JANE AUSTEN'S ALPHA MALE

Darcy at 200: the novelist Adam Foulds argues that the disdainful hero has been shaped by other people's desires...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013

I first met Mr Darcy at school and he didn’t make much of an impression. We studied "Pride and Prejudice" at the same time as "Wuthering Heights". Now that did make its mark. In Emily Brontë’s prose I found my own impatient, exorbitant teenage emotions, alienated and majestic, and envied the harsh and changeable landscape that was equal to them. 

Against this overwhelming natural light, Jane Austen’s world of conversation and dances, comparative incomes and social nicety was candlelight that paled almost to invisibility. Mr Darcy struck me then as something of a cipher, composed for the fulfilment of a fantasy that wasn’t mine but that I saw girls in my class responding to. He was very rich. He was proud and disdainful, an alpha male who was satisfyingly revealed to be sensitive, moral and considerate. He was decidedly attractive but not too handsome. This is a relatively subtle part of the fantasy fulfilment: too handsome is not attractive, therefore by not being too handsome Mr Darcy is actually maximally attractive, the equivalent of a Bond girl for a different audience. 

Most importantly he sees the heroine particularly, he notices the almost unnoticeable ways that she is exceptional, and he loves her. Wealth, status, a sincere, attentive, lasting love and moral solidity—who wouldn’t fall for this? Well, I didn’t. None of those were romantic priorities when I was an adolescent and I found Mr Darcy as a character to be not much more than the shape inflated by other people’s desires. I still do, but now my circle of empathy has widened and I feel the intensity of this hopeful daydream.  As a result it was the Austen that I read years later that I finally connected with. My interest in Darcy remains limited. I’m a Captain Wentworth man through and through.

For other views on Mr Darcy, read Allison Pearson on The immovable Mr DarcyJohn Carey on The damning first proposal, Helen Simpson's Not a bad boy, P.D. James on The master of Pemberley and Ali Smith on The gift of astringency.

Adam Foulds is a novelist and poet. His second novel, "The Quickening Maze", made the Booker shortlist

Picture: Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth, Colin Firth as Darcy and that shirt in the 1995 BBC adaptation

For the first in our series on Darcy at 200, see Allison Pearson on The Immovable Mr Darcy