THE DEMOCRACY OF LOVE

Darcy at 200: "Pride and Prejudice" reaches its double century today. In the last in our series about Jane Austen's hero, we trace authors' reactions from Walter Scott to Helen Fielding

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013

Sir Walter Scott Novelist 
Writing in his journal, 1826
That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with…What a pity such a gifted creature died so early! 

Alfred, Lord Tennyson Poet 
Quoted in his wife’s journal, 1870 
Miss Austen understood the smallness of life to perfection. She was a great artist, equal in her small sphere to Shakespeare.

Anthony Trollope Novelist 
From "Four Lectures", 1870 
Miss Austen was surely a great novelist. What she did, she did perfectly. Her work, as far as it goes, is faultless...It is not that her people are all good;—and, certainly, they are not all wise. The faults of some are the anvils on which the virtues of others are hammered till they are bright as steel. In the comedy of folly I know no novelist who has beaten her. The letters of Mr Collins, a clergyman in "Pride and Prejudice", would move laughter in a low-church archbishop.  

Mark Twain Novelist 
In a letter, 1898
I haven’t any right to criticise books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read "Pride and Prejudice" I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.  

G.K. Chesterton Novelist 
In "What’s Wrong with the World", 1910 
I fancy that Jane Austen was stronger, sharper and shrewder than Charlotte Brontë; I am quite sure that she was stronger, sharper and shrewder than George Eliot. She could do one thing neither of them could do: she could coolly and sensibly describe a man.  

Arnold Bennett Novelist 
Writing in the Evening Standard, 1927 
The reputation of Jane Austen is surrounded by cohorts of defenders who are ready to do murder for their sacred cause. They are nearly all fanatics…But her world is a tiny world…She did not know enough of the world to be a great novelist. She had not the ambition to be a great novelist. She knew her place; her present "fans" do not know her place. 

Laurence Olivier Actor
Writing in his autobiography, "Confessions of an Actor", 1982 
I was very unhappy with the picture ["Pride and Prejudice", with Greer Garson]. It was difficult to make Darcy into anything more than an unattractive-looking prig, and darling Greer seemed to me all wrong as Elizabeth.

Helen Fielding Creator of Bridget Jones
(and of Mark Darcy), BBC interview, 2011 
In some ways you could argue that Mr Darcy is a classic Mills & Boon hero and "Pride and Prejudice" is a classic Mills & Boon story, if you were to simplify it, just because he is an entirely eligible, hot, tall, slightly grumpy man and it’s a very simple love story.

Martin Amis Novelist  
In "Miss Jane’s Prime", the Atlantic Monthly, 1990 
For all its little smugnesses and blind spots...“Pride and Prejudice” is Austen’s...most socially idealistic [book]. ...And because this is a romantic comedy, the impulse expresses itself through the unlikely personage of Fitzwill-iam Darcy. He doesn’t account for the novel’s eternal humour and elan, but he does account for its recurrent and remorseless power to move. Elizabeth’s prejudice is easily dealt with: all she needs is the facts before her. Yet the melting of Darcy’s pride demands radical change, the difference between his first declaration (“In vain have I struggled”) and his second (“You are too generous to trifle with me”). The patching-up of the Lydia business involves Darcy in some expense, but it also forces him to descend into the chaos of unrestrained dreads and desires – an area where Austen fears to linger, even in her imagination. The final paragraph gives us the extraordinary spectacle of Darcy opening his arms, and his house, to Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle, who make what money they have through trade. Darcy, Austen writes, “really loved them”. This is the wildest romantic extravagance in the entire corpus: a man like Mr Darcy, chastened, deepened, and finally democratised by the force of love. 

Cherry Potter Journalist
Writing in the Guardian, 2004 
Mr Darcy is women’s favourite fictional romantic icon. [In] a recent poll [for] the Orange Prize for Fiction, 1,900 women across the generations voted him the man they would most like to go on a date with. He was also the fictional character women would most like to invite to a dinner party—which strikes me as odd, as surely [he] would spend the evening either grunting with boredom or glowering at the guests.  

Richard Jenkyns Classicist 
In "A Fine Brush on Ivory: An Appreciation of Jane Austen", 2004 
He is the hero in whom sexual desire is the most overt and overpowering. For what is he doing when he makes his first proposal to Elizabeth but telling her that he is so desperate to get her into bed that he will marry her even though it will be a degradation to him? The sexual charge is stronger in "Pride and Prejudice" than in any of the other novels, and that is a proper part of its character and appeal. But Darcy has also made a good fantasy figure for his admirers because he is something of a mystery. 

Karen Doornebos Novelist
Promoting "Definitely Not Mr Darcy" (2011) 
Is there anything sexier in a Jane Austen novel than Mr Darcy reading a book?

Andrew Davies Screenwriter 
Interviewed in Horizon Review, 2008
[My adaptation for the BBC] was deliberately pro-Darcy because, when you read the book, it’s not till you get practically to the end that you realise what a good guy Darcy is. I wanted to give the audience a chance to see more of Darcy; see more into him. So I took the liberty that Jane Austen would never allow herself to take, of following Darcy on his own, [to] go into his back-story with Georgiana and Wickham, and show in fact that he’s much maligned. It takes away some of the surprise, but I wanted to do it that way.

For other views on Mr Darcy, read Allison Pearson on The Immovable Mr Darcy, John Carey on The damning first proposal, Adam Foulds on Jane Austen's alpha male, Helen Simpson's Not a bad boy, P.D.James's The Master of Pemberley, Penelope Lively's He Never Appeals and Ali Smith on The Gift of Astringency.

Research by Kassia St Clair

Picture Getty