What is it about Mr. Darcy that has survived two centuries of a rapidly changing world and transformed him into a romantic icon for millions of contemporary women? The twenty first century uber-Darcy is a literary and cinematic celebrity that few real-life men—even actors—can compete with.
Firth’s smoulderingly ardent portrayal of Mr. Darcy in BBC’s celebrated 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice caused an instant frenzy across continents, the face that launched a thousand fan websites. Screenwriter Andrew Davies, known for transforming literary masterpieces into sparkling, bordering-on-naughty screen adaptations, had Firth’s Mr. Darcy jump into a lake on the superb grounds of Pemberley. Davies and Firth were prepared for Mr. Darcy to appear in the buff, but the BBC fortunately put a stop to that, otherwise the title of this essay would have been something quite different!
The sight of the arrogantly proper Mr. Darcy casually emerging from a lake in a soaking WWS (wet, white shirt) is a contemporary symbol of romantic fantasy. Jennifer Ehle, aka Lizzie, shared an off-screen romance with Colin Firth during the shoot. It is not known whether his WWS had anything to do with it, but I’d like to wager it did!
This eighteenth-century romantic hero depicted with twenty-first-century sauciness reflects an age when women are looking to the past for inspiration, shrugging off metrosexual men and yearning for a charming Regency buck in calfskin breeches and stylish cravat. Subsequent Darcy-aspiring actors, husbands, and suitors are unfavourably compared with the aristocratic Mr. Darcy, who seems to grow even more dashing with time, his formal manners recalling an era of gentlemanly behaviour, and his Pemberley estate paralleling the fairytale castle that young girls grow up dreaming of.
We may not recall Elizabeth Bennet’s encounter with Mr. Darcy’s aquatic skills in the pages of the novel, yet a soaked Mr. Darcy is a postmodern must for every successful Austen screen adaptation.
Colin Firth And The Original Waterborne Darcy
His 1995 portrayal of Mr. Darcy catapulted Hampshire-born Colin Firth to tremendous success and international recognition. However, it soon became the bane of his existence. Audiences began confusing Mr. Firth with Mr. Darcy and he became typecast in aristocratic roles. Even Helen Fielding’s fictitious character, Bridget Jones, professed an obsession for Firth’s WWS and watched it four times in succession on one occasion. In her sequel novel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, Bridget flies to Rome to interview the actor Colin Firth about his new movie at the time, Fever Pitch, but she is fixated by the WWS lake scene and unable to ask him anything else!
I found this particularly amusing to read as it reminded me of an occasion when I waited backstage to speak to Firth after a theatrical performance of Three Days Of Rain in Soho (London). Although I forced myself to not mention the dreaded D word, there were a few elderly ladies evidently inflicted with a bad case of Darcy Fever, who asked him trivial questions about the P&P production. I couldn’t help giggling when I saw how carefully he kept a straight face and politely answered their questions. Mr. Firth didn’t bat an eyelid when I gave up trying to sound nonchalant and demanded a photo with him. Unfortunately, he was dressed in jeans and a sweater rather than breeches and a top hat.
“The name Darcy is something I’m stuck with forever,” Firth lamented in British magazine, She, in 2004. He has also been recorded as saying, "I know that people did go mad and thought I was some kind of sex symbol, especially when I came out of the lake, but I'd never thought of myself as sexy. I still find it hard to believe. I thought it was a joke really. I still find myself wondering why anybody would find me sexy."
In 2006, British women voted Firth as their favourite contender for James Bond. The question is: were they voting for Colin Firth or for Mr. Darcy?
Firth has also said, “…Part of me thinks I should do this postmodern thing, change my name by deed poll to Mr. Darcy. Then people can come up to me and say, 'But you are not Mr. Darcy' which would be different. I dare say it will be my saving grace when the only employment available to me is opening supermarkets dressed in breeches and a wig!”
Other Noteable Wet, White Shirts
ITV’s 2008 series, Lost in Austen, transports a present-day Londoner and Janeite, Amanda Price, inside the real-life pages of Pride and Prejudice. Amanda conveniently replaces Elizabeth Bennet as Mr. Darcy’s object of affection.
“I’m having a postmodern moment!” exclaims Miss Price, as she gleefully watches Mr. Darcy (masterfully played by Elliot Cowan, who braved shooting during a chilly November in North Yorkshire) wading through the lake in, yes, a WWS. In an August interview with The Times, Mr. Cowan admitted that Darcy is “iconic and he has been done on the TV a hundred times, but the literary figure is more intimidating and less sexy. I know people swoon and fall over backwards when they think of Colin Firth getting out of the lake all wet, but I've had to concentrate on none of that getting in the way.”
In 2005’s motion picture adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Bennet encounters the passionate side of Mr. Darcy while they argue—to the point of almost kissing—during a thunderous rain storm. Matthew Macfadyen’s Mr. Darcy, although brooding and drenched in the rain, was unable to achieve the kind of celebrity that Mr. Firth did. "Colin Firth will forever be remembered as the perfect Mr. Darcy", read The Sunday Times in 2007.
In the 2008 BBC miniseries, Sense & Sensibility, Andrew Davies once again tried to spice up a normally staid Edward Ferrars by writing him a manly WWS scene. Boyishly lanky Dan Stevens is seen exerting his romantic frustrations by chopping wood in the rain, watched longingly by a homely Elinor Dashwood. The scene is amusing rather than titillating, and prompted a t-shirt of Ferrars in reference to the ‘original’ WWS scene that said, “UR Doing It Wrong!”
The 1995 Emma Thompson-scripted Sense and Sensibility film, however, had a successful WWS scene; broad-shouldered Willoughby appeared dramatically on horseback in the pouring rain, and carried off a swooning Marianne (Kate Winslet) in his arms. In her screenplay notes, Emma Thompson mentioned how ga-ga she felt watching this scene. Elinor Dashwood (Ms. Thompson) subsequently fell in love with Mr. Willoughby (Greg Wise) and had his love child.
Now, what would Jane say to that?
In this postmodern age, there have been numerous sequels and prequels written about Pride and Prejudice and its characters, particularly the ever-popular Fitzwilliam Darcy. From a rendition of the novel told in his viewpoint (Mr. Darcy’s Diary) to descriptive tales of his marriage to Elizabeth Bennet (Days and Nights in Pemberley), his children (Mr. Darcy’s Daughters) and bodice-rippers (Seducing Mr. Darcy), the list grows daily, for Darcy is a name that is guaranteed to sell novels.
A new hybrid has formed that intersperses Darcyesque subject matter into other forms of fiction. The time-travelling theme is particularly hot property right now for publishing houses, along with other forms of entertaining Darcyesque chick-lit and how-to guides. Here is a sampling:
- Dating Mr Darcy—The Smart Girl’s Guide To Sensible Romance (Sarah Arthur) advises women to evaluate men’s “Darcy Potential” or “DP” to figure out their relationships.
- Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict (Laurie Viera Rigler) narrates the tale of single LA girl Courtney Stone, who time-travels to Regency England and encounters Mr. Darcy.
- Austenland (Shannon Hale) is about a thirty-something Brit, Jane Hayes, who visits an Austen-themed Regency resort at Pembrook Park in Kent, to try and get over her fixation with the Colin Firth version of Mr. Darcy, which has disastrously affected her love-life.
- Me and Mr Darcy: A Novel (Alexandra Potter) is about a twenty-nine-year-old New Yorker, Emily Albright, who joins a tour of Darcy country with Darcy fans and finds herself time travelling and meeting Mr. Darcy while actually starting to like a real-life man in the process.
- Being Elizabeth Bennet: Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure (Emma Campbell Webster) provides readers with the chance to change the storyline of Pride and Prejudice by making choices that lead to different endings, hopefully with Mr. Darcy.
Mr. Darcy Through The Ages
Mr. Darcy is a famous Hollywood actor and British TV star in his own right, with his own entry on imdb.com ! He has been appearing in theatre, films and TV for 70 years, in faithful adaptations and loose interpretations played by a diverse set of actors:
1938 (BBC’s Pride and Prejudice) Andrew Osborn.
1940 (MGM’s Pride and Prejudice) Sir Laurence Olivier, who portrayed a flourishing, theatrical Mr. Darcy (“I am in no humour tonight to give consequence to the middle classes at play”) in this Gone With The Wind-style classical Hollywood film.
1949-54 (The Philco Television Playhouse/NBC’s Pride and Prejudice) John Baragrey and Larry Gates.
1952 (BBC’s Pride and Prejudice) Peter Cushing.
1957 (Radiotelevisione Italiana’s Orgoglio e pregiudizio) Franco Volpi.
1958 (BBC’s Pride and Prejudice) Alan Badel.
1959 (First Impressions, a Broadway musical) Farley Granger.
1961 (NCRV Television, Netherlands’ Vier dochters Bennet, De) Ramses Shaffy.
1967 (BBC’s Pride and Prejudice) Lewis Fiander.
1980 (BBC’s Pride and Prejudice) David Rintoul portrayed a stiffly staid Mr. Darcy in this ill-lit, low-budget production.
1995 (BBC/A&E’s Pride and Prejudice) Colin Firth’s dashing Mr. Darcy is still considered the finest by critics and audiences, while his on-screen chemistry with Jennifer Ehle’s Elizabeth Bennet mirrored their off-screen romance at the time.
2001 (Little Bird’s Bridget Jones Diary) Bridget’s primary love interest, Mark Darcy, is based on Austen’s Darcy. The fact that Colin Firth played the part of Mark Darcy was an intentional irony that doubled the Darcy appeal for viewers. Although the movie lacked a Darcyesque aquatic scene, there was a fight scene between Darcy and Hugh Grant’s Daniel Cleaver (based on Wickham) with It’s Raining Men playing in the background.
2003 (Bestboy Pictures’ Pride & Prejudice: A Latter Day Comedy) Will Darcy, played by Orlando Seale, is a British businessman who falls for Elizabeth Bennet, an American college student, in this lame adaptation (“I find…I find…I find you strangely attractive”).
2004 (Bride Productions’ Bride & Prejudice aka Balle Balle! Amritsar to LA) Martin Henderson’s William Darcy is a Beverly Hills hotel owner who initially finds Bollywood-bhangra dancing tacky (“I'm a hopeless dancer, but this looks like you just screw in a light bulb with one hand and pat the dog with the other”) until he finds love with Aishwaria Rai’s Punjabi alter ego, Lalita Bakshi, in Gurinder Chadha’s song-and-dance fiasco.
2004 (Working Title Films’ Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason) Once again, Colin Firth plays Mark Darcy in the film, and Firth also appears as himself in the DVD version getting interviewed by an over-excited Bridget (Renee Zelwegger). There’s also a quasi-aquatic scene where Mark Darcy and Daniel Cleaver fight in a fountain. We love the Darcy-as-Darcy-as-Colin Firth-as-Darcy twist. Incidentally, Mr. Darcy—I mean, Mr. Firth—also fell in the water in 2003’s Love Actually (Universal Pictures).
2005 (Focus Feature’s Pride & Prejudice) Mathew Macfadyen’s brooding Mr. Darcy is captivated by Keira Knightley’s teeth-clenched pout: “You have bewitched me, body and soul, and I love, I love, I love you.”
2007 (Fragile Films’ St. Trinian’s). Colin Firth here plays an Education Minister who tries to shut down the anarchic St. Trinian’s school. Not only is Headmistress Camilla’s yapping little dog named ‘Darcy,’ but Colin is seen walking drenched with water (he fell into a pool from an open window) in slow motion wearing—you guessed it—a wet, white shirt. Looks like Firth has given up and conceded that Darcy will be embedded on his tombstone!
2008-11-19(ITV’s Lost In Austen) Elliot Cowan’s gallant Mr. Darcy falls for a twenty first century Londoner despite being horrified by her not being “a maid.”
2009 (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice—A Musical Play) hits Broadway with star Colin Donnell as Mr. Darcy.
2010 (A Modern Pride and Prejudice) with Caleb Grusing as an American Mr. Darcy in present day Colorado in this embarrassingly naive indie feature.
Future Mr. Darcys in 2012:
- Goran Visnjic in Jane Austen Handheld (Scarlett Pictures; Stephen Fry as Mr. Bennet)
- Colin Firth in Bridget Jones 3 (Renee Zelwegger co-stars)
- Awaiting casting in Pride and Predator (Produced by Elton John; Lily Allen as Lydia)
- Awaiting casting in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Produced by Natalie Portman; Emma Stone as Elizabeth Bennet)