Shocking! Auden on Austen. (And why is Darcy such a jerk, anyway?)

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“…everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together…”

You could not shock her more than she shocks me,
Beside her, Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.

 

Shocked, shocked I tell you.

That’s W.H. Auden writing about Jane Austen, the poet one small consonant away from sharing her surname.  The poem is his 1937 “Letter to Lord Byron.”

In this weekend’s Independent, John Walsh explores the eternal question:  “Why is Mr. Darcy such an asshole?”  Actually, I’d never thought of it quite that way before, but Walsh points out that the character who is seen as noble and heroic acts like a complete jerk for the most of the novel:

“Has a supposedly romantic hero ever seemed less agreeable, less attractive or less charming? At a dance, he tells Bingley, in everyone’s hearing, that it would be a punishment for him to dance with any of the ladies present. What, Bingham asks, about Lizzie Bennet? Darcy regards our lively, clever, witty heroine and says, “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.”

This is not ‘pride’. It’s rudeness, bad manners, the words of (let us not mince words here) a stuck-up fool. We know he is ‘well-bred’ – can breeding make one so socially maladroit? He is hopeless at conversation. He is rude to Miss Bingley. He is awkwardly icy with Lizzie. Even when he finally proposes to her, he’s unforgiveably rude about her mother’s vulgarity, her own ‘inferiority’ and how degrading it would be for him to marry her. He admits, without apology, trying to derail the romance between Lizzie’s sister Jane and Bingley. The reader may be forgiven for wondering when any recognisably heroic virtues will appear.”

On the shelf…

Yet, in the second half of the book: “He’s discovered at his mansion, Pemberley, being charming, attentive and kind. We hear about his man-of-action heroics in persuading Wickham to marry Lydia. What has brought about this transformation?”  May I suggest that Lizzie is a mere 20 years old, and Darcy 28?  Who is not a jerk at such ages?  Who does not have scores of memories of behaving poorly at such an age?

Walsh theorizes instead that Darcy reconsiders Lizzie after he three-mile walk through the mud to visit her sister who has taken ill at Bingley’s home.  According to Andrew Davies, who adapted the book for the BBC, “She happens to bump into Mr Darcy just as he’s coming out of the house, and he finds that he responds very well to her looks. So I wrote in a stage direction: ‘Darcy is surprised to find that he has an instant erection’. I felt obliged to add, ‘I don’t mean we need to focus on his trousers, just that it’s what should be going through the actor’s mind’. Darcy’s obviously turned on by this heart-throbbing, muddy, warm girl.”

Well, that’s one interpretation. May I suggest a less obvious one in our modern times?  Lizzie, up to that point in the novel, has appeared to Mr. Darcy as little more than a smart-ass who excels at pertness.  In this incident, she displays loyalty, tenacity, and character – and it evokes the same in response.  Not as sexy, admittedly, but a more enduring reaction.

Worthy.

Walsh explores Jane Austen’s brief Christmas romance with the charming Tom Lefroy in 1795.  “I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together,” she teased her sister in a letter.  The gentleman’s family was alarmed, and whisked him back to the bar (no, not that kind of a bar – the legal profession).  He was expected to become a barrister and pull the family’s economic sled, otherwise others might have to get off their duffs and work.

Austen did not rebound from the Christmas romance quickly.

But Walsh doesn’t say what happens next.  Austen’s romantic hero was worthy of her: he became as MP for the constituency of Dublin University, Privy Councillor of Ireland, and eventually Lord Chief Justice of Ireland.  When Austen died in 1817, he traveled from Ireland to England to pay his respects.  A “Tom Lefroy” even bought at auction one of the early rejection letters she received for her novel, already a valuable record of poor literary judgment.

At the end of his life, he admitted to having loved Austen. His nephew wrote: ” My late venerable uncle … said in so many words that he was in love with her, although he qualified his confession by saying it was a boyish love. As this occurred in a friendly & private conversation, I feel some doubt whether I ought to make it public.” Probably a wise move.  Lafroy’s eldest daughter, born June 24, 1802, was named  Jane Christmas Lefroy.

About the time of Lefroy’s visit, Jane was penning the novel that would become Pride and Prejudice.  Some speculate that Lefroy is the model for Darcy.  Others claim that the author herself is the reserved Mr. Darcy, and that Lefroy is the teasing, lively Lizzie.  I’ll make a third suggestion.  Lefroy is the model for the lively, amiable Bingley, who appears casual in his affections even when he is deeply engaged.  And perhaps Jane saw herself in Lizzie’s sister, also named Jane, whose quiet love persisted long after the romance was over.

Postscript: Jane Austen’s best marriage proposals are the ones that end up in a fistfight. In fact, the successful proposals happen offstage or through paraphrase, anyway. This one is much better on the page than onscreen, but still…

Postscript on 1/28:  And we got some nice pick-up on this from our old friend Andrew Sullivan over at the Daily Beast.  His piece, “The Cost of Love,”  is here. What fun!


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One Response to “Shocking! Auden on Austen. (And why is Darcy such a jerk, anyway?)”

  1. Melissa Says:

    Nice. I enjoyed reading this.

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