Because she had felt of his body in full cry and therefore appreciated the ampleness of his . . . credentials, Elizabeth had harbored a certainty that she would not be taken unawares when she saw them. Yet, she could not help but stare (by reason of its tumescence, his torch of love just so happened to be trained directly upon her and it was difficult to disregard). When she finally wrested her eyes from thence, she raised one eyebrow slightly as if to question the viability of what nature insisted was, indeed, possible.
—Linda Berdoll, Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife
Is Pride and Prejudice sexy? For many of today’s Austen lovers, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” From the moment Colin Firth shed his waistcoat in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, fiction inspired by Austen’s third novel has banked on its ability to depict sexual tension and romantic desire. Clearly, the fourteen million viewers who watched Firth’s unveiling were onto something: Austen’s novel turns people on.
More often than not, however, the sequels and spin-offs that deliberately incite the libido have been dismissed as exploiting or simplifying Austen’s original.1 Yet we believe they deserve our attention precisely for their erotic thrust. After all, if even a part of Austen’s appeal springs from her ability to convey her characters’ romantic and sexual desires—and to tap into those of her readers—an understanding of that dimension of her work is crucial to appreciating not only the novel, but the countless works of fiction, film, and other media that it has engendered in our time.
In this essay, we look at sex and desire in Pride and Prejudice, in the 1995 BBC adaptation, and in a selection of novels written in the wake of Colin Firth’s dive.2 We take as our starting point Linda Hutcheon’s observation that we experience “adaptations as palimpsests” (7); in every text we consider we see traces of Austen’s original as well as of other adaptations to which it responds. Whether by contrast or emulation, these works call attention to the subtlety and skill with which Austen’s narrative style incites the libido. In Pride and Prejudice, we argue, the narrator manipulates the reader’s perspective to reveal gaps between the protagonists’ thoughts and emotions and how they can express them. These gaps generate tensions, which are often erotic, that require release. The 1995 adaptation achieves a comparable effect through cinematic techniques. On screen, Elizabeth and Darcy are visually appealing and far more embodied than they are in the novel. Darcy’s role is expanded through the use of multiple perspectives, which stokes the viewer’s desire for disclosure and emotional release. Inspired by the miniseries, the fiction we consider further magnifies Darcy’s role along with his physical appeal. In doing so, these novels call attention to important distinctions in the representation of desire between Austen’s time and our own.
Erotic desire in Austen’s novel begins with looking. As Jillian Heydt-Stevenson notes in Unbecoming Conjunctions, all of the characters “unabashedly appraise sexual and physical appeal” (70). In addition to his ten thousand pounds, for example, Darcy initially garners approval for his “fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien” (10). His arrogance and disdain for others also are described in physical terms: he dances only once with Mrs. Hurst and once with Miss Bingley, and he spends the rest of the evening “in walking about the room, speaking occasionally to one of his own party” (11). For a novel that never tells us the color of Elizabeth’s hair, the narrative is remarkably precise about the location of Darcy’s body, for his movements, like his gaze, are linked to his libido.
We see this when he encounters Elizabeth at Lucas Lodge, where he begins to revise his initial impression of her appearance and demeanor: “no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes” (23). In addition, he is “forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing” and is “caught” by the “easy playfulness” of her manners (23). Wanting to learn more of her, he positions himself so that he might hear her conversations with others (24). Later, when they meet in the drawing room at Netherfield Park, he stays seated in order to check out Elizabeth as she and Miss Bingley take a turn about the room. At Rosings, he practically stalks her.
Such is the force of his interest that Elizabeth cannot help but be aware of his scrutiny. At Lucas Lodge she complains of it to Charlotte: “‘What does Mr. Darcy mean . . . by listening to my conversation with Colonel Foster?’” she asks (24). Likewise, at Netherfield, she notes that Mr. Darcy’s eyes are fixed on her frequently (51). By the time they encounter each other at Rosings, Darcy’s attention is invading her consciousness at every turn. Even a lively conversation with Colonel Fitzwilliam does not prevent her from noticing Darcy. “His eyes,” she perceives, “had been soon and repeatedly turned towards them with a look of curiosity” (172). Logic dictates that she must have either been looking at Darcy quite frequently herself or that she is somehow able to feel Darcy’s gaze.
Whether she understands its import, or her body’s response to it, are other matters entirely. At Lucas Lodge, she assumes that Darcy’s attentions are satirical at best: “to her he was only the man who made himself agreeable no where, and who had not thought her handsome enough to dance with” (23). At Netherfield, she resolves her confusion over the frequency of his glances by supposing “there was a something about her more wrong and reprehensible, according to his ideas of right, than in any other person present” (51). At Rosings, she credits his attention to “wilful ill-nature” (182). That we know the opposite is entirely due to the narrator’s intervention. When they encounter each other at Pemberley, for instance, the silence is “very awkward” (257). “[M]uch might have been said,” the narrator tells us, and Elizabeth “wanted to talk, but there seemed an embargo on every subject” (257). At moments like these, the reader knows more about what is really going on than do the characters themselves.
Of course, what is “really” going on is open to interpretation. Opinions differ regarding when Elizabeth finds herself sexually attracted to Darcy. Elaine Bander, for instance, finds no evidence that Elizabeth experiences erotic interest in Darcy until she “decides rationally” that he is “admirable and therefore loveable” (26). In contrast, she notes, Elizabeth “experiences an immediate, visceral sexual interest in Wickham” (26). We believe, however, that Elizabeth’s physical attraction to Darcy is not only unconscious, but that it precedes her realization that he “was exactly the man, who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her” (312). Every time Elizabeth starts thinking about Wickham, she ends up thinking about Darcy instead. In these moments, the narrative associates thoughts of Darcy with Elizabeth’s libido. As a result, Elizabeth seems—in some sense—aroused by Darcy’s attention. Her resistance to knowing it springs from an unwillingness to harbor feelings that her judgment refuses to sanction.
This brings us to the heart of the matter: the sexual tension in Austen’s novel springs from repression. It exists in the gap between the characters’ thoughts and emotions and what they can say or do about them given the mores of the society in which they live. These gaps create the urge for disclosure, a process that sometimes requires the assistance of others. When Darcy returns to Hertfordshire with Bingley, Elizabeth observes him quite closely. Although her Aunt Gardiner has revealed Darcy’s role in rescuing Lydia, she cannot discern his feelings by how he behaves. Meanwhile, external and internal constraints prevent her from letting him know that her feelings have changed. It is only after Darcy is enlightened by Lady Catherine that the misunderstandings and social constraints are removed.
They wore the high-collared vests, cravats, buttoned coats with long tails and tight little breeches that had driven Jane’s imagination mad on many an uneventful Tuesday night. Her heart bumped around in her chest like a bee at a window and everything seemed to move in closer, the world pressing against her insisting that all was real and there for the touching. She was really here. Jane held her hands behind her back in case they trembled with eagerness.
—Shannon Hale, Austenland
As written by Andrew Davies and directed by Simon Langton, the 1995 series is also all about looking. Departing from the letter of the text, it revels in the camera’s affinity for the external. Instead of the narrator’s account of events and of Elizabeth’s thoughts and emotions, the visual medium gives us characters’ bodies in heat and in motion. It depicts the visual and physical evidence of the couple’s desire. As a result, the series renders the sexual attraction between Elizabeth and Darcy as not merely evident, but also arousing. In doing so, the 1995 Pride and Prejudice transforms viewers into voyeurs.
Much is done via the casting. In the novel Darcy is struck by Elizabeth’s “pair of fine eyes” (27). In the series those eyes take a back seat to breasts. As Elizabeth, Jennifer Ehle is far more voluptuous than any other woman with whom she appears on the screen. She is often outside and when walking loves to break into an exuberant run. What is most striking, however, is the series’ depiction of Darcy. According to Davies, Darcy’s attraction to Elizabeth is “the central motor which drives the story forward” (Birtwistle 3). Davies gives the viewer more and sexier Darcy in order to convey the intensity of his passion. As Lisa Hopkins has noted, the 1995 series goes to great lengths to make him an object of visual veneration. The very first scene opens on “Darcy and Bingley, on horseback, galloping toward a viewpoint of Netherfield Hall” (Hopkins 112).
They confer about Bingley’s intentions and then gallop away.
Darcy’s horse is always the one in the lead, a detail which implies his ability to master his own, equally powerful, animal nature.
Three scenes that are not in the novel also depict Darcy as a man of strong, barely restrained passions. All of these scenes occur in episode four of the series and all pertain to his efforts to get over Elizabeth. In the first he writes her the letter where he reveals the truth about Wickham. This process also involves revealing himself. Over the course of the night, Darcy sheds his jacket and waistcoat and loosens his collar. By dawn, he is down to only a shirt and breeches.
In the second, Darcy, dripping with sweat (and dressed a bit like a pirate), concludes a fencing lesson by scoring a hit. Booking another lesson, he mutters, “I shall conquer this” before striding off set.
In the final segment, Darcy dives into the pond at Pemberley and emerges dripping wet, only to encounter a startled Elizabeth.
In each instance, Darcy ends up damp, if not drenched, in a semi-transparent, somewhat-unbuttoned white shirt. This may be a historically accurate costume, akin to what an eighteenth-century gentleman would wear in similar situations. However, the series of shirts also links Darcy to another fraternity―the brotherhood of the shirt-ripping romance.
As Hopkins remarks, the 1995 Pride and Prejudice “is unashamed about appealing to women—and in particular about fetishizing and framing Darcy and offering him up to the female gaze” (112).
Private moments like these reveal not just Darcy’s dripping flesh, but something about the “real” Darcy. Darcy is usually alone in these scenes and, if not, the camera excludes anyone else in the scene. Nor is he trying to mask his emotions. The camera shots reveal a Darcy that the characters on screen do not get to see. In doing so, they create the illusion that we know what he thinks and feels. For Henriette-Juliane Seeliger, this phenomenon resembles a particular narrative technique in the novel. Austen, she notes, “creates information gaps that enable an active process between text and reader,” allowing each individual reader to fill those gaps differently. Likewise, throughout the miniseries, “Darcy’s emotions are hinted at, but their true nature remains subject to our interpretation.” For viewers, as for readers, there is pleasure in filling in the gaps. It is important to note, however, that the series gives us more Darcy. As a result, we become far more intimate with him than we do when reading the novel. We know him better than Elizabeth does. He becomes our Darcy, and this sense of possession creates an erotic charge.
Another cinematic technique that turns up the heat in the series is the use of multiple perspectives. By alternating among these perspectives, the miniseries generates tension, stoking the desire for disclosure. This dynamic comes to a peak during the Pemberley segment. In this sequence, the camera cuts between scenes of Elizabeth in the gallery and on the grounds and of Darcy diving into and emerging from the lake.
Like foreplay, the alternating scenes rev up the pacing along with the urge for resolution. When Darcy and Elizabeth finally meet, they are astonished while we feel relief. Later, we know that Darcy is hunting for Wickham long before Elizabeth is enlightened by Lydia and her aunt. If we accept the premise that the camera works to make us voyeurs, then the structure of the screenplay ups the ante by acting the tease.
Our final point about the miniseries concerns penetration. For both Elizabeth and Darcy, desire is kindled not by breasts or bare bums but by the interior qualities they eventually discover through close observation. On screen we regularly see Darcy’s view of Elizabeth’s face. Although Elizabeth is not privy to those two early scenes with Darcy and the white shirt, she eventually detects the sincerity and vulnerability, as well as the passion, beneath his waistcoat. Perhaps being desired is even more of a turn-on if we are seen and desired for who we are instead of how we appear.
[Darcy] rucked her skirts onto her lap. “You were a bloom whose thorns I should have braved. I should have plucked you then and there and then had you for my own. Then you would have had this”—he pressed himself against her, savoring the shock in her eyes—“every night. And I”—he lifted her breasts and nuzzled them through the silk—“this.”
Flip squirmed against the dizzying pressure, anchoring her fingers in his thick hair. The exquisite burn in her belly had to be extinguished. Darcy caressed her bare thighs from buttock to hip, now taking full measure of what he would possess.
—Gwyn Cready, Seducing Mr. Darcy
Penetration is taken far more literally in many of the fictional reworkings of Pride and Prejudice.3 While the TV series adapts the erotic tension of Austen’s novel with a restraint necessary for prime time, fiction is under no such restriction. To illustrate, we look at representatives of five different sub-genres of Austen-inspired novels: time-travel, paranormal and literary fiction, as well as sequels and “chick lit.”4 Inspired by the series’ voyeuristic approach to Darcy, these novels escalate the looking and add a lot of touching. What drops out is the gap between emotion and behavior that gave observation its urgency in Austen.
These changes are unsurprising, given the contrasting social mores and literary conventions of their times. As Pamela Regis points out in A Natural History of the Romance Novel, a key difference between romance novels written in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and those written today is in the representation of heroes and heroines. Heroines of yesteryear, including Elizabeth Bennet, act as affective individuals, gain financial standing, and achieve the right to make companionate marriages through courtship (Regis 110). Those of modern romance novels begin their stories convinced of their right to individual happiness, to own property, and to marry for love. This distinction applies to many fictional adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, regardless of when they take place. As a result, Regis notes, the hero steps to the fore to assume a much larger place in the narrative (111). According to the romance novelist Judith Krentz, this modern hero is associated with “risk”; he is an “alpha male,” rather than the sensitive, understanding, best-friend type, who is “thoroughly tamed from the start”; indeed, he is as much villain as hero (qtd. in Regis 112).
As in the BBC series, we wind up with more and sexier Darcy. In the novels we have read, Darcy’s virility ranges from apparent to awesome. In Shannon Hale’s “chick-lit” comedy Austenland, for example, the heroine, a Colin Firth addict, is pleased by the way the Darcy character, Mr. Nobley, looks in “snug hunting breeches” (117). Her admiration is nothing, however, compared to Elizabeth’s in seeing Darcy’s “torch of love” in Linda Berdoll’s sequel, Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife (41). The encounter that really takes that cake, however, occurs in Gwyn Cready’s Seducing Mr. Darcy, when an unmarried Darcy rises to the occasion with Flip Allison, a twenty-first-century ornithologist, who has time-travelled back into fiction and into the body of a character named Lady Quillan. Although they have graphic, earth-shattering sex in a facsimile of a Greek temple during a rainstorm, the trans-fictional union between the heroine of the novel and the hero of the novel within the novel is brief. Flip falls for Magnus Knightley, a Darcy-esque Austen scholar who journeys into the book to help Flip set the plot back to rights. Fortunately, Magnus turns out to be an even better lover than Darcy. When he and Flip finally get together, “the universe began to explode” (320).
In bed or out, the spin-offs pay a great deal of attention to the effect of Darcy’s body on the heroine in question. Many contain moments in which Darcy is described through Elizabeth’s eyes. After their wedding night, for example, when Berdoll’s Elizabeth surreptitiously studies the body of her sleeping husband, a sigh escapes her: “The glimpse she had caught of it the night before had been astounding. . . . Now . . . she could fully appreciate the breadth of his shoulders and the long, muscular leanness of his body. Her gaze, however, soon returned to his netherlands, for she was happy to have the opportunity to inspect them in covert leisure” (48–49). Eventually, this Darcy awakens, and the pair have sex for what seems to be the sixth time in twenty-four hours.
Such is the force of each Darcy’s desire that the heroine cannot help but be aware of and aroused by his presence. During social occasions, when the two are apart, the Elizabeth character usually spots the Darcy character amidst the crowd, often because he is already looking for or at her. Indeed, all of these novels contain at least one moment in which the heroine “feels” the hero’s eyes upon her, when he is, in effect, touching her with his gaze. Willingly or not, the Elizabeth in question responds with her body. In some cases she blushes; in others, they swive. In Amanda Grange’s paranormal romance Mr. Darcy, Vampyre, Darcy’s allure is preternatural; although he won’t sleep with his wife, the “overwhelming force of his desire” can send her into a dreamlike state in which her neck is his for the taking (70).
In contemporary retellings of Pride and Prejudice, Darcy’s arrogance, pride, position, and exercise of power are depicted as sexy rather than offensive. At Pemberley, Berdoll’s Mr. Darcy is an authority figure who, “expecting perfection from himself, . . . would brook no less from anyone else” (24). Meanwhile, over in the twenty-first century, Magnus Knightley’s arrogance stems from his position as a Jane Austen scholar; he enters the story absolutely convinced that there “were few things worse than the sophomoric lunacy of some women on the topic of Darcy” (13). No pantywaist he, Magnus actually spanks Flip in one scene. Indeed, all of the adaptations depict the arrogance that Austen’s heroine abhors as really quite a turn-on. So too is Darcy’s elitism. His aloofness from others makes his singling out of Elizabeth all the more hot.
Beneath their veneers of civility, these Darcys are volatile in their passion. In Austenland, Mr. Nobley wins the heroine by breaking character and taking real action. He quits his job, follows the heroine to the airport, and fights an insincere rival for her affections. Other Darcys also like a good fight. Evading thrown knife and drawn pistol, Berdoll’s Mr. Darcy saves his wife by impaling her kidnapper upon his saber. Vampyre Darcy wins a brief but epic battle with another vampire who wants Elizabeth for himself. Elizabeth is not only turned on but completely unfazed to discover that she has married a bloodsucking corpse: “I thought it was something far, far worse,” she informs him; “I thought you didn’t love me” (246). Apparently being numbered among the undead does not diminish Vampyre Darcy’s allure.
Up to this point the novels we have discussed respond to and celebrate the voyeurism inherent in the 1995 adaptation. But what about novels that ostensibly recreate Austen’s original? For this we turn to Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, which has a different kind of origin story. Identified as an author of best-selling literary fiction, Sittenfeld was commissioned by HarperCollins to write a modern-day Pride and Prejudice for its Austen Project. It was, in other words, to be Austen’s novel itself, transposed to contemporary America. The result is a Darcy who differs from those described above in crucial ways. He isn’t dangerous or violent, and he doesn’t ride horses. He is a socially awkward brain surgeon living in Cincinnati, whose elitism is annoying rather than seductive.
Sittenfeld does not deny her formidable precursors in Austen adaptation. Rather, she winks at such heroes of romance. Early in the novel, the heroine, Liz Bennet, recalls herself as a pre-teen reading “a tawdry romance . . . in which a brooding Cheyenne loner inserted his finger into the most private cavity of a young British heiress while they rode upon the same horse” (45). This humorous reference is both affectionate (Liz enjoyed it) and distancing (only when she was a kid). Here and elsewhere, Sittenfeld acknowledges her readers’ white-shirt-induced expectations by playfully deflecting them. This occurs most pointedly when Liz runs into Darcy at Pemberley, his California estate. There is a pool on Darcy’s property—but it is covered by a tarp (330). Sittenfeld is warning us that there will absolutely be no diving into the water in her book.
Yet many encounters between Liz and Darcy are marked by excessive moisture. During one of their early exchanges, when a perspiring Liz arrives at the hospital where Darcy works, “a droplet of sweat flew through the air and landed on the forearm of Fitzwilliam Darcy’s white coat; she saw it happen, and she was certain that he did, too” (148). In other encounters, Darcy is drenched in sweaty running clothes or post-coital perspiration. Not to deny the appeal of a doctor’s white coat, these details are more mundane than a dripping pirate shirt emerging from a lake. The last one, however, alerts us to something important: Darcy and Liz are sleeping together. Sex itself is no big deal in modern Cincinnati.
This raises the question, where does sexual tension come from in a world where the thing itself is reduced to slang abbreviation, as when Charlotte asks Liz, “Are you sure there’s no ST between you and Darcy?” (132). Sittenfeld’s answer is to reopen the gap between emotion and its expression that is central to Austen’s eroticism. Ironically, she does this with sex itself. Since physical repression has been lifted—our heroine feels entitled not only to companionate marriage but to good sex without the marriage—the tension lies in what is withheld emotionally rather than physically. “Hate sex” (238) provides both stimulation and alienation. As the narrator describes Liz and Darcy’s first go at it: “Indeed, one sign of just how agreeable she found the interaction was that she was only vaguely aware of the identity of the person with whom she was sharing it. At the beginning, the preposterousness of this proximity to Darcy—Fitzwilliam Darcy!—had distracted her and then again at the end, as she emerged from the delirious haze in which they’d mutually collapsed” (241). In the realm of casual sexual encounters, you can eat your cake and still not know its flavor. Acting out their physical attraction, Liz and Darcy stifle their emotional affinity until they can finally communicate what they feel.
All this brings us back to Austen’s novel, in which the recognition of emotion is the turning point of the story. In Eligible, Liz has to reevaluate her initial assumptions about Darcy before she can admit that she loves him. The final clarification between Liz and Darcy is brought about, ironically, through the medium of reality TV. The characters are reunited for the televised wedding of Jane and Bingley on a reality dating show called Eligible. Scripted, misleading, and manipulative, the show is the antithesis of sincere communication. Significantly, the second “proposal” scene occurs only when Darcy and Liz sneak out of camera range and switch off the microphones they are required to wear. Sittenfeld then brings the romance plot into the twenty-first century by allowing Liz to do the proposing. The scene ends with an enlightened Liz quivering with anticipatory delight: “Hate sex, she thought gleefully. Hate sex! Except without the hate” (472). The sex is nothing new to our hero and heroine, only the acknowledged emotion that accompanies it.
At the heart of this essay remains a question: do reworkings of Pride and Prejudice illuminate what is sexy in Austen or do they obscure it? Our answer is “both.” As we have argued, sex in novels that celebrate “hot Darcy” by way of the miniseries builds on the sexual tension in the original. The novels we have considered, however, do not replicate Austen’s mode of creating that tension. The loose adaptations have no obligation to do so. Eligible does take on that responsibility, yet it also responds to the cultural prevalence of hot Darcy. The play among all of these adaptations speaks to the layers through which so many twenty-first-century readers and viewers experience and transform the erotic energy of Austen’s original. They are a lively and fruitful part of Austen’s afterlife. Whether or not these novels are good for you, however, is a private decision.
All clips and images 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.
4Our choice of novels and genres was limited to those that explore the erotic tension in Pride and Prejudice. We cannot do justice to the quantity and variety of Austen-inspired fiction published over the years.