Popular romance is often written to a formula. Our heroine falls for the attractions of the hero. Stuff gets in the way. They get through this and marry. We assume that they are happy thereafter. Most of the books published by Mills and Boon or Harlequin have some variation on this kind of narrative, centring on heartthrobs and happy endings.
More ‘literary’ classics tend to present more complexity, but this isn’t always the case. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a perfect example of the romance plot, and Fitzwilliam Darcy has constituted the perfect archetype of a romantic hero in many women’s eyes since the novel was first published in 1813. Darcy’s attraction has proved so enduring to generations of women that, two centuries later, when scientists working on pheromones in mice discovered a protein in the urine of the male mouse that was irresistible to females, they named it ‘Darcin.’
How did Austen come to imagine him? Darcy is a man of substance, master of Pemberley, a large estate in Derbyshire. It is precisely at the moment when Lizzy Bennet drives through the gates of Pemberley that she begins to realize that she fancies him. She’d previously thought him pompous and rude. It’s hard not to think of this change of heart as a touch mercenary, but we must remember that the Bennets were financially embarrassed, and that for women, marriage to someone with money and means was a key strategy for survival. A century or so later, prolific writer of romance Barbara Cartland referred to women who made ‘good’ marriages as having ‘married park gates.’
Austen was an avid reader, and in her portrayal of Darcy she drew upon her knowledge of works by Lord Byron and Samuel Richardson. Darcy incorporates many of the traits we associate with the Byronic hero: arrogance, hauteur, and a sardonic eye. The history of the novel is riven through with sexual politics, and male and female writers often had very different ideas about what was desirable in a man. In Pamela (1740), and Clarissa (1748), Richardson had given his contemporaries two examples of ‘heroes’ who were highly eligible in terms of status and substance but not at all respectable in their conduct towards women. Richardson was bothered when his female readers showed a soft spot for the charms of rakish seducer Lovelace, and he was irked by the success of his rival, Henry Fielding’s loveable rogue figure Tom Jones. So he set out to imagine a gentlemanly hero whose conduct would be above reproach, and whom women could safely desire. The result was the seven volume History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753).
References to this work recur regularly in women’s writing through the next century and more, although now it is rarely read. But we know that Jane Austen perused it carefully, even though she parodied it and made fun of its hero in her own dramatic adaptation, Sir Charles Grandison. The trouble was that Grandison emerged as a prig, too good to be true.
We don’t lack literary heartthrob types who bring heartache rather than happy endings. Think of Heathcliff – an exemplar of dark passion, but full of brutality towards women and dogs. Emily Brontë makes Heathcliff himself sneer at Isabella as deluded for making him into a ‘hero of romance’, and for feeling soft-hearted about him. Or think of Charlotte Brontë’s Mr Rochester. A potential bigamist, who becomes eligible only when he’s nearly burned to death along with his mad wife. There’s a kind of happy ending, but Rochester’s injuries are serious, and Jane has to take on the heavy duties of carer, even though this gives her some kind of power over him. And there are many heartthrobs in literature who slip through the heroine’s hands: George Eliot’s Gwendolen loses Daniel Deronda to Mirah; Rhett Butler tires of Scarlett O’Hara just when she realises she fancies him badly, Amber St Clare in Kathleen Winsor’s 1944 blockbuster Forever Amber never does secure her hold on the snobbish, opportunistic, but to her, devastatingly sexy Bruce Carlton.
What we have in Pride and Prejudice is a finely wrought and elegant essay in wish fulfilment. And this at a time when women’s options were severely constrained, and we are given to understand that Lizzy has very few resources aside from her intelligence and her quick wit. Darcy is consummately eligible. He exudes dark hints of sexual energy, even before he was unforgettably played by Colin Firth, emerging from a lake in a wet shirt in Andrew Davies’ adaptation of the novel for television in 1995. But however rich and sexy, he’s still an arrant snob, with the capacity to wound those he considers his inferiors. With nothing more than alchemy of spirit, intelligence – and her fine eyes – Lizzy manages to bring about a personality change in Darcy and to bring him to his knees. We – and women readers especially – suspend our disbelief because we want to imagine that this could happen, that patriarchy can be made to work for women, that life can be a fairy tale.
Featured image credit: The Orangery, a Grade II* listed building, part of the Lyme Park estate in Cheshire by Julie Anne Workman. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.