Pride and Prejudice at 200: Stop Looking for Mr. Darcy!

darcycrop “I want. To. Meet. Darcy. Now!”

“When are we going to see darcy gahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh?”

“ohmygosh i haven’t even met darcy yet, and i’m already madly fangirling over him.”

So commented the viewers on the 57th installment of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a YouTube modernization of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, produced by Hank Green and Bernie Su and starring Ashley Clements as Lizzie.  The timing for the series could not be more auspicious, since Pride and Prejudice officially celebrates its bicentennial on January 28.  Though not famous in Austen’s lifetime, the book is now a superstar and the source of a major commercial industry.  There are Pride and Prejudice baby books, comic books, zombie books, sequels, prequels, fan fictions, and pornographic novels (Pride and Promiscuity anyone?).  There are television shows, movies, movie spinoffs and now a YouTube series.

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries  recasts Austen’s heroine as a graduate student in mass communications, forced to live at home because of financial constraints.  In a nod to Bridget Jones’s Diary, Lizzie is introduced by way of the video diary—or Vlog—she is producing for her master’s project.  Like a number of my literature professor colleagues, I think the adaptation is brilliant.  The series’ humor, its meta-narratives, its poignant comparison of 19th century female disinheritance with today’s crippling student loans all work beautifully.

But what most impresses me about The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is its refusal to over-romanticize the hero William Darcy (Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy in Austen’s novel).  Despite YouTube viewers who clamor to see more of the character in the flesh and who declare “I JUST WANT THEM TO KISS ALREADY!”,  the hero has, so far, only made a rare appearance on the screen.  To date, there have been 83 episodes of the series (91 if you count the Questions and Answers segments), and Darcy (Daniel Gordh) doesn’t make his first full-bodied entrance until the 60th one.  All told, he has been in a grand total of six segments.  The vast majority of the episodes consist of Lizzie talking to other young women, playacting other characters, re-imagining past events or sitting alone in front of the camera and discussing her life.  Darcy is an important character in the story she tells (though not nearly as important as her mother) but his actual appearance is irrelevant.

In this way, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is far more faithful to Austen’s novel than either the internationally famous 1995 BBC television series (starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth) or the 2005 Focus Features movie (with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen).  In Austen’s novel, Darcy is more absent than present for much of the action. This is particularly true in the novel’s second half, despite that fact that these are the chapters during which Elizabeth falls in love with him.

The 2005 movie turned Darcy into a sentimental hero who declares his love during a rainstorm and at sunrise (the movie ends with a time-warping imitation of Sixteen Candles).  The BBC’s legendary Colin Firth steals the screen with his hot and brooding Mr. Darcy.  The scene where he plunges into a pond and emerges with a revealing wet shirt changed television history and remains iconic to this day; anyone who knows anything about Pride and Prejudice knows this showstopper.

And certainly the producers of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries are aware of it.They have already teased the audience by referring to a rooftop swimming pool at the International Head Quarters of Pemberley Digital, which is William Darcy’s company.  As one of the excited viewers anxiously exclaims: “JUST realized why Pemberley Digital has a rooftop pool!!!  IT is the stand in for the POND! BATHING SUIT DARCY!!!!  DO NOT DENY US THE BATHING SUIT DARCY!!!!”

My vote, though, is for denial. Whether the producers can resist their viewers’ expectations, I don’t know. But if their past approach is any indication, Green and Su have the artistic integrity to hold out. At least until now, they have been faithful to what I think is one of the most important points of Austen’s novel: Notwithstanding Colin Firth’s gigantic shadow, Austen’s novel is about Elizabeth far more than it is about Mr. Darcy, and to the extent that it is about Darcy, the emphasis is on how Elizabeth thinks about him.  The same is true in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which records Lizzie’s thoughts via her Vlog.

There is, of course, no swimming scene in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  The BBC inserted it in a convoluted attempt to represent a mental moment in the novel that cannot be visually reproduced.  The novelistic moment occurs after Elizabeth visits Darcy’s magnificent estate at Pemberley and hears his housekeeper’s glowing report of his benevolence.  Shortly after, Elizabeth sees a portrait of the man.  (The British Royal Mail chose this scene for its Pride and Prejudice bicentennial stamp). This happens in the BBC production too.

But from here, the novel enters Elizabeth’s consciousness in a way the BBC camera cannot (hence the swimming scene substitute). As Elizabeth stares at Darcy’s picture, Austen tells us, “there was certainly . . . in [her] mind, a more gentle sensation towards the original, than she had ever felt in the height of their acquaintance.”  In looking at his painted image, Elizabeth develops a new and improved mental image of Mr. Darcy. Suddenly, she likes him better than she ever has.

Next Elizabeth has an optical illusion.  “[A]s she stood before the canvas, on which he was represented, and fixed his eyes upon herself, she thought of his regard with a deeper sentiment of gratitude than it had ever raised before.” Thinking about Darcy prompts Elizabeth to forget that she is gazing at his portrait and to imagine instead that she is the object of his view.

What Austen captures in this astonishing moment is the paradoxical extent to which falling in love does not, as one might expect, necessarily involve a relationship between two people.  Rather, it often involves a single person and her ideas about an absent body. Think about it, I tell my students:  When you fall in love—let’s say with a guy—how much of that experience involves thinking about him? Do your ideas require his presence? Is it sometime better if he is not there? The answers are painfully obvious.

So far, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries has remained true to Austen’s insight about the solitude of love.

The series has also remained true to the novel’s central interest in Elizabeth Bennet, not Darcy.  Just as Austen’s Elizabeth turns herself into the object of the gaze when she imagines Darcy’s portrait looking at her, Lizzie Bennet turns the camera on herself.  Indeed, she posts her Vlog on the internet, where Darcy and the other characters supposedly watch her, and where hundreds of thousands of real viewers literally do.

In turning the camera away from Mr. Darcy who has, thanks to the BBC production and all its descendants, become a cultish sex god, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries reminds us of what Jane Austen intended all along.  This is a story about a heroine who must learn to see herself.  The romance plot is secondary.

Bust of Matthew MacFadyen as Mr. Darcy from Flickr user Tet_Sy under license from Creative Commons 2.0

 

 

Comments

  1. Louise Chanarý says:

    YES!

  2. Alie Russo says:

    Loved this article Professor, and makes me miss your class more than I already was!

  3. Glad you’re enjoying the show. The entire writing and transmedia staff put a lot of thought into all of these questions. We never quite know how well we’re serving all the different segments of the fanbase.

    I hope you like what we’ve got planned for the rest of the way.

    Jay Bushman
    Writer/Transmedia Producer
    The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

    • All your thought is paying off. I loved the videos when they started, and slowly discovering the way that supplemental bits were spread out – and finding them – across other media was like a lovely Easter Egg hunt. And yes, I think you ARE serving all the different… eh… segments of the fanbase very well. Those placing “Looking-for-Mr-Darcy” singles ads are squealing and swooning away, but you are also serving the more serious readers and lovers of Austen very well. I placed this comment elsewhere, but it’s become such a – as everyone is mentioning – “transmedia” cross-hatch of feedback, I want to mae sure you see it. It refers to the photo Gigi posted during the day they spent touring SF:

      What I especially like about this picture is that it is, for me, the equivalent of the moment in the book when Lizzie is touring Pemberley with her Aunt and Uncle. From Darcy’s letter a while back, she already knows that her take on how he treated other people might have been wrong. Now, on his home turf, she’s been hearing and seeing things about him which are starting to make her doubt EVERYTHING about her own first impressions of him. In the book, she stands looking up at his portrait in the gallery, and – for the very first time – feelings of kindness, tenderness and gratitude towards him start entering her heart. For the first time, she’s seriously, curiously wondering “Who ARE you?” – and realizing that she would like to know him better. That is EXACTLY what is going on here!

      And what is extra cool is that this is actually a little ‘Easter Egg’ you can discover, thanks to the multi-level, “transmedia” way the LBD team has spread this story over YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. An amazingly ambitious way to tell – and flesh out – the story. Hats off!

    • Susan Celia Greenfield says:

      I look forward to watching it! Many thanks for your thoughts.

  4. Faye Simmons says:

    Perfect. That last line is exactly what I imagine the writers, Bernie Su and Hank Green had in mind when creating this awesome series. Brilliant article.

  5. I really love what you’ve written here. I do have one thing to say, though, in defense of the 2005 adaptation (I can’t speak of the BBC one with Colin Firth because I have yet to see it). From a cinematic standpoint, it makes sense for us to see Darcy more frequently in a two-hour film. Viewers can’t really be expected to fall in love with him as Lizzie does if we’re only given ten minutes with him. With LBD, we’re given more than three times that screen time with Lizzie and her family, and subsequently more time talking about Darcy. As an enthusiast of the book, I have much love for both the 2005 adaptation and LBD. I think that perhaps P&P 2005 would’ve been truer to Austen’s vision had it been a miniseries that allowed for the amount of time LBD has devoted. But if my memory serves me, the Colin Firth version is a miniseries, is it not? So I guess that does go to your point.

    • You have not yet seen the 1995 miniseries *shock*? If you are able to ‘love’ what the the author has written, then you are someone who obviously has a true appreciation of the most important aspects of the book. And, that being the case, you do NOT know the delight and enjoyment you are missing that P&P 1995 has to offer. The jumping-in-the-pond flutters aside, Darcy – just like in the book – disappears from a great deal of the story. This version really IS more about Elizabeth and what she has to learn about herself and her own preconceived notions. Get thee to a DVD store, my dear ;) !

      • Susan Celia Greenfield says:

        I actually love the 1995 miniseries–and I agree that some of it reflects the book quite well. I am also embarrassingly fond of the pond scene. My point in the article concerned the way that scene has become iconic in the recent popular response to the novel. After 1995 Darcy becomes larger than life (and sometimes larger than Elizabeth) in the popular imagination. The Darcy pond scene has really skewed the recent understanding and reception of the novel. Audrey Bilger and I discuss this phenomenon in our recent co-written article for the LA Reivew of Books in case that interests you–http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?id=1348

    • Susan Celia Greenfield says:

      The 2005 movie has some virtues, but I think the main characters lack depth–perhaps simply because of the time restraints. When I watched it again for this article I was struck by the sympathetic portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. Am I correct that they actually seem to like each other? That’s kind of interesting.

  6. Insightful stuff! I hadn’t considered how this modern-day adaptation would be “truer” than BBC’s but I think you’ve really got a point. I was glad they held off on putting Darcy on the LBD and was actually a little surprised he made an appearance at all (though I admit I really am enjoying that he’s there).

  7. I really like your analysis; it makes me reconsider a lot of things about the story.

  8. I agree with you completly when you say that, “This story is about a heroine who must see herself first. Romance comes second.” Isn’t it amazing how we can take such a strong female character as Lizzie and turn the whole thing into an obsession of a man. This story is really all about personal growth and self realization yet mass media has dumbed it down into a simple love story. I love that the LBD hasn’t done that. As you said it has done an excellent job at keeping true to J. Austin’s original work.

    • Susan Celia Greenfield says:

      I agree with you that LBD hasn’t done that. As I said in a response above, I’m a sucker for the 1995 miniseries. But I really respect LBD’s refusal to fall into romance. I wonder whether that is a sign of the times. I’ve been thinking about the HBO series Girls, for instance. It doesn’t romanticize the male characters either.

  9. Bianca Barros says:

    Very interesting analysis. I never thougt about the pond, the rain or the portrait scene that way. Thank you very much.

    • Susan Celia Greenfield says:

      I have to thank my students who have helped me understand the scene. Much of what I say about it I learned from them. Thank you Fordham Austenites!

  10. Lovely article. I quite like how that moment when Elizabeth “sees” Darcy in a different light (of his portrait / sculpture) was captured in Wright’s movie. Perfect acting on Keira’s part.

    • Susan Celia Greenfield says:

      But isn’t it weird that the movie turns the portrait scene into a sculpture scene. What’s up with that?

  11. There is no wrong way to enjoy a piece of fiction. Whether it be for observing the developing relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy, or Lydia causing trouble, or Mr Bennet winding up his family; these are all valid reasons for liking the story. You should not try and guilt someone for the things they enjoy. (Unless of course, it is against the law, but I digress). Elizabeth Bennet is one of my favourite fictional characters. I love her intelligence and independence, her quick-wit and playfulness. But there is no denying, the reason I love re-reading and re-watching Pride and Prejudice is for the slow-blossoming love between Lizzy and Darcy. Don’t get me wrong, I adore The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. It is astoundingly clever and ‘ground-breaking’. I can offer no objections to the way they have handled the story. It is in short; brilliant. I just don’t like the way you are implying that there should be a certain way or reason we should be watching the show. I can’t abide being told what I should or should not think.

    • Susan Celia Greenfield says:

      Didn’t mean to be pedantic. I’ve just known too many readers who suffer from the romantic fantasies popular culture inspires–they end up feeling as if their own life is bereft. Enjoyment is another story. I would never want to deprive a reader of that!

    • par_parenthese says:

      You know what I hate? When people read an analytical piece based on one person’s viewpoint and decide to cruise around the comments section on their huffy bike sniffing that they don’t like being told what to think. No one’s telling you what to think, snowflake.

      • Clapping for a very excellent example of missing the point.

        The problem is not that the analysis is DIFFERENT from other peoples’. The problem isn’t even that it’s stated authoritatively (heck, I tell my students to remove the first person in their papers and state their opinion as fact because I know that since they put their name at the top of the paper it is their opinion by default).

        The problem I have is that the WAY other opinions are presented in this piece is marginalizing – they are inarticulate, oh see how silly they are, they’re all obsessed with Darcy’s torso. It is implication – but I find it very telling that no comments or posts by people who have spent a lot of time articulating the reasons behinds these reactions were quoted, or even summarized.

        • par_parenthese says:

          *sigh*

          OK, I was in a foul mood yesterday when I posted that comment, and I apologize for being so b!tchy. I do genuinely find your phrasing confusing — I don’t think anyone is trying to tell you what to think. And I think I understand you a bit better after your clarification. But is there a point at which you think it’s ok to say, “Jane Austen’s works are not modern rom-coms where the belligerent sexual tension between the two main characters is the driving force behind the plot; the Lizzie Bennet Diaries are a complex look at the characters and their motivations; don’t just settle for OMG DARCY!!!11!, dig deeper”? Urging people toward a new action is basically the definition of a persuasive essay, yeah? And that’s logically going to involve an exhortation or two.

          Unless you’re going to throw basically every classical rhetorician from Aristotle on under the bus for telling people to tell people what to think? ;)

          • I appreciate the clarification, and apologize for responding in kind. I should really take more cues from Jane Bennet.

            The “don’t tell me what to think”is probably part of my default response at this point, since a lot of the discourse about P&P and LBD on tumblr right now is very…um…authoritative and attempting to shut other opinions down. I would mention that the last line of this piece really does seem to cross the line into telling people what to think and what the “right” interpretation of P&P is.

            And given the source (an intelligent, articulate, doctorate-having-professor who specializes in Jane Austen), I tend to want to provide a dissenting view, articulated a bit better than “OMG I LOVE DARCY.”

            Thanks for the response!

  12. >”All told, he has been in a grand total of six segments. The vast majority of the episodes consist of Lizzie talking to other young women, playacting other characters, re-imagining past events or sitting alone in front of the camera and discussing her life.”

    Yes, and that’s commendable — but even so, I would be very surprised if The Lizzie Bennet Diaries passed the Bechdel Test.

    • It DOES pass the Bechdel Test! Though not until episode 16, “Happiness in the Pursuit of Life”:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dpCzkeDY4jc

    • Karen Lyon says:

      That might be. But the videos do reflect an aspect of real life, as did Austen’s books, which is the point of the article. The fact of the matter is that no matter how accomplished and successful a woman might be in our modern world, she is more likely to still be interested in and possibly actively seeking a fulfilling relationship with someone. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

    • Susan Celia Greenfield says:

      Brilliant question. Have you put it to the test? Think of all the complexities added by the fact that Lizze plays different female parts. And sometimes the women are playing male characters so do they count then as women talking to women or women talking to men? It is headspinning just to think about it.

    • Your question gave me pause, so I went back and watched some episodes again. Yes, LBD passes the Bechdel test. Here are a few examples: Lizzie and Charlotte discuss Charlotte’s job at Collins and Collins as it relates to Charlotte’s career, aside from Collins’ involvement, and what it means for Lizzie and her show (Episode 42- Friends Forever). Lizzie and Lydia’s big falling out was caused by Lizzie’s birthday present for Lydia and the ensuing discussion over Lydia growing up (Episode 73- 2+1 and Episode 74- How to Hold a Grudge). Later, Lizzie and Gigi discuss the LBD, as well as Gigi’s job (Epsidoe 77- Tour Leader). I’m so glad you brought up the Bechdel Test, C; you gave me reason to watch a show I’ve grown to love with a new focus and a better ability to discuss it!

  13. Wow. I think you need to analyze it again. Also, there is nothing wrong about enjoying the romantic aspect of the story, and wanting them to “kiss already”. As @Silver says: There’s no wrong way to enjoy a piece of fiction.

  14. Karen Lyon says:

    This was a great analysis, both of the book and of the LBD videos. What I also love about the videos is that they are so good at bringing out the themes in the book. For example, there’s Charlotte’s need for security, which is the motivation for her marriage in the book/taking the job at Collins & Collin in the video. Lydia’s recklessness, in particular, is nicely dealt with in LBD. The viewers get to see her vulnerabilities and have a chance to understand her point of view. Most of us have experience with a sibling acting out to get attention! We can sympathize with Mary Kate Wiles’ portrayal of Lydia as a girl who just wants to be accepted as the girl that she is, and not feel like she is constantly being compared to sweet Jane or smart as a whip Lizzie. I have a sneaking suspicion that I am not in the demographic that these videos are designed to appeal to — I am in my middle 50s, after all, we’re not supposed to be into internet videos —but I am hooked. Not only is the acting and writing fabulous, I can tell that everyone involved really believes in the project and is putting their all into it. And I completely agree with the conclusion that Hank Greene and Bernie Su are staying true to Austen’s intentions. This is Lizzie’s story, it’s not the story of her romance with Darcy.

    • I am in your demographic too. I agree with your analysis of Charlotte and Lydia. I think the way the series deals with Charlotte is brilliant.

  15. I can’t tell if the main point of this article is really to praise the way that the creators of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries have adapted the story or to inspire shame in those who have thoroughly enjoyed past interpretations. I’m not saying that Su, Green, and the entire writing staff have not done a phenomenal job in bringing the work to life once again in the form of LBD, but to say that Darcy’s lack of physical appearance until episode 60 brings the audience back from over-romanticized and over-involved versions of the character might be a bit much.

    Perhaps you see Darcy as a cultish sex god, but I can honestly say that I think that the story would not be what it is without Darcy’s involvement. How else would Elizabeth, or Lizzie, come to realize her own faults and grow as a character? People rarely change or grow of their own volition. They are pushed to it by and through their relationships, romantic or platonic, with others. This perspective looks past any value that Darcy might have as a character beyond wet shirts or pretty eyes and objectifies him completely. I think that perhaps you are onto something in saying that the romance wasn’t the main point Austen was trying to make. I do think it was a vehicle she used to say what she wanted to say.

    What she wrote about best was the way that people work and the way they interact with each other. All of her works, not just Pride and Prejudice, pay attention to the nuances of human interaction. The point may not be the romance, but I can’t believe that her point doesn’t have something to do with the fact that their interactions, as people whose perspectives on life are in conflict with each other, drive them to becoming more accepting, mature individuals. There would be no self-realization for Lizzie without Darcy, and this doesn’t have anything to do with how Colin Firth looks in a wet shirt.

    The reason that I love this story, and the romance that it holds, is because it is ultimately about someone who becomes a better person than they were before. Darcy’s existence is the reason for that development for Elizabeth- not because he is the romantic interest or even just a man but because he is a person who challenges Elizabeth’s preconception, and for that reason, I cannot discount his presence and importance in the work. The same is true of Darcy’s development. It exists because his encounters with Elizabeth do.

    Pride and Prejudice. First Impressions. They both seem to indicate that at the heart of the work is the tension and eventual acceptance of each other from Elizabeth and Darcy. There is no shame in appreciating a novel that celebrates how people can make each other better, even if happens to be within the context of a romantic relationship. For that matter, if there is any romantic relationship that I am going to celebrate, it is one such as this where they are in love because they make each other better than they were.

    (I apologize for the length- I didn’t realize that I had that much to say.)

    • I like your emphasis on the importance of personal interactions and the way that helps people grow. I also recognize the romantic appeal of the novel. But I am suspicious of the way romance may–in the end–cause readers pain because their own lives only rarely–if ever–measure up.

    • Brilliantly put. I seriously don’t think that people who love the romantic aspect of P&P or LBD and give it narrative priority are interested in sidelining or marginalizing the sisterly or female friendships. They just rightly see, as Ren says, the way that Lizzy’s journey is catalyzed by Darcy and her relationship with him.

  16. Oh, hi, Dr. Greenfield, it’s so good to see you!

    Actually, I’m a bit saddened that there’s a marginalization of a segment of fans that you see as reading Jane Austen “wrong.” I see a lot of hectoring and normative statements in all kinds of fandoms about how you “should” read a text or you aren’t a “real” fan, and I don’t think that kind of thing is productive at all.

    Additionally, as one of the people who has been clamoring for a wet shirt Darcy scene (and a straight guy), I don’t think we are obsessing about how a “man” is central to the plot at all necessarily – we just like references to the long, rich, and enjoyable adaptational history of Pride and Prejudice – an acknowledgement of the conversation about Pride and Prejudice each adaptation provides.

    • I hear you. Check out my response to Silver and see if that addresses any of what you say here.

      Very interested to read your take on the wet shirt scene!

  17. As a Ms. subscriber I was thrilled to find this excellent article! I am an avid fan of the book (which I have read hundreds of times as it’s one of the few things I can read before bed without it keeping me up all night), as well as of the 1995 miniseries and the Lizzie Bennet Diaries. So I wanted to add a couple of thoughts:
    What I think makes the Lizzie Bennet Diaries a more faithful adaptation than the 2005 one is that Jane Austen was actually fairly snarky. The 2005 movie felt like P&P minus the irony. Each character, even those Jane Austen intended to ridicule, was given a chance to justify herself, and I felt it detracted quite a bit from the story. It became purely a soppy romance. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is doing a great job of keeping the snark, while still developing some of the secondary characters more deeply and realistically than the rather taut structure and satirical aims of the book allow for.
    And that development of the secondary characters has been extremely satisfying! The falling out between Charlotte and Lizzie was devastating, and their reunion was both realistic and affecting. Lydia has become, at least for some viewers, a sympathetic character. And Georgiana/Gigi, thank goodness, has been given a voice and some agency!
    Furthermore, the book explores the tension between marrying only for true love or for “more material considerations”. This is translated in the modern day Lizzie Bennet Diaries to the issue of whether to follow your dreams and do work you love even if it doesn’t pay the bills or to take a well-paying corporate job that might suck your soul out, which in today’s economy is a very real dilemma for young women, just as in Austen’s day, finding a husband was a serious pursuit. At their hearts, both of these pairs of alternatives are about romantic vs. practical approaches to planning one’s life.
    So yes, bravo to the Lizzie Bennet Diaries team! And thanks again for this great article.

    • Nice analysis! You are right about how the series translates the novel’s preoccupation with marriage to a concern about professional choices. I hadn’t entirely appreciated that untilI read your interpretation. Very helpful.

  18. I LOVE reading the very many and brilliant analyses out there on Pride and Prejudice and now, too, the Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Thank you so much for such a fantastic piece! My enjoyment and appreciation of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries has only grown having read about your thoughts on the adaptation and how fantastically it has portrayed Lizzie throughout her period of self-realisation.

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