I am disturbed by this old editorial in the Guardian, which I found when I was writing my last post on Austen. Cherry Potter expresses concern that Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice remains straight women's "favourite fictional romantic icon." As she notes, he is the character 1,900 women across the generations most want to date, according to a recent poll by the Orange Prize for Fiction. Potter believes this predilection for Mr. Darcy, especially among "educated literary feminist women," reflects confusion about what women really want. But Potter -- like Elizabeth Benet herself -- has utterly misread Mr. Darcy, assuming that he is the "epitome of the dominant patriarchal male," and that upon marriage he will turn out to be "rigid, dominating and controlling."
I myself sighed quite a few yearning sighs over Mr. Darcy when I first read Pride and Prejudice as a teenager. But my fantasies had nothing to do with deep down wanting a patriarchal, dominating or controlling man. They had to do with a desire for total admiration from someone worthy to give it.
Mr. Darcy is sexy and compelling because he is a strong and powerful figure and also because he respects the strength and power of Elizabeth Bennet. Despite the fact that Elizabeth Bennet is rather unglamorous (with very embarrassing relatives, looks not quite up to par with her sister's, and very little wealth), Mr. Darcy sees her true worth. Elizabeth Bennet is Mr. Darcy's equal in intelligence, wit, sense, and character, and Mr. Darcy loves her for it. The fantasy is to win the utter respect, admiration and passion of a man of great intelligence and great character, especially a man who is not easily won.
Far from being dominating or controlling, Mr. Darcy does not presume that he can dictate anything to Elizabeth Bennet. When she rejects his first proposal, he is surprised (and angry at her uncivil manner in refusing him), but he takes "no" for an answer. He also later comes to understand why she was insulted by his proposal. When changed circumstances lead him to propose a second time, he promises never to bother her again if she doesn't want him. His behavior contrasts favorably with that of Mr. Collins who refuses to believe her when she tells him she doesn't want him.
Mr. Darcy also compares favorably to other romantic literary heroes. Gone With the Wind's Rhett Butler slaps Scarlett O'Hara around, and he ridicules and patronizes her throughout their relationship. He loves her passionately but without any attendant respect or admiration. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights is a controlling "batterer" type, indulging in terrible cruelty when his obsessive, all-consuming love-hate relationship with Catherine is not satisfied.
While Potter believes that "no wonder men are confused" by the modern-day Darcy fixation, in fact, Mr. Darcy is the perfect feminist romantic hero. His example gives lie to the notion that feminism is about wanting a weak and malleable romantic partner. His example also gives lie to the notion that even self-professed feminist women really want to be dominated by men. It's really quite simple: the best romances are between strong people who appreciate each other's strength and Jane Austen recognized that truth two whole centuries ago.
(NOTE: In light of recent blogging against heteronormativity, I am trying to figure out how to make this post not so heteronormative. On the one hand, I was thinking of qualifying the post by stating that Mr. Darcy is the perfect romantic hero for heterosexual feminist women. On the other hand, I have no reason to assume that only straight women yearn for a partner like Mr. Darcy. I say this as someone who once had a mad crush on a remote and mysterious woman who was rather like Mr. Darcy in many ways.)
UPDATED: I am feeling all embarrassed and shy and pleased by Amanda's post on this post. How great to wake up first thing in the morning to find nice things about yourself on the internet! And this on the mark observation:
And the book makes the case that often the best personalities sometimes are initially the most caustic. For feminist women, many of whom are used to threatening people all the time with our unwillingness to show female submission, that’s a very alluring message.
Do check out the great comments thread after her post about people's favorite romantic couples from books and film.