Little did Jane Austen realize that when she penned Mr. Darcy as Elizabeth Bennet’s romantic protagonist in Pride and Prejudice (first published in 1813), she would be influencing the course of romantic perceptions for centuries to come.
Today, Mr. Darcy may be two hundred years old, but he’s reached the pinnacle of cult celebrity that few real-life men—even actors—can compete with. How did a literary character become so relevant in contemporary popular culture?
What Would Jane Say?
It all began in 1995, with Colin Firth’s memorable BAFTA-nominated portrayal of Mr. Darcy in BBC’s celebrated Pride and Prejudice miniseries. Firth’s ardent Darcy caused a frenzied pandemic across continents aptly termed ‘Darcy Fever.’ Interestingly, this did not occur during previous adaptations including Sir Laurence Olivier’s Hollywoodized Darcy in the 1940 MGM film, and a forgettable 1980 BBC production scripted by Fay Weldon.
Not ruggedly handsome nor Byronically beautiful, it wasn’t Darcy’s actual physical qualities that were acclaimed, but Firth’s believable portrayal as a man deeply in love despite himself. Screenwriter Andrew Davies, known for modernising literary masterpieces into bordering-on-cheeky screen adaptations, had Firth jump into a lake on the picturesque grounds of Pemberley (shot at Lyme Park) and emerge from it a postmodern romantic icon for gushing audiences. In sobering reality, Firth jumped into a water-tank in a studio; for insurance reasons, the dive in Lyme Park was performed by a stuntman.
The sight of the arrogantly proper Mr. Darcy emerging romantically drenched and vulnerable could very well have prompted the off-screen romance shared between Colin Firth and actress Jennifer Ehle (who won a BAFTA for her portrayal of the vivacious Lizzie Bennet) during the shoot.
Firth’s Darcy subsequently became the face that launched a thousand fan websites, P&P print fiction sequels, and screen homages to his iconic Wet, White Shirt Scene (henceforth abbreviated as WWSS). “Nobody on the set, nobody, had any feeling that anything particularly sexy was happening,” he claimed in a 2003 interview. 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.”
The widespread appeal of the Regency-era literary hero depicted with contemporary sauciness reflects the duality of our postmodern age—when women look to the past for inspiration, eschewing modern metrosexual men for unattainably fictitious Corinthians from another age with address (gentlemanly eloquence) as well as an address (preferably an estate like Pemberley that would cast Prince Charming’s palatial abode into the shade).
Mainstream female audiences can certainly identify with narratives filmed using a ‘female lens’ (Laura Mulvey) that has replaced the traditionally male camera lens of the preceding century to a significant degree in popular culture. This, in turn, has fuelled the multi-billion dollar romance industries that include ‘chick-flick’ cinema (feel-good romantic dramedies) and lush costume dramas, while oestrogen-infused print media has never been in greater abundance (mass-market paperbacks and e-book romance publishing). More fun than testosterone, isn’t it?
Darcy: The Bane Of Firth’s Existence
Following his success in Pride and Prejudice, audiences began confusing Mr. Firth with Mr. Darcy. A versatile actor, Colin soon became typecast in upper-crust aristocratic roles. Even Helen Fielding’s fictitious singleton character, Bridget Jones, professed an obsession for Firth’s WWSS; in Bridget Jones’ Diary, she watched it four times in succession. In the sequel novel and film, 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. Of course, she’s so fixated by the WWSS that she’s hilariously unable to talk about anything else.
In 1999, I had the opportunity to speak with Colin Firth after his performance in the play,Three Days Of Rain, in London. Unlike Bridget, I managed to ask questions unrelated to Mr. Darcy, although some elderly ladies had no qualms with asking about P&P. He good-naturedly answered their questions and was very animated in person. Then again, we were speaking with an affable mortal actor in jeans and a sweater and not the aloof, aristocratic master of Pemberley to whom the world has bestowed cult-like status.
“The name Darcy is something I’m stuck with forever,” Firth lamented in UK’s She in 2004. “It is so weird, a hologram of me as Darcy kind of hovers around doing things without me,”he told Australian Women’s Weekly in 2003. “…It has been compounded because I have to keep talking about it, answering questions over and over again, so I can’t separate other’s mythology from me.”
He 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 daresay it will be my saving grace when the only employment available to me is opening supermarkets dressed in breeches and a wig!”
In 2006, British women voted Firth as their top favourite contender for James Bond. The question is: were they voting for Colin Firth or for Mr. Darcy? Recently, however, Mr. Firth has played convincingly gay characters on film—in 2008, he sang and danced alongside Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia! and his 2009 role as a grieving professor in Tom Ford’s A Single Man is likely to win him his first Oscar nomination. However, it’s difficult to forget that he’s also Mr. Darcy; in 2008, thirteen years after the series, Newsday proclaimed that he was “‘universally acknowledged’ as the definitive Mr. Darcy.”
WWSS (Wet, White Shirt Scene) Trends In Austen Adaptations
A drenched hero is a postmodern must for every successful Jane Austen screen adaptation:
ITV’s 2008 miniseries, 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 bit of a strange postmodern moment here!” exclaims Miss Price, as she gleefully witnesses a life-imitating-art WWSS of Mr. Darcy (broodingly played by Elliot Cowan), who agrees to wade through the lake in Pemberley in freezing temperature conditions for her. In an interview with The Times, Mr. Cowan admitted that Darcy is “iconic and he has been done on 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.” WWSS Score: A
In the 2008 BBC miniseries, Sense & Sensibility, Andrew Davies tries to spice up Edward Ferrars’ staid character by writing him a manly WWSS which doesn’t quite work with his lanky frame. Boyish Dan Stevens is depicted expressing his romantic frustrations by chopping wood in the pouring rain, watched wistfully by Hattie Morahan’s Elinor Dashwood. WWSS Score: D
In the 2007 ITV adaptation, Northanger Abbey, J.J. Feild, as Henry Tilney, shares an electrifying moment with Felicity Jones’ Catherine Moreland in a WWSS, when they return to the Abbey from horseback riding due to bad weather, soaked with rain. Although quite innocent compared with Catherine’s Gothic romance fantasy sequences, Tilney is decidedly un-clergyman-like when he teases young Catherine by approaching her closely, only to smile and flick the mud off her nose. WWSS Score: B
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—while standing drenched under a gazebo during a thunderous rainstorm. Matthew Macfadyen’s gallant Mr. Darcy was, however, unable to attain the kind of cult frenzy that Mr. Firth met with, even though the film met with critical acclaim and Knightley was nominated for an Oscar. WWSS Score: B
The 1995 Emma Thompson-scripted Sense and Sensibility film had a memorable WWSS: broad-shouldered Mr. Willoughby (Greg Wise) appeared dramatically on horseback in the heavily pouring rain, and carried off a swooning Marianne Dashwood (Kate Winslet) in his arms. In her screenplay notes, Ms. Thompson (who also played Elinor Dashwood in the film) mentioned how giddy she felt watching the WWSS, and elaborated it by getting impregnated by Mr. Willoughby and becoming a real-life couple. WWSS Score: A
A Sampling of Darcyesque Chick-Lit
Can’t get enough? Try your nearest bookstore (or Amazon.com) for your weekly Darcy print dose if you can’t wait for the next screen adaptation. From a rendition of the P&P novel told in his viewpoint (Mr. Darcy’s Diary) to descriptive fiction of his marriage to Elizabeth Bennet (Days and Nights in Pemberleyand Mr. Darcy Takes A Wife), to their children’s exploits (Mr. Darcy’s Daughters) and mass-market bodice-rippers (Seducing Mr. Darcy), the list grows daily, as Darcy is a name that is guaranteed to sell books (possibly close to 100 titles). Supernatural/sci-fi/fantasy/time-travel/horror hybrids have also formed that intersperse Austenesque subject matter into other forms of fiction genres, as well as non-fiction guide-books:
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) is the story of 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 disastrous fixation with Firth’s Darcy.
Me and Mr Darcy: A Novel(Alexandra Potter) is about a New Yorker, Emily Albright, who joins a tour of Darcy country with Darcy fans and finds herself time travelling and meeting Mr. Darcy while beginning 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.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies(Seth Grahame-Smith) intersperses Austen’s novel with fighting zombies and other paranormal elements and is currently being developed into a film. A prequel novel, Dawn of the Dreadfuls, is due for release in early 2010.
Vampire Darcy’s Desire (Regina Jeffers) tells the narrative of P&P from a vampiric perspective in this story of forbidden love between the tormented half-vampire, half-human Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet.
Mr. Darcy—Vampyre(Amanda Grange) takes off after the end of P&P and depicts Mr. Darcy’s vampiric thirst for his wife Elizabeth’s blood that causes him to distance himself from her during their continental honeymoon. That is, until Elizabeth discovers the truth.
Pride and Prejudice (Nancy Butler) is comic book adaptation of P&P for Marvel Comics’ Illustrated line. What’s next, a cartoon? Video games? Hurry, we’re waiting!
Anthology: Mr. Darcy Through The Ages
If you’ve been reading this, it should come as no surprise that Mr. Darcy has been appearing in theatre, films and TV around the world for over 70 years, in faithful adaptations and loose interpretations portrayed by a diverse set of actors including:
1936 (London stage production Pride and Prejudice) Hugh Williams.
1938 (BBC’s Pride and Prejudice) Andrew Osborn.
1940 (MGM’s Pride and Prejudice) Sir Laurence Olivier, who portrayed a flourishing, theatrical Mr. Darcy (dialogue sampler: “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. Darcyometer: C-
1949-54 (The Philco Television Playhouse/NBC’s Pride and Prejudice) John Baragrey andLarry 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 stiffer-than-starch Mr. Darcy in this low-budget production. Darcyometer: D
1995 (BBC/A&E’s Pride and Prejudice) Colin Firth’s dashing Mr. Darcy is still widely considered the finest by critics and audiences. Darcyometer: A+
1993-07 (Pride and Prejudice Musical) Bernard Taylor began this as a studio recording in London and it went on to worldwide theatrical productions.
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 WWSS, 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. Darcyometer: B
2003 (Bestboy Pictures’ Pride & Prejudice: A Latter Day Comedy) Will Darcy, played byOrlando Seale, is a British businessman who falls for Elizabeth Bennet, an American student at a Mormon university, in this unnecessary adaptation (dialogue sampler: “I find…I find…I find you strangely attractive).” Darcyometer: F
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 (dialogue sampler: “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 Lizzie/Lalita Bennet/Bakshi, in Gurinder Chadha’s song-and-dance fiasco. Darcyometer: F
2004 (Working Title Films’ Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason) Once again, Colin Firthplays 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-WWSS 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) during a romantic scene. Darcyometer: B+
2005 (Focus Feature’s Pride & Prejudice) Mathew Macfadyen’s brooding Mr. Darcy is captivated by Keira Knightley’s pouty Elizabeth and has no problem being passionate in the rain (dialogue sampler: “you have bewitched me, body and soul, and I love, I love, I love you).” Darcyometer: A
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 (cross-dressing Rupert Everett)’s yapping little dog named ‘Darcy,’ but Colin Firth is also depicted in slow motion in a WWSS (he fell into a pool from an open window). Looks like Firth has given up and conceded that Darcy will be embedded on his tombstone! Darcyometer: B
2008 (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” and agrees to wade in the lake for her Darcy-as-Firth’s-Darcy moment (dialogue sampler: “I have laboured so long in the service of propriety...Amanda, I would fight the world! You are the one I love).” Darcyometer: A
2008 (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice—The New Musical) with Broadway star Colin Donnell as Mr. Darcy.
2012 (Scarlett Pictures’ Jane Austen Handheld) ER’s resident Croat doctor, Goran Visnjic, is rumoured to be playing Mr. Darcy in this fly-on-the-wall reality show adaptation that has been in development for the last few years. Stephen Fry helms the low budget project and stars as Mr. Bennet. He is joined by Carrie Fisher as Mrs. Bennet and singer Lily Allen as Lydia Bennet. Elizabeth Bennet: TBD.
2010 (Rocket Pictures’ Pride and Predator) is an Elton John production in development that features aliens landing in and terrorizing Longbourne (no, they don’t look like Lady Catherine de Bourgh). Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet: TBD.
2012 (Lionsgate Films/Darko Productions’ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) is a film adaptation in development phase of the bizarre hybrid horror novel. Natalie Portman produces and Emma Stone stars as Elizabeth Bennet chasing zombies. Mr. Darcy: TBD.
2012 (Columbia Pictures/Mammoth Screen’s Lost In Austen) is in development, adapted from the 2008 ITV miniseries and directed by Sam Mendes. Casting: TBD
2012 (Working Title’s third Bridget Jones film) is unofficially in development and stars the same cast. This time, Bridget is a 40+ Mrs. Darcy struggling to conceive (Renee Zelwegger reportedly plans on wearing a fatsuit on-set rather than gain weight for her role). Mr. Darcy: Colin Firth.