Mr Darcy: Marketing the character, marking the heroic

Jane Austen Centre merchandising

I was privileged to be able to address a group of post-graduate students and staff at the ‘Ideograms’ seminar at the University of Leicester in November. Chaired by Dr E Anna Claydon, these sessions bring together researchers of various disciplines in the Arts and Humanities. My approach to presenting a cross-disciplinary paper was in line with my nineteenth century interests but with a blatant appeal to the romantic in all of us.

Mr Darcy: Jane Austen’s inspired creation. She probably did not realise how inspired when she wrote the novel in 1813. One of the things that spurred me on to consider the marketing and cultural interface surrounding her most favoured hero was the display of goods at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath when I moved to the city in 2009. I was very interested to see just how important the character of Darcy had become to one of the main centres in the UK for Austenalia and tourism. Who was buying this merchandising soon became clear in the first few weeks of the autumn term when new students of English literature could be seen sporting the attractive tote bags around the city. I wonder what their lecturers made of this; on entering the class to have such an obvious allegiance and statement of personal taste emblazoned about your person? Unlike Austen herself, I get the feeling that these souvenirs are devoid of irony.

I think that other than Darcy most people, even those widely read, would be hard pressed to name very many of her other heroes. He has completely eclipsed them across her novels. Many of her male creations can (dare I say it?) be a little bit nondescript. But Darcy stands out. He is at the heart of what Austen stands for in culture today. Known most frequently by his family name – a catchy, aristocratic, aloof sounding name at that – and with that certain cachet of the solo title, he is in the ranks of fictional characters such as Heathcliffe, Hamlet, and Scrooge. He has entered into popular culture as a heroic archetype. Other later heroes have been shown to be modelled on that pattern that Austen so convincingly developed in the novel. More than any other of her heroes there is an abiding quality about Darcy that has only been shown to increase in popularity over the years.

  • For example, the popularity poll on the PBS website:

I want to address some of this here, most emphatically this marketing of the hero. That of all fictional creations this 1813 hero, a member of the Regency landed gentry class, is one of the most popular romantic figures of the early 21st century. So much so that writers, screenwriters, artists, actors, television producers and purveyors of tourist merchandising are wholeheartedly invested in him, as a business – reinventing and re-imagining his tastes, lifestyle, sex life, how he might spend Christmas, and even how modern time-travelling career women might win his heart and steal him away from Lizzie.

The television adaptations are probably the most popular versions of the novel; none more so than the 1995 BBC adaptation by Andrew Davies. The 1980 Fay Weldon adaptation with David Rintoul as Darcy was for many years seen as the definitive version. This had a nuanced feminist undercurrent but was importantly very faithful to the novel’s plot and structure and also to the period styling, unlike the classic Hollywood version of 1940 with Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson as Darcy and Elizabeth. Pride and Prejudice has been adapted and reworked many times over and because of the dual nature to the novel’s structure it lends itself extremely well to the balance of narrative desired for television and is the archetypal romantic comedy template for 20th -21st century popular culture. This also probably owes much to the Cinderella style plot around Lizzie and the trajectory of her character throughout. More recently however the popularity of Darcy has eclipsed that interest and turned Austen’s mannered ironic social novel into something far more steamy and romantic on occasion.

For the episodic requirements of television adaptation there is no better model than the 19th century novel and its adherence to the serialised or chapter-based structure (which latter form was revolutionary and new in Austen’s time). This brings with it a delivery of the associated pleasure of delayed gratification and a refined construction leading to a climactic conclusion and resolution, this is the pleasure that reading gives us. AS Byatt examines this experience and seeks to re-construct it, at least partially, via the post-modern narrative of Possession (1990). This in turn Cora Kaplan states in Victoriana (2007), a critique of the Neo-Victorian in contemporary culture, establishes a discourse with Roland Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text in which he distinguishes between the ‘bliss’ and the ‘pleasure’ of reading. For the assessment of the manifestation of Victorian influence in our culture, as undertaken by Kaplan, we often have to take into account the ‘long’ nineteenth century, bookending the period into which Austen fits and has an obvious prominent place as the founder of a lot of the forms, structures and archetypes of the romance novel. Kaplan goes on to say:

‘Only when we return to the prose narratives of the Victorian and modern romance plots, with their more traditionally told stories of desires foiled and fulfilled [and with the obvious prominence of the template in the works of Jane Austen] can we come upon anything remotely like the sensuous reading pleasure that Byatt describes. However, Barthes points out that erotic mimesis – sex on the page – is just what cannot induce the higher pleasure, the bliss, the jouissance, of reading, but represents instead a discourse of desire and of disappointment …’ (Kaplan, 108)

So, Austen’s works can prove to be satisfying precisely because of their restraint and the mannered, moral context of the romances. In their own right, at first reading they offer the sought for ‘pleasure’. Then on re-reading and adaptation they continue to provide the ‘higher pleasure’ as long as there is never an attempt at ‘erotic mimesis.’ In addition to this and key to Austen’s popularity is the rarefied situation of her fiction and her characters. She stands in quite an isolated position in the Regency period on the cusp between the 18th century conventions and those that loom large in the Victorian period. Her heroes are not the rakes and wastrels of the earlier period, engaging in the abductions and intrigues of their predecessors such as Lovelace or Tom Jones. She does, however, exploit this type as shown in the characters of George Wickham or Tom Bertram. They are not central figures and they must also learn their lesson – perhaps they are past their time and making way for a new breed of hero? Neither did she write the gentlemen of the later Victorian period with their struggles and journeys of self discovery, but she assisted in moving things towards that. A well-known feature of her work is that she rarely, if ever, accounts for male behaviour when not in female company. Nonetheless, certain things about these transitional men of the Regency period seem to resonate with fans of the literature in the early 21st century. The characters of the 18th century and the Victorian period have neither the humanity nor the sex appeal it seems. We do not, for example, imagine Dickens’s heroes striding the countryside in tight breeches and wet shirts.

The introduction of new technology and new formats has not diminished this pleasure experience, if anything it has been enhanced. The personal, tactile encounter of reading a novel in a single bound volume has been replicated by the possibility of owning the DVD box set of a television series. The packaging and presentation give the viewer the gift of added ‘bonus’ material and multiple discs offer the chance to replicate images of the different characters. To this can now be added the hand-held technologies of the Kindle, the iPad, iPhone, etc. which can offer the download experience. Shannon Hale’s heroine, Jane, in Austenland (2007) has exactly this relationship with her boxset of Andrew Davies’s adaptation. She hoards it, as one would a precious rare volume, keeping it in close proximity so she can have her ‘fix’ of Darcy. The potency of the experience keeps her and other fans coming back, returning again and again to the trajectory of the romance between Darcy and Lizzie, with only the sense of that romance. The irony and social satire just distracts them from what they are really interested in.

Only the figure of Darcy compels them to such obsessive passion. In thinking about the various adaptations a few things stand out for me by way of contrasting the changing tastes and fashions in how the story is received. In the early film version with Olivier and Garson the fashions were changed from Regency to early Victorian, of sorts, in an attempt to make it more of what was acceptable as a costume drama piece. For the time, and for an American audience, a pastiche and approximation, with the sweetheart actress Garson as the central figure was required. The romantic storylines were shoehorned into a final tableau in which all five sisters are married off. Again, irony is sacrificed for romantic satisfaction.

In the 1980 TV adaptation there was the depiction of the clash of class and social difference and a sense of domestic realism also. David Rintoul was so glacial and wooden as Darcy as to be almost like an barely animated sculpture in some scenes, so that his ‘softening’ into the romantic hero and his response to Elizabeth at ‘those’ moments (when she visits Longbourn with flushed cheeks and mud on her dress and when he finds her distraught at Lambton on receiving the news of Lydia’s elopement) was all the more powerful and convincing. Matthew Macfadyen’s Darcy in the 2005 film version was rather sullen and I think that film had some shortcomings, largely because it was a film and did not benefit from the episodic structure. There seemed to be a reluctance to commit to what the novel offers. At one point Elizabeth, played by Keira Knightley, seeks out a solitary vantage point in the Peak District in a very un-Austenlike fashion. She is performing like a Brontë heroine. In similar fashion, the Bennett family have a small-holding on which they must labour. At one point Mrs. Bennett, played by national treasure Julie Walters, is given a speech outlining the social pressures on her and Mr. Bennett and the limitations of her world. Instead of her being a grotesque embarrassment this is an attempt to reclaim her as a figure with dignity willing to sacrifice for her daughters. Not entirely successful but you have to admire their efforts.

This is because, of course, this version and any others after 1995 have to negotiate the Andrew Davies version and its huge influence and legacy, which is considerable. It is safe to say that it saw the emergence of the Pride and Prejudice industry, particularly centred upon Colin Firth’s portrayal of Darcy. This unassuming, distinctly non-sex symbol actor was utterly transformed during the broadcast of the series and prompted an awakening in the lust potential to be found in the character. There has been an explosion of publications and variations on the theme of Darcy and Elizabeth’s romance in the last 15 years, in which Elizabeth plays a distinctly secondary role. Or, in the case of Hale’s Austenland and the time-travel culture-clash fantasy, ‘Lost in Austen’ for ITV in 2008 by Guy Andrews, and to an extent Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, she is ousted altogether to make way for a contemporary 21st century model of heroine.

Fielding’s take on the story and response to the television version was the first to appear in 1996. She set down her reaction to Firth as Darcy and maintained the referencing and the myth-making into the sequel Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (1999) for which she interviewed Firth in real life in the character of Bridget; whilst also developing the relationship between ‘Mark Darcy’ and Bridget, based upon Bridget’s pursuit for the man most like Colin Firth as Darcy! And this was the first and probably the simplest manifestation of what Carol McDaid called the ‘Darcy business’ in an interview with Colin Firth for the Independent in 2000. The mention of this caused the actor to visibly sink further into his armchair, she recalled.

I will summarise the other significant features in this landscape before focussing on one in particular. Amongst these there were the more literary attempts at Austen spin-offs with the ‘official’ sequel to Pride and Prejudice, Pemberley in 1994, by Emma Tennant. This version aims at expanding upon the relationships that are poised to commence at the end of the original, between the Darcys and the Bingleys, Elizabeth and Georgiana, and Elizabeth and Darcy. Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Spence (2005) was a biographical study of Austen’s relationship with Thomas LeFroy, using her correspondence with Cassandra. The film version, Becoming Jane (2007) starring Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy created a successful sentimental drama from the novelist’s early life and contributed to the Austen industry with speculation as to the identity of the originals on which she based her famous characters.

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler (2004) – again, later adapted into a film version in 2007 – is one of the more intriguing exercises in Austen adaptation/inspiration. The parallel lives of the characters with their counterparts in the novels are all well-handled, but what is especially interesting is the age range of the protagonists, from their late twenties into their sixties. That offers greater dimension to a modern re-working of Austen. Then there are the racier and more Gothic versions of the narratives, with The Private Diary of Mr Darcy (2009) by Maya Slater, and the Zombie fantasy horror versions. These are about to penetrate the market even further with forthcoming film adaptations. The fiction and re-imagining around Pride and Prejudice and Austen’s wider works can be summarised in the output of writers Laurie Viera Rigler and Amanda Grange. Rigler presents the fan as central and transported into the world of Regency England in some way or other (see also ‘Lost in Austen’ and Austenland) finding herself having to cope with Georgian society and also shake things up a little. Contrasting with this is the fiction that expands upon and explores Austen’s output from alternative narrative positions: so Tennant’s Pemberley fits into this and also the Darcy narratives, as ‘vampire’ as zombie hunter, etc., as well as all the diary versions of, in Grange’s works, mostly the male protagonists so far. There is a further sub-category which singles out Firth as part of this matrix of adoration and derivation.

So, with Firth in the role of Darcy we see a serious-minded serious actor being transported into an alternative world of obsessive fan worship and fan fiction. Firstly he colluded in the charming ‘homage’ developed by Helen Fielding, playing a version of a character based upon Darcy and himself as Darcy. What is also interesting is the further expansion of this self-referencing in his career. Directors and writers seem to want to target him with gentle ridicule. He played first the ‘Guy Burgess’ role on stage in Julian Mitchell’s Another Country, only to later take on the co-starring role of Judd in the film version – with Rupert Everett in the Burgess role. Later he played Vermeer in The Girl with the Pearl Earring. In the absolutely dire updating of St Trinian’s, Firth and Everett (in drag as the headmistress Miss Fritton) appear together and pun on the title of ‘Another Country’ reflecting their shared professional past. Also, the painting that the pupils must steal in order to save the fortunes of the school is Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’. Be that as it may, there was from 1995/96 onwards a variety of legitimisation happening around the fascination that audiences had for Firth in the Darcy role with the publication and subsequent adaptation of the Bridget Jones novels and development of the franchise. It was alright to be a single or married woman, sometimes of independent means, but be ‘in love’ with Mr Darcy as played by Firth.

This legitimacy has seen the development of a sub-category of the genre of Austen fan fiction which specifically targets Firth in the character as the embodiment of the male heroic archetype. There are a couple of novelists, as well as Fielding, who have focussed on this craze. These are Shannon Hale with Austenland (2007) and Victoria Connelly with A Weekend with Mr Darcy (2010). Under the broad generic umbrella of chick lit these fit into the spin-offs and fan fiction genre devoted to Austen, but highlight the fascination fans have for Firth as Darcy. Both authors develop the typical framework of the frustrated woman in a world unsympathetic to her romantic inclinations. Connelly’s outline reads:

‘Dr Katherine Roberts is a lecturer at Oxford University and an expert on all things Austen. But she has a guilty secret; a love of racy Regency novels by Lorna Warwick. She’s even struck up a long-distance friendship with the novelist and the two of them have been sharing their closest confidences.

When Katherine gets her yearly invite to a Jane Austen Conference at the magnificent Purley Hall in Hampshire, she sincerely hopes that Lorna will be in attendance as well. She can hardly wait to meet her new friend, but it seems that Lorna may not have been completely honest with her…

Meanwhile, hopeless romantic Robyn Love is at her happiest when her head is stuck in one of Jane Austen’s novels – if only her boyfriend Jace Collins could be more like Colin Firth.

The weekend retreat is the perfect opportunity for Robyn to escape from reality for a few days – especially when she meets handsome stablehand Dan. But Jace isn’t going to be so easy to shrug off.

With misunderstandings, muddles and a few shocking revelations, the weekend proves to be even more than they bargained for. Like all true Jane Austen heroines, Katherine and Robyn will discover that finding their own Mr Darcy is far from easy…’

Of course the point of these novels is not the passion that readers necessarily have for Austen’s novels. It is the passion they have for the Andrew Davies adaptation and the person of the actor Colin Firth in the role of Darcy. Hale is especially unrepentant about her heroine Jane Hayes’s obsession with the TV series. She does not even name check Jennifer Ehle as Lizzie; just referring to ‘that comely, busty English actress as Elizabeth Bennett.’ In particular, she puts the dramatisation under a microscope so that she can minutely recount the viewing pleasure:

‘Jane watched and rewatched the part where Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy look at each other over the piano, and there’s that zing, and her face softens, and he smiles, his chest heaving as though he’d breathe in the sight of her, and his eyes are glistening so that you’d almost think he’d cry…Ah!’ (Hale, 2007: 1-2)

Jane confuses her historical periods, has no clue about the nuanced satire and the ironic content of the novels and just wallows in the dramatic romance of the adaptation, ‘That pesky movie version’. She is a literate if not literary woman, working in the graphic arts in New York and despairing of the lack of commitment, lack of fidelity, lack of heterosexuality in her string of boyfriends; anecdotes about whom preface many of the chapters. This novel has a smattering of Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City, but with none of the outright ‘erotic mimesis’, because not only is Hale an Austen obsessive, she is a Mormon. There is a subtext here about the searching and the longing in the souls of young women for that perfect embodiment of male heroism and romantic married love. This is certainly derived from the LDS church and its mission to encourage moral, married attachment that supports family life and values. You only have to look as far as the celibate, sober, clean-living teenage vampires and werewolves in the fiction of one of Hale’s close friends, Stephanie Meyer, to realise that the fiction of the past is being exploited to appeal to a sense of moral right in the present. Jane Hayes is the longing, searching woman who is guided by her aunt to enter another alternative world in which she experiences temptation, disappointment and eventually gets the chance for real life fulfilment with her idea of Mr Darcy.

‘Sure, Jane had first read Pride and Prejudice when she was sixteen, read it a dozen times since, and read the other Austen novels at least twice, except Northanger Abbey (of course). But it wasn’t until the BBC put a face on the story that those gentlemen in tight breeches had stepped out of her reader’s imagination and into her nonfiction hopes. Stripped of Austen’s funny, insightful, biting narrator, the movie became a pure romance. And Pride and Prejudice was the most stunning, bite-your-hand romance ever, the kind that stared straight into Jane’s soul and made her shudder.’ (Hale, 2007: 2)

I think this stripping back of the original generic elements of the novel is significant and takes us into the strategies of Andrew Davies and his approach to adaptation. Hale as a reader/viewer of that televisual text transposes her ideas and responses into her creation Jane Hayes. Devoid of the irony and the voice of the narrator you are left with romance. Hale is not the only one who has identified this characteristic of stripping back the narrative in Davies’ methods. In the April 2010 edition of the Journal of Victorian Culture, Valerie Purden assesses Davies’ relative success and failure at his adaptations of Dickens’s novels for television. We must not forget just how prolific he has been as the go-to adapter for so much television and film, including Othello and Bridget Jones’s Diary. Purden reminds us of the evaluation made of his work by Simon Hoggart in the Guardian:

‘His technique has been memorably described … as chipping away at a masterpiece until he reveals the racier Andrew Davies story within it.’

(Victorians beyond the Academy, ‘Nobody’s Fault’: Little Dorrit, Andrew Davies and the Art of Adaptation, Valerie Purden, Journal of Victorian Culture, Vol. 15, No. 1. April 2010, 131).

This is not entirely fair in that he must inevitably break down the text in order to then reconstruct it in an effective and relevant way. What is significant here, with Austen, and he reminds us of this, is that the male characters have no fictional life other than with the women. Therefore, in order to flesh out any dramatic portrayal he has to first chip away, yes, but then reassemble – filling in the blanks as it were. He words it in this way when interviewed on the PBS site about his Austen adaptations:

‘I do tend to write those scenes that Jane Austen somehow forgot to write. Actually she didn’t forget to write them, but she made a rule for herself that she wouldn’t follow the men when the women weren’t there. She said, I’ve never been in a scene where two men had a conversation together without a woman present. I have no idea how they’d be. I’d never write a scene for one man on his own. But I think that robs us of seeing the male characters as a whole so the scenes that I add are generally scenes for the men doing manly things — going hunting, going shooting, going swimming, riding their horses — so you get a sense that they have a life apart from when they are being polite to the women in the drawing rooms.’

Andrew Davies:

So, he acknowledges that he inserts the ‘manly’ activities and fills in, fleshes out, all those things for the actors to be able to achieve a performance. Where Darcy offers loyalty, wit, manners and pride in the novel, Davies gives his performative version more to do, away from the women. He shows Darcy able to navigate London’s ‘underworld’ and forcing his way in to Wickham’s lodgings in order to compel him to do right by Lydia. He is the riding, shooting, swimming action hero version in Davies’s serialisation. In Pride and Prejudice with Zombies this comes completely to fruition with both Darcy and Elizabeth saving the day with their fighting skills. But, in the more sedate world of the wish-fulfilment and fantasy ideals of Darcy as loyal, kind, sympathetic suitor, who champions Lizzie in the face of snobbery and derision, we can add Davies’s take on his character as Romantic (with a capital ‘R’) brooding and just really, really sexy and rich.

Davies also explains what the strengths and weaknesses of the novel were as adaptable material.

‘Pride and Prejudice did have some problems in it and I was relatively inexperienced in writing adaptations when I did that. The main problem was that the first half of the book is wonderful. It is almost like a play. She writes all these wonderful dialogue scenes and you can in effect just kind of copy it out and edit it a bit. In the second half of the book, everybody goes off in different directions and writes each other long letters and you get hardly any action at all between the characters. I really had to pull all the stops out and kind of dramatize the letters, have flashbacks, all that kind of thing. Then, by the end of the book the dialogue scenes come back and it is all easy.’

This shows that the novel is a transitional work. It possesses qualities that impacted on the future progression of the form throughout the nineteenth century: ‘almost like a play … with all these wonderful dialogue scenes.’ Then in the second half the disparate locations and the use of the epistolary form in large sections demonstrates a revisiting of the eighteenth century traditions. Davies’s technique of dramatising the letters is part and parcel of this fleshing out and adding to the performative possibilities of the novel; giving life and substance to the scenes that focus on Darcy and allow him to enact the heroic possibilities of his character. If you reflect upon the chances David Rintoul had of epitomising Darcy, they are very different from those available to Firth as Darcy. Davies does what Barthes refers to: developing the ‘erotic mimesis’ but does not take it too far; as Davies reflects: ‘I think we have lots of advantages with novels of this period and particularly Jane Austen because there is always delayed gratification’.

Davies also demonstrates his total dedication to empathy with his viewers, particularly the female ones when he refers to the favourite scene of Shannon Hales’ Jane as his own that embodies for him the relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth:

‘My favorite scene — awfully hard to choose. I think I might have to say it is that scene in Pride and Prejudice where Elizabeth and Darcy are gazing at each other across the piano. It is the moment in which I think she realizes she is deeply in love with him and she just gives him this wonderful look and he thinks, Great, at last and we think, This is so wonderful. Yeah, I think that is my favorite.’

Darcy as hero, then? I think that Davies’s adaptation, and to a certain extent Fay Weldon’s version also, make him more Byronic than he was in the original novel. What the role has to offer the actor is the chance to brood and be aloof and then to melt and show the ultimate romantic enactment. In bringing him to the screen adaptors have made him more like the Victorian ideal of the romantic hero, in melodrama and the novel, by giving him an independence and life outside of the parlour and the drawing room waiting on the ladies. In some ways, that most masculine of men, Darcy, has been for many years emasculated by his role in the novel, and has recently been freed by other writers to embody the qualities that we always suspected he was endowed with. He has been Victorianised, merchandised and liberated to be the fantasy vampire lover, zombie fighter, and to be the ideal man of  Goths, English students with branded tote bags, Mormon housewives and career women the world over, not just Bridget in her big knickers.


About gabymalcolm

Author and Illustrator - on all things 19th Century and popular culture. Currently re-writing history ...
This entry was posted in Jane Austen, Nineteenth Century Culture, Popular Culture. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Mr Darcy: Marketing the character, marking the heroic

  1. Sorry it’s taken me so long to get around to reading this! I enjoyed it and was rather surprised by the layering of or “self-referencing” (as you say) within Firth’s onscreen career. Of course, I was aware of the Darcy/Mark Darcy connection, but didn’t know of the others. Interesting!

  2. gabymalcolm says:

    I know. I get the strong feeling that certainly the producers of the (dreadful) St Trinian’s remakes are enjoying themselves, at his expense slightly !

  3. Thanks to Kelli for leading me to this article. Gaby – I especially enjoy how you equate the television episode format (or miniseries format) to the structure of the chaptered novel. I just wanted to add that there are earlier iterations of the chapter book in 18th century literature, such as Tom Jones or Moll Flanders. These chapters worked not only as episodes, but also included “previews,” like a tv spot for an upcoming show, that was meant to hook the reader. Since novels were so new, I think authors were concerned that readers wouldn’t engage in the plot without a taste of what was to come.

    Thank you for a thought-provoking read.

    • gabymalcolm says:

      Thanks for the comment Caroline – I am glad you enjoyed my thoughts on this. I agree – the episodic format in many 18th century novels
      reads now as sometimes very modern. I have recently been analysing some late nineteenth/early twentieth century writing that draws on
      the plot of ‘Clarissa’ in particular. I hope to post about that soon.
      Many thanks.

  4. Pingback: Around and Around and Around and Around | Book History, Illuminated

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s