Gabrielle Malcolm has written a book about a topic that will appeal to many readers: what is it about Mr. Darcy? More specifically, why does the love story between Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy resonate with so many people, over so many years?
Malcolm begins with the impact of Colin Firth in a wet, white shirt in the 1995 BBC miniseries, but then goes back and explores Jane Austen and what led her to create these enduring characters. She then explores the many incarnations of Darcy over the years, from Bridget Jones to fan fiction and cosplay. It’s a light but thoughtful read for those of us who love these two characters.
I was definitely one of the many who watched the miniseries countless times, but my own appreciation for Jane Austen actually began with reading Emma for a class in college. Emma isn’t everyone’s favorite Austen novel, but I was really struck by this very unlikable heroine and her growth throughout the book. Forget novels with perfect heroes and heroines – I’ll take the ones with real character flaws. And maybe that’s one of the reasons Darcy appeals to so many of us.
Malcolm’s book does a nice job explaining Austen, her influences, and the time she was writing in, which is an important part of understanding Pride and Prejudice, and it quite satisfied my literary geekiness. I liked reading about how Austen was viewed by her contemporaries and how Darcy compares to other literary heroes of the time like Mr. Rochester and The Scarlet Pimpernel (though I felt at times Malcolm might be trying a bit too hard to tie all of these literary influences together). I also enjoyed learning about the history of the BBC production and how it compared to the previous Pride and Prejudice films. As a miniseries it was able to stay much closer to Austen’s original text. Malcolm explains where additional content was added or changed, which was interesting.
Malcolm provides quite a bit of analysis of the character, but I would have liked a bit more psychological analysis of why he is such an enduring romantic figure. Is it just because of Firth’s sexy swim, or is there more to it than that? Is he arrogant and proud, or just socially awkward? Maybe the appeal is that Elizabeth is able to improve him over time, softening his hard edges. Or is it more that Elizabeth learns more about him over time and discovers what a good person he is all along.
Of course, Austen also emphasizes that he’s wealthy and handsome. But I think one reason readers find Darcy and Elizabeth so romantic is they really do get to know each other. It isn’t just dancing and piano and admiring each other’s eyes. They collide, they spark, and when the dust settles they’ve gotten to know each other. That’s generally what makes a good romance.
I found Malcolm’s book a bit less interesting in its discussion of the many different versions of the story that came out after the BBC version, like The Jane Austen Book Club, Longbourn, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I did enjoy learning about some of the books that extend or change the story. For example, Emma Tennant’s Pemberley and PD James’ Death Comes to Pemberley explore the married life of Elizabeth and Darcy, and it sounds like they raise some interesting issues related to childbearing, class inequity, and life with problematic in-laws.
But while Malcolm makes some interesting comparisons across these many books, I did feel this section covered these books in more detail than I wanted. A few times I found myself wanting to read the books she was talking about, but I felt she described too many of the plot details. So if you’re looking for books that play on the Darcy and Elizabeth story, beware of spoilers. I also would have liked to hear more about Pride and Prejudice adaptations by other cultures, like Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaladdin or Pride by Idi Zaboi or Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal. I think those are all quite recent publications though.
As I was reading Malcolm’s book last week, a “scientific research” tweet went around asking readers their age and if they preferred Colin Firth’s BBC Darcy or Matthew MacFadyen’s 2005 Darcy. The Mary Sue even weighed in, saying why should we have to choose?
Readers looking for in-depth literary criticism, or serious Austenites, might find this book a little light, but I think most readers will appreciate that the book is easy to read and a nice balance of literary history, analysis, and popular culture. It’s a fun way to learn some things we didn’t know about the Pride and Prejudice story.
There’s Something About Darcy is published by Endeavor Quill, and this review is part of a Book Tour. The book was published November 11, 2019.