they have tortured me.”  (408) 

Nowhere are the effects of Darcy’s anxious masculinity more evident than during their subsequent, unexpected encounter.  Darcy welcomes to Pemberley Elizabeth’s Aunt and Uncle Gardiner not just with cursory civility but with genuine desire to extend the acquaintance.  The Gardiners cannot help but pronounce him to be “infinitely superior to any thing they had expected” and his behavior “‘more than civil; . . . really attentive’” (284). 

It is at Pemberley that Elizabeth appreciates just how complex Darcy’s masculinity really is.  She understands Darcy as a man by observing the objects in his home, admiring his house, and walking and riding through his grounds.  The “large, handsome stone building, standing well on rising ground,” reflects its owner’s own tall, fine person.  The landscape’s avoidance of any gaudy, artificial appearance mirrors his abhorrence of falsehood and disguise:  “a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance.  Its banks were neither formal nor falsely adorned” (271).  While Darcy himself is woefully unsuccessful in impressing Elizabeth with his own worth, his estate speaks abundantly for him.  As she surveys Pemberley’s situation, Elizabeth feels “that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!”(271). 


Lyme Park as Pemberley from the 1995 film of Pride and Prejudice

Pemberley’s housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, provides other evidence of Darcy’s masculinity.  She unwittingly reveals the wild Wickham to be Darcy’s foil and in doing so reminds Elizabeth that pleasant, easy manners alone are not an adequate measure of masculinity:  as Curtin puts it, manners are “inevitably hypocritical because they were conceived to be a façade drawn over underlying realities, particularly the reality of self-interest” (400).  The reality of Darcy’s behavior suggests something different.  To Mrs. Reynolds, Darcy was not only the “‘sweetest-tempered, most generous-hearted, boy in the world,’” but, now come to adulthood, he is “‘affable to the poor,” “‘the best landlord, and the best master . . . that ever lived’” (275–76). 

Elizabeth, however, is not interested in Pemberley purely for its monetary worth but because it confirms another element of Darcy’s masculinity—that, in Tosh’s terms, he is an “‘independent man’—one who was beholden to no one, who kept his own counsel and who ruled his own household” (460).  After her inability to sketch his character at the Netherfield ball, in Pemberley’s portrait gallery, Elizabeth is finally able to view Mr. Darcy’s true likeness as a responsible landlord, kind master, and affectionate brother (277).  She understands that his gentlemanly masculinity comprehends more than the ease of politeness:  it also comprises a strong sense of social duty. 

Though Elizabeth later facetiously confesses to Jane that she first falls in love with Darcy upon viewing his vast estate, she does not love him for his wealth:  one of the first things she knows about him is his possession of a large estate in Derbyshire, yet she still rejects his offer of marriage.  But, as Alistair Duckworth notes, “in his home, Darcy is exemplary, and the description of his estate, though general, is a natural analogue of his social and moral character” (123).  The “excellent aesthetic taste” that Pemberley represents confers on its owner “an excellence of moral character” (124).  Further, Pemberley embodies “a mean between the extremes of the improver’s art and uncultivated nature” (123).  Its beautiful landscapes, handsome house, and finely proportioned rooms are not the result of nature unchecked but of Darcy’s judgment.  If Pemberley, then, a place of “natural beauty,” improved by civilized taste, and subject to the inspection of others, is a reflection of its master, it also indicates that Darcy himself is a man in the throes of metamorphosis before the female gaze. 

Mr. Darcy’s cinematic masculinities 

Perhaps it is because Darcy’s masculinity is so closely dependent on the female gaze and its discontents that, of all of Austen’s heroes, he is not only the most memorable and best loved of all her men but the one who most frequently preoccupies feminism.  Contemporary audiences have access not just to the novel’s Mr. Darcy but also to multiple visual representations of him offered by cinematic and televised productions that highlight, magnify, interpret, and reshape aspects of his character.  Darcy often comes across as a cipher shaped as much by the script and the director’s vision as by the viewers’ modern preoccupations and desires. 

Mr. Darcy becomes a site to debate contemporary masculinity.  The first decade of this century gives us one article after another concerned with whether Darcy, this “favourite fictional icon, is a dominant patriarchal male” (Potter 1).  For one wing of current American and English feminism, Darcy’s privileged socioeconomic status and emotional unattainability point to a “brutal romantic hero” (Plant 3), a man devoid of any respect or admiration for the woman he loves.  Descendants of the brutal Darcy exist in such infamous batterers as Wuthering Heights’s Heathcliff, Gone with the Wind’s Rhett Butler, or Twilight’s Edward Cullen as well as in emotionally barren bastards like Ian Fleming’s James Bond or Sex and the City’s Mr. Big.  Darcy-the-brutal-romantic-hero is linked to his incarnations in the real world too, according to Cherry Potter tapping into “that most archetypal of all female fantasies—that they will be the one and only woman to discover the key to unlocking a man’s tortured soul, thus setting free his hidden passions” (2).  The real-life Darcy, she argues, wreaks havoc with women’s well-being and self-worth:  “The fact is . . . . that dark, smoldering, moody, charismatic, arrogant Darcy type, whom we hate at first sight and then later find ourselves falling in love with, often—particularly after we have married them—turn[s] out to be rigid, dominating and controlling” (2–3). 

This side of the current feminist debate claims that while the Darcy figure sells himself to women as the one who will protect them from the big, bad world, he is ultimately the one women need protection from.  This Darcy is the instrument through which women are “educated to associate brutality with sexual passion and true love. . . . [T]he more brutal the hero, the more passionate his love, and a violent emotion is presented as the foundation of a secure and loving relationship” (Plant 2). 

I confess that I find this picture of Fitzwilliam Darcy to be not only disturbing but also misguided, the result of willful misreadings.  While Darcy is Elizabeth’s social and economic superior, neither of these factors is enough to please a woman worthy of being pleased.  It must also be universally acknowledged that Elizabeth is Darcy’s emotional superior.  Thus, theirs is a marriage of equals, deserving the connubial felicity that Elizabeth mourns as she leaves Derbyshire in apparent familial disgrace. 

I prefer instead the other side of the feminist debate, encapsulated so effectively in the approach of the anonymous Happy Feminist to the text and to most readers’ original experience.  According to this view, Darcy’s attraction lies in his offering “total admiration from someone worthy to give it”: 

Mr. Darcy is sexy and compelling because he is a strong and powerful figure and also because he respects the strength and power of Elizabeth Bennet. . . . Mr. Darcy sees her true worth.  Elizabeth Bennet is Mr. Darcy’s equal in intelligence, wit, sense and character, and Mr. Darcy loves her for it.  (“Perfect Feminist”) 

Darcy is attractive to a woman who imagines winning “the utter respect, admiration and passion of a man of great intelligence and great character, especially [of] a man who is not easily won” (“Perfect Feminist”).  Rather than a romantic celebration of abusive relationships in which nice guys finish last if at all, Mr. Darcy embodies the notion that “the best romances are between strong people who appreciate each other’s strength” (“Perfect Feminist”). 

While, in general, twenty-first-century feminism mirrors Elizabeth’s fluctuation between abhorrence of and attraction to Darcy, feminism over the previous one hundred years has not always been quite so much of two minds.  A January 2013 article in The Economist, “The Pulsating Mr. Darcy,” measured the appeal of Pride and Prejudice’s couple throughout the twentieth century according to the frequency with which their names are mentioned in British books and journals.  These texts mention Elizabeth with steady frequency throughout the century.  Darcy fares quite well at the beginning of the century and at its conclusion when the BBC TV series of the novel and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones saga are available to the public, though his popularity wanes significantly during the periods of women’s suffrage and second-wave feminism. 

Darcy was “peripheral to retellings of Pride and Prejudice” during the nineteenth century (Greenfield and Troost).  Illustrations, when he appears, fall far short of the Colin Firth standard of manly beauty, depicting “a receding hairline, a protruding belly, or a crooked nose” (Looser 3).  Apparently, £10,000 does not always come with the figure to match.  Only in Hugh Thomson’s 1894 illustrations of the novel does Darcy possess an attractive and youthful appearance. 


Hugh Thomson's Mr. Darcy

The first truly ardent Darcy emerges in Helen Jerome’s well-known three-act Broadway dramatization of the novel, Pride and Prejudice: A Sentimental Comedy.  Jerome’s play served as the basis for the novel’s first cinematic treatment, MGM’s 1940 production starring Laurence Olivier as the haughty Darcy.  A seemingly light, bright, and pleasant romp focused on the five sisters’ husband-hunting intentions and ensuing hilarities, Darcy is mostly defined by his consciousness of class:  Olivier’s Darcy refuses to dance with Elizabeth during the opening ball not just because she’s not beautiful enough to tempt him but because, as he indicates with a droll look, he is “in no humor . . . to give consequence to the middle classes at play.”  According to Devoney Looser, because Olivier’s Darcy is “self-assured but educable, slightly leering but poetic, not mysteriously hateful or violent” (6), he influenced every successive characterization. 

Though David Rintoul stepped into Darcy’s riding boots in the 1980 BBC version, it was Colin Firth in 1995 who added to Olivier’s attractive arrogance both tender yet contained sentiments and a large and heady dose of “male physicality” (Nixon 24) . Those most cherished scenes for a majority of viewers—a damp, freshly bathed Darcy gazing longingly at a playful Elizabeth on the grounds at Netherfield; a smoldering Darcy looking for words as he writes Elizabeth; and, most of all, his dip in the Pemberley lake in a fruitless effort to conquer his love for her—are absent from Austen’s text but unforgettably present in the 1995 BBC series.  As Cheryl Nixon observes, Darcy’s body serves as a clue to his feelings:  “A brooding loner who can neither physically contain nor verbally express his inner emotional battles, . . . Darcy’s physical activities reveal the violence of his emotions while his longing stares restate his inability to express verbally those emotions” (24).  But this adaptation of Pride and Prejudice as well as Colin Firth’s performance are the most memorable by far because, as Henriette-Juliane Seeliger observes, “Darcy’s emotions are hinted at, but their true nature remains subject to [the reader’s interpretation].  Firth successfully conjures . . . the same enigmatic and inscrutable Darcy that Austen does.” 

Though some Janeites cast their vote for Matthew Macfadyen’s more diffident, soulful portrayal of Fitzwilliam Darcy, many believe he does not truly inhabit Darcy’s skin because he is “far too nice and transparent. . . . Darcy is not at all the emotional mystery he remains in that 1995 adaptation” (Seeliger).  Macfadyen portrays a less aggressive—almost teary-eyed—masculinity. 


Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy in the
2005 film of Pride and Prejudice 

break graphicDespite filmmakers’ promises to offer a faithful rendition of Austen’s novel—and by extension to offer a faithful rendition of Darcy’s character—such a performance is hardly possible.  Although many readers of Pride and Prejudice would agree that economic status is the most powerful force regulating Darcy’s connections with others, contemporary visual representations show sexual attraction as the primary motivation behind his eventual transformation, leading to what some viewers unhappily term the “harlequinization” of the narrative (Margolis 35).  The 1995 and the 2005 Pride and Prejudice for instance, include “anachronistic alterations pertaining to sexuality [to] heighten the realism of Austen’s stories” (Margolis 34). 

Alterations on the way Darcy has been conceived and received point to more than the seemingly increasing superficial, prurient, or voyeuristic interest of modern audiences.  Rather, these efforts to decipher Darcy mirror our own present desires and anxieties around masculinity.  Our intermingled delight and disappointment in the visual representations of Fitzwilliam Darcy are the result of “seeing the old from a new perspective, in viewing [him] in a new context that opens up possibilities previously overlooked” (Harris 52). 

In re-viewing Darcy, I catch him in the act of transformation and growth.  Confidently striding away from the frivolity of polite eighteenth-century masculinity, he embraces neither the market nor the religion of the genteel Victorian man, nor the selfish, consuming violence of the emotionally brutal man.  Instead, he embraces the woman he loves.  The most successful film adaptations are those in which Darcy, in turning toward Elizabeth, lives on beyond the movie screen in the reader’s imagination—neither as a cipher nor a lout but as a kind, honest, real man, who needs the very woman who depends on him and who, in so doing, forges a genuinely reciprocal union.  Moving forward I suggest we define Darcy’s character yet again, as the embodiment of a masculinity allied to and invested in female empowerment.



The clip used in this essay satisfies 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. 

Works Cited
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