NOT A BAD BOY

Darcy at 200: the short-story writer Helen Simpson sees a man of integrity...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013

"Pride and Prejudice" was certainly my first Jane Austen novel. I was 11 or 12, and I remember being gripped by the scene in chapter three when Elizabeth is sitting out a dance at a ball and overhears Bingley urging his friend Darcy to ask her to dance. Darcy glances at her and replies, "She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men." At some subliminal pre-teen level I was very struck by Elizabeth’s way of dealing with this fearsome snub. She is not happy about it but she is not reduced to a weeping heap blaming the size of her nose or needing to write to Cathy and Claire—instead, "she told the story…with great spirit among her friends; for she had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous." Yes, that’s the way to be, thought my subconscious, acted upon by the novel’s jubilantly Augustan pedagoguery.

Mr Darcy is haughty and exacting and used to his own way, having been sucked up to all his life by snobbish toadies. He’s not a bad boy at heart though, and beneath the disdainful exterior he is—like all Jane Austen’s heroes—a man of integrity. It would be interesting to learn how many women have been persuaded to take on a bad-tempered control freak as a direct result of reading this book at an impressionable age, imagining that his habitual moodiness will be overcome by their own invincible blitheness. Good luck to them!

I asked my daughter what she thought of Mr Darcy. "We were 15 and we were supposed to have read it over the holidays," she told me, "but lots of us hadn’t. So Miss R--- was going through it, telling us the plot, and someone burst out, 'ohmigod, so Elizabeth got with Darcy!'  Then Miss R--- said 'Jane Austen couldn’t write it in so many words because of the times she was living in, but it’s very clear that Elizabeth and Darcy would have had amazing sex.' We all sat and stared at her open-mouthed, we couldn’t believe she’d said that." And of course she was right.

Meanwhile I remembered something else and looked up a story in my third collection, "Hey Yeah Right Get a Life", called "Burns and the Bankers". Hadn’t I needed to check a quotation from "Pride and Prejudice" while writing it? Yes, there it was, the bit where Nicola Beaumont, stuck at a tedious corporate dinner, covertly assesses her companions—"She eyed her table…and considered the men…Iain wasn’t bad-looking but for some reason he came nowhere. Tolerable, she smiled to herself, but not handsome enough to tempt me." Even stevens, Mr Darcy.

For other views on Mr Darcy, read Allison Pearson on The Immovable Mr Darcy, John Carey on The damning first proposal, Adam Foulds on Jane Austen's alpha male, P.D. James on The master of Pemberley and Ali Smith on The gift of astrigency.

Helen Simpson was a staff writer at Vogue before turning to short stories. Her latest book is "A Bunch of Fives". She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature