At present, I am in the midst of listening to Sebastian Faulks’ Faulks on Fiction, which I intend to write about more fully when I’ve finished – not least because it is the first audiobook I’ve listened to properly since I was about 11 – but I thought I’d respond to something he said about Pride and Prejudice. He divides the book into thematic sections, and Darcy & Elizabeth take their place in the Lovers portion of the book (alongside such luminaries as Tess Durbeyfield and Lady Constance Chatterley.)
Faulks mostly gives plots and some gentle, often personal, analysis, but he takes rather a brave leap with Darcy – suggesting that he suffers from intense depression, and wants Elizabeth almost wholly as ‘lifelong Prozac’, replacing Mr. Bingley in this function. And Darcy definitely comes in for the worst of Faulks’ censure where the proposal scene is concerned. The first one, that is (er, spoilers alert.) Faulks think he is utterly wrong, in everything he says – not just the way he says it. Here are a couple of examples of how it has been done on film – I shan’t be sullying my blog with the ridiculous travesty that is the proposal scene in Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride and Prejudice. Rarely has a scene been so misjudged from page to screen… mini-rant over.
As you see – and as I’m sure most of us are familiar – Darcy is usually depicted in this proposal scene as having reached the very nadir of his arrogance, pride, and rudeness. That’s certainly the way it has been acted (except, I should add, by Laurence Olivier), and it’s how Sebastian Faulks interprets the book. But… I wonder.
I’m sure I’m not the first to say this, and I’d cite my sources if I could remember any, but… Darcy’s proposal is super-genuine! He really is being astonishingly sacrifical. Let’s not forget that he is willing to marry beneath him – an act which Lizzie herself dismisses, having been cautioned against it by Aunt Gardiner, when she considers Wickham. He is throwing away all manner of things, all for the love of Elizabeth.
What does he say in the proposal that is not true? What does he say, in its aftermath, which is not justifiable (to his period, not to our 21st century sensibilities, that is)? Could she expect him to rejoice in the inferiority of her connections? Would it have been better if Darcy had, in the manner of most romantic heroes of the time, lied through his teeth during proposal, or at least exaggerated every virtue and sidelined every qualm to the extent that he might as well be lying? Elizabeth is entirely justified to reject him on the basis of his treatment of Jane – but this, too, is really the misreading of her intentions, and thus an act of kindness to his best friend. Certainly not, as Faulks suggests, simply to keep Bingley to himself.
I think film and television adaptations have tended towards seeing Darcy as the villain-made-good, and Elizabeth as the woman who makes him good. She may be a bit impetuous (this line of thought goes), but essentially she is the one in the right, and he comes to realise this. I think Jane Austen is much cleverer than this. Elizabeth’s shortcomings are not incidental or irrelevant – she really has as far to travel as Darcy, in terms of her character, before the match is equal. Yes, she is always a delight to the reader – but that is neither here nor there, in terms of morality or character defects. Which of us does not adore Emma? Yet which of us would say she needs no reforming?
There is a common acknowledgement that Lizzie needs to reform her character defects – that she can be proud and she can be prejudiced – but, in practice, or at least in adaptation, interpretations of her encounters with Darcy all suggest otherwise. And most especially the proposal. His bluff manner does not make him wrong; her eloquent outrage does not make her right. If we allow ourselves to think only in the context of the period – how generous Darcy is! How ungrateful, Elizabeth! And how wonderfully both reflect upon the scene, and – accordingly – change themselves for the better, and for each other. But let’s recognise that Darcy’s change is not a 360 reversal, and Elizabeth’s, on the other hand, is not inconsiderable.