My next column for The Sunday Guardian.
For me, the days of romanticising the romance between Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice are long gone. No longer are the overbearing misanthropes and the dark brooders of particular interest to me – in literary or romantic context. Is Darcy a product of his times? Sure. But that doesn't make him any less smug or his demeanour any less supercilious. Nor does that make the prototype any less familiar.
And within the particular context of Jane Austen's book – which, I should say, I find unputdownable, unforgettable and a real joy to read – how can Elizabeth Bennet find any peace with this man whose pride she despises and who has shamed her violently, publicly and without reason? This is the same Elizabeth who has exclaimed fervently to her sister during her bemoaning of Charlotte Lucas's decision to marry Mr Collins: 'There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense.'
Charlotte Lucas, though, tells Elizabeth: 'Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other, or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always contrive to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation, and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.'
What Elizabeth finds distasteful is Charlotte's pragmatism in marriage. Jane Austen herself, after two failed romances, had thought she would receive no further proposals and would, perhaps, have to fend for herself financially; she received, though, a proposal of marriage from a wealthy neighbour, Harris Bigg-Wither, but she promptly turned him down and wrote in a letter: 'Anything is to be preferred and endured rather than marrying without affection.'
Elizabeth Bennet, true to her creator, pooh-poohs Charlotte's decision to marry Collins, but then goes right ahead to marry Darcy. Her disapproval and shock at Charlotte's decision are echoed clearly when Jane hears of Lizzy's engagement. Just as Elizabeth wonders how Charlotte can bear to marry Collins, Jane wonders the same about Lizzy and Darcy. And with good reason. This man – who offends without cause and shows almost no discernment in friendship – is bound to cross, at some point, a line that cannot be redrawn, bound to use words that cannot be forgotten and make decisions that cannot be forgiven.
Darcy's high-mindedness and his knight-in-shining-armour complex make for just the sort of condescension that will take its recipients from gratitude to annoyance quicker than you can saw Fitzwilliam. He routinely rescues the Bennets from scandal and related problems, coming across as perpetually disdainful of all but a chosen few. Lizzy might have been mistaken in her indignation at Darcy on behalf of Wickham, but Darcy's sabotage of the relationship between Jane and Bingley is a very real thing. His arrogance too is a very real thing. Darcy minces no words in his clearly – and regularly – articulated opinion of the Bennets and in his cavalier attitude towards their lack of wealth and station.
His very first proposal to Lizzy, in fact, is tinged with this. As soon as he declares his love, the narrative goes on to say: 'His sense of her inferiority—of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on [...] she could easily see that he had no doubt of a favourable answer. He spoke of apprehension and anxiety, but his countenance expressed real security.' He goes on to ask her: 'Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections?—to congratulate myself on the hope of relations, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?'
Everything that makes Darcy attractive is a product of his privilege – his wealth, his aristocratic bearing, his education, even his good looks. Elizabeth is shocked that Charlotte has 'sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage'; but it is only when Elizabeth sees Pemberley for the first time that she herself begins to reconsider her decision to reject Darcy. She marries him – and it seems like a wonderful thing. At the same time, we who know Elizabeth know that she will grow out of Darcy.
So no matter how sprawling Pemberley is – and, indeed, how dashing Colin Firth looks in riding breeches and a damp shirt – don't marry Darcy.