The grumpy, snooty hero of "Pride and Prejudice" has never loomed larger. What's his secret? The columnist and novelist Allison Pearson has an idea

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013

One night in the winter of 1995, I had dinner with Mr Darcy at a fashionable Italian restaurant in Covent Garden. I could barely eat, so busy was I drinking in the man beside me. His figure was elegant, his manners unshowy but delightful, and his eyes deep pools in which it would be a pleasure to drown. By my reckoning, I had first fallen in love with Darcy almost 20 years earlier, and I was glad I could still recall what he admired in a woman. "Be playful and intelligent," I told myself. Playful and intelligent. Like Elizabeth Bennet.

Female diners in the restaurant took elaborate detours to the loo so they could pass by our table, just to gaze on him. Mr Darcy blushed. He admitted he was disconcerted to be the object of such vulgar fascination.

"Be not alarmed," I said, quoting (playfully and intelligently, I hoped) the opening of Darcy’s devastating letter to Lizzy after she turns down his proposal of marriage. "You’d better get used to all the attention."

My dinner companion that night was not, strictly speaking, Mr Darcy. It was the actor Colin Firth, who had recently sprung—or, more accurately, strode out of a lake in a clingy wet shirt—to fame, playing Darcy in Andrew Davies’s adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice" for the BBC. After filming was finished, Firth left the country for a job abroad. By the time he got back, England was in the grip of Darcymania. When I asked him about the adulation, Firth wore the slightly sheepish expression of a mere mortal who knows he is taking credit for the potency of a fictional hero (Robert Pattinson, star of the "Twilight" movies, bears the same look today). A modest chap, Firth volunteered what had happened when he told his elderly aunt, a Jane Austen devotee, that he had been chosen to play Darcy. "Don’t be silly, Colin," replied the aunt sternly. "Mr Darcy is devastatingly handsome and attractive."

It is 200 years since "the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world" stalked into those assembly rooms in Hertfordshire and declined to dance with Miss Bennet because she was "tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me". Age has not withered Mr Darcy, nor inflation dimmed the power of his £10,000 a year—half a million in today’s money. For ever after, the love story of Darcy and Elizabeth would be the template of thwarted romance: let us to the marriage of two true minds admit plenty of impediments, then remove them, one by one. In "Pride and Prejudice", it is Lizzy’s inferior social position (and ghastly relatives) and Darcy’s hauteur which keeps them apart for some of the most blissful chapters in the language.    

I was 16 when I made the acquaintance of Fitzwilliam Darcy. It wasn’t love at first sight; nor is it meant to be. Austen’s genius in "Pride and Prejudice" is that she makes you see Darcy through Elizabeth’s affronted gaze. Just as Lizzy is hardening in her conviction that this arrogant man with a vast Derbyshire estate is a bad lot, so a mortified Darcy finds himself ever more drawn towards the lively young woman. "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."

No author has so made us feel the way love’s chemical attraction starts to fizz and crackle, no matter how resistant the elements. Darcy and Elizabeth were not just for the 1800s, but for all time. Here they are in 1954, encapsulated by the great lyricist Johnny Mercer: "When an irresistible force such as you/Meets an old immovable object like me/You can bet as sure as you live. Something’s gotta give/Something’s gotta give."

Lizzy Bennet is the irresistible force that every girl secretly longs to be. Looking back now from middle age, I see that this must be the most abiding female fantasy of all—to meet a proud, bad boy and to make him love us and only us. What else is Christian, the aloof billionaire in "Fifty Shades of Grey", but Darcy with a red room of pain instead of a ha-ha?