It is a truth universally acknowledged that Mr. Darcy, the male lead of Jane Austen’s classic “Pride and Prejudice,” is the perfect romantic hero. He speaks in swoon-worthy phrases, saves our heroine’s family from societal ruin and, perhaps most impressively, is a man who can admit when he’s wrong.
But in “The Darcy Myth,” a new book that’s sure to cause Austen fans to squirm, English professor Rachel Feder argues that Darcy is a monster in disguise who has convinced generations of women that men who appear to be jerks are, like him, redeemable.
It’s a wildly entertaining read, complete with an “Are You Chasing a Darcy?” quiz and sidebars introducing readers to fictional characters, such as Simon Basset (the Duke of Hastings from “Bridgerton”) and Chuck Bass of “Gossip Girl,” who are, Feder argues, new twists on the Austen archetype.
While I, a longtime Austen fan, thoroughly enjoyed the book, it didn’t quite convince me of one of its core arguments - that Darcy should be considered the main antagonist of the famous love story. Feder’s key piece of evidence for Darcy’s monstrosity is his treatment of Elizabeth’s younger sister, the flighty Lydia, who runs away with George Wickham, a militia member who previously preyed on Darcy’s sister. Darcy pays Wickham to marry Lydia, saving her reputation, and later tells Elizabeth, “I thought only of you” when acting. For Feder, this phrase is proof of the hero’s self-interest. Darcy condemns Lydia to a life with an amoral man, all so the Bennets don’t become so disreputable that he won’t be able to marry the woman he loves.
This is an ungenerous reading of the text and of Darcy’s actions. At the time “Pride and Prejudice” is set, the course of a woman’s life depended on whom she married. The Bennet sisters had no safety net; their father’s estate would pass to their closest male relative, leaving them with nothing after his death. Once Lydia ran off with Wickham and earned a scandalous reputation, her chance to find another husband - and, in turn, economic stability - nearly evaporated. The marriage Darcy arranges is Lydia’s best hope, providing her at least some protection.
I found Feder’s exploration of “Pride and Prejudice” as a Gothic novel - rather than a comedy of manners - far more compelling than her critique of Darcy. She carefully documents Austen’s love of the genre, noting her reference to author Ann Radcliffe’s gothic terror novel “The Mysteries of Udolpho” in “Northanger Abbey.” Unlike Austen, Radcliffe’s books frequently featured the supernatural, but both writers were concerned with a culture that left women with little control over their lives.
As Feder writes, “In Radcliffe’s work, visions of the supernatural are quite literally the work of the patriarchy. Think Scooby Doo: you see a ghost, sure, but there’s some weird old rich guy pulling the strings.” In my reading of “Pride and Prejudice,” it is not Mr. Darcy who is the monster but the patriarchal system ruling the Bennet women’s lives.
The laws that prevented the Bennet sisters from inheriting their father’s estate are no longer in place, but Feder argues that the Darcy Myth of her title - the idea that men who initially seem to be indifferent are secretly ideal partners - carries on a patriarchal tradition. “Darcy helped codify the dominant expectation that potential romantic partners - especially heterosexual men - are not only still eligible but in fact more appealing when they play a little hard to get, even if playing hard to get involves cruelty, insults, expressions of disinterest, ruining your beloved sister’s chances of happiness, and other red flags,” she writes. Women spend their time, energy and emotions on men who, quite simply, are not worth their effort.
It’s hardly a new argument. The feminist satire website Reductress has a popular quiz headlined “Is He Your ‘Darcy’ or Just Mean to You?,” and young girls are still often told that little boys pick on them to get attention. Yet, seeing the sheer number of times women pursue cruel men in pop culture laid out one after another - in Disney movies, Taylor Swift songs and much more - is affecting.
Feder concludes convincingly that this cultural conviction harms women in the same way the patriarchal boundaries of the regency did. She writes: “If we zoom out, we see that the Darcy myth also helps to prop up and fortify a very Gothic, patriarchal universe that is, and always has been, scary for anyone who is not a very particular type of man. After all, if we are trained from childhood to invest ourselves in men who treat us poorly, aren’t we more likely to end up in abusive situations and under threat of assault?”
Janeites might not walk away from Feder’s book convinced that their beloved hero is, in fact, a monster, but they will enjoy the ride. Feder is an entertaining writer who excels at speaking to a mainstream audience, not just an academic one. The book is an important addition to Austen scholarship and adds a layer of complexity to “Pride and Prejudice.” I expect it to spark serious conversation at the next meeting of the Jane Austen Society.
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Elizabeth Held is a writer in D.C. Her weekly newsletter “What To Read If” recommends a wide range of books.