Monday Muse: On Mr. Darcy

Hello all and welcome to this week’s edition of the Monday Muse. It is I, C, which, as we have been taught, is for cookie. I would like a cookie. Who wouldn’t? But I really need a cookie today. Do you know how hard it was not to jump on my historian’s soap box and break our Nerd Cactus Commandments today? Every time I sat down, I wanted to get behind my virtual lectern and go political. No, I had no interest in telling you what to feel or how I stand on any particular issue…I just desperately wanted to remind people of some truths about our nation’s history. I wanted to so badly. In order to NOT write it here, I had to lecture an imaginary group of people (and my cats). You don’t understand, guys…I was shaking. I feel very passionately about political philosophy (yeah…I’m a nerd) and the history of my nation; when someone maligns either of those things through ignorance (willful or genuine), I get very angry.

But…no. There are rules here at Nerd Cactus, and I am not one to break the rules, even if I’m the one who created them. So I figured out what I was going to do and I pulled out Pride and Prejudice.

You see, I realized that, as much of a fan of Jane Austen as I am, I have only used one of her novels as a Boozy Books feature thus far. She’s got six of them! (And the ones she never completed, of course.) There’s at least one I need a drink just to get through (I really dislike Fanny Price, guys…please don’t take away my membership in the Official Jane Austen Fan Club that I totally just made up right now). So, when I realized what kind of day it was becoming, I decided that I was going to calm myself down with a re-read of her most beloved novel and a trip to Pemberley.

Somewhere between Rosings Park and Lambton, I made the decision that I was going to make this week an unofficial Pride and Prejudice celebration. Unofficial because I’m the only one doing this and it’s not a Nerd Cactus Presentation, but also super official because I am going to find something silly for Sunday to fit the theme and everything. And it begins today with a discussion of my favorite of Miss Austen’s heroes (and one of my favorite characters, period): Mr. Darcy.

No, no, ladies…put away those cardboard cutouts of Colin Firth; that isn’t why he’s my favorite. In fact, and I’ve already set up internet armor (and real life armor, as far as you know), the further away we get from the ’95 version of P&P, the less I like it. And the less I like Firth’s Darcy, in particular.

OK, let me explain. It’s not that I don’t like it. I will always like his performance. But the more I read the book and the more I study about the period, the less I am inclined to agree with the interpretation that his is the definitive Darcy. In fact, I am beginning to think that it’s not even as true to Austen as most people believe. Why? Because I think the ’95 version is far too literal in its interpretation of the novel, going so far as to present us a Mr. Darcy that is infected by Elizabeth’s perspective of him and arguing that it is objective.

Pride and Prejudice is a novel from Elizabeth’s perspective. Thus, the way we think of all the characters is, in fact, the way Elizabeth thinks of them. Take, for example, Mrs. Bennet. Yes, the woman is absurd. There is no denying that. But is her obsession with getting her daughters married really all that ridiculous? If there isn’t at least one who is married well, the rest of them will be destitute. Women cannot inherit property, and Mr. Bennet is not rich enough to provide a generous sum upon his death. When he is no more, Mrs. Bennet will have no home. Her unmarried daughters will have no home. Why, then, is her obsession with getting eligible bachelors to marry her daughters so problematic? Why is wanting Elizabeth in particular to marry Mr. Collins seen as evidence of her dislike of Elizabeth or her dangerous obsession? Love is not a prerequisite for marriage in this world. Mr. Collins will inherit Longbourn and is a respectable man; if Elizabeth marries him, the family is secure. Mrs. Bennet only appears callous and unfeeling (and, again, ridiculous) in this instant because that’s how Elizabeth perceives her. Thinking objectively, she is a silly woman, but her motivations are entirely understandable.

So, having discussed the notion of Elizabeth’s perspective being our perspective, let’s discuss Darcy. Many readers believe that it is love for Elizabeth that causes Darcy to change. I disagree. I do not think Darcy changes near as much as we are led to believe; I think it’s merely Elizabeth’s perception of him that changes. After all, it is Elizabeth herself who states about Darcy and Wickham that “one has got all the goodness, and the other all the appearance of it.” See, if Darcy changes…if he is truly an arrogant ass who believes he is better than everyone else, then he ceases being Wickham’s foil. The point of Darcy is that the arrogance is a facade (sorry for no comma under the C); it is a way he is perceived, and not really who he is. The problem with the Colin Firth version is…it doesn’t really come across that way. It seems, to me, that Firth’s Darcy is shocked into change by Elizabeth’s charge of being un-gentlemenlike; he realizes he is, in fact, treating people poorly and must change. The arrogance, then, is a genuine part of his personality. But, for me…the more I read, the more I find myself thinking that Mr. Darcy *isn’t* arrogant; he is socially awkward. And I am going to discuss this by bringing up the other Darcy: Matthew MacFadyen. Forgive me, but I actually believe his performance has a lot of merit, so those of you who are devoted to Colin Firth are just going to have to deal with it.

Let’s discuss the first time Elizabeth and Darcy meet. It’s a general assembly, loud and raucous, and full of pretty much anyone of any station in the entire town. In the ’95 version, this really isn’t shown as much; it is filmed as a much more sedate affair, which is actually not particularly period. This would have been crowded, hot, sweaty, with bodies pressed against one another in a space that was too small to hold them all. All-in-all, the assembly we get in the ’05 version is much closer to truth. But, forget all that. How is Darcy portrayed in each scene? Colin Firth, his Darcy affected too much by Elizabeth’s perception of him (and by this I mean that his character is presented to the camera in such a manner that we are meant to believe that Elizabeth’s perception is fact), dismisses her without even looking at her. He doesn’t appear uncomfortable with his surroundings; he walks around like he’s better than everyone. He knows Elizabeth isn’t good enough to dance with him because only one girl is passable and that’s Jane. There is no perception problem here; this Fitzwilliam is an ass. Keep in mind we learn later that Darcy isn’t a bad dude, he’s just not good at showing it. This isn’t a man who’s bad at showing it; this is a man who doesn’t even bother to try, which just makes him a jerk.

Contrast this with the ’05 version, and MacFadyen. He looks at Elizabeth upon entering; he is clearly attracted to her, drawn to her from the beginning. But he forces himself to look away, to stare forward as he is meant to. Thus, when he says he doesn’t want to dance with Elizabeth, we know it’s a bit BS that she isn’t “handsome enough to tempt” him. We know he finds her attractive, so why…why did he say such a ridiculous thing? Because Fitzwilliam Darcy isn’t free to be himself, and he knows it; he has a family name to live up to. A legacy stretching back for hundreds of years. He is *the* Darcy now, and responsible for maintaining the Darcy place in society. England is incredibly obsessed with rules and propriety; this is a man who is simply not free to do what he wants. He has to temper himself; he must do what’s right. And so he has to deny himself a dance with the pretty lady, because that’s what he is supposed to do. Yes, he says the wrong thing, but there’s something else about Mr. Darcy which is very important in understanding him.

Mr. Darcy is not good with people. He says so himself at Rosings Park. He doesn’t have the talent some people have of conversing easily with people he doesn’t know. BOTH versions of Mr. Darcy say some version of this. Of course, it must be noted that Firth’s Darcy is also subject to the same concerns and restrictions as MacFadyen’s; he, too, was made the leader of his family far too young, and has more than his own wishes to concern himself with. The difference between the behavior, then, is in how he is presented. With Firth, I always took away that he never bothered to make himself likable to people. He was taught he was better than everyone else (Darcy would certainly have been taught this–most people of his station, in that time, would have similar beliefs), and must always be mindful of that superiority. This, then, when combined with his natural ineptitude in matters of social grace, became his excuse for his behavior. Perhaps it began as a defense mechanism with Firth’s version of Darcy, but it seems to have soaked in a little too deeply. And it’s only when Elizabeth challenges him that he realizes how much that has soaked in; that he actually has to bother to make himself likable if he wants to win this woman. That all his natural superiority means nothing if the people who matter don’t see that superiority in him.

With MacFadyen, I think we see more of the “real” Darcy; the one that lies beneath what Elizabeth perceives. He doesn’t have Firth’s burning eyes–I will always love the subtle use of eye acting in Firth’s performance–to reveal what lives beneath, but I think the camera in the ’05 version divorced itself from Elizabeth’s POV more successfully. Remember, too, that Firth’s eyes were, for the most part, cold before Elizabeth begins to perceive his worthiness. Yes, there are moments at Netherfield where we begin to see his attraction to her, but for the most part, Elizabeth’s perception of him continues to color his performance. The camera is merely an extension of Elizabeth’s gaze. But in the ’05 version, we are treated to just how uncomfortable social situations make Darcy; we see in his behavior the protection he has gathered around himself. I genuinely believe Darcy’s arrogance is a by-product of how people perceive the behavior of individuals who are socially awkward. For fear of doing the wrong thing (and this is Mr. Darcy we’re talking about, with all the pressure of his family’s greatness and society’s expectations upon his shoulders), he remains aloof. Combine that with his tendency to say the wrong thing when pressed, et voila…we have Mr. Darcy.

But, you say! That’s not really Colin Firth’s fault or Matthew MacFadyen’s choice! Well, yes…you’re right. I never said it was. I think it all comes down to how the director handled the camera. The ’95 version was far more literal, I think, to the comedy of manners and restrained, Regency satire of Austen’s work. Thus, the camera became an extension of Elizabeth’s gaze, coloring everyone and everything with her opinion. The ’05 version removed a lot of the restraint and modernized much of the expression of emotion and sexual tension (just the expression, mind; I seriously doubt there was less sexual tension between people in the actual Regency…people are people, man); it also pulled itself back a bit to allow the camera to be a more objective storytelling lens. Elizabeth is, at times, just as unlikable as anyone else, which she is not in the ’95 version.

Basically (and yes I realize this thing is a novel…I’m sorry), I think Mr. Darcy is a socially awkward kid and his arrogance is just an interpretation of his behavior by the people who don’t know him. He’s one of those people that is hard to get to know, and even harder to like, but once you get past that initial stage, you realize they’re an amazing person. For me, the ’05 version captures that better than the ’95, which presents Darcy as actually arrogant, but changed by Elizabeth’s reproofs (he hardly knew himself in that moment, eh?). This is not to say that one version is better than another, just that I think one version manages to capture a part of Darcy that isn’t completely obvious to the reader. One removes the veneer of Regency restraint, and the other maintains it completely. One is probably a better reflection of how people actually behaved, especially with regards to the raucous nature of parties (Regency dances were NOT staid, believe me), and the other maintains more of Austen’s brilliant satire.

Ultimately, I think we have yet to see the definitive version of Darcy. But I will offer my opinion and say I think he looks a bit more like MacFadyen than his performance has been given credit for. Now, as for Elizabeth, I’d say somewhere between Ehle, who was too composed, and Knightley, who was a little too modern teenager, is just right. Either way, I think we can all agree that it’s been 10 years and, according to the pattern, we are due another version soon.

Which is probably why we’re getting zombies.

This has been another ridiculously long blog post from me. At least A is better at being succinct. I’ll see you on Friday for my recommendation of what to drink while you’re screaming at me about how wrong I am vis a vis Colin Firth.

C

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