It was the scene that broke VHS tapes around the world.
When Colin Firth, playing Fitzwilliam Darcy in the 1995 BBC TV production of Pride and Prejudice, walked out of a lake with his damp white blouse clinging to his chest, and stumbled upon his sharp-tongued love interest, Elizabeth Bennet.
Twenty-five years ago now, but it’s still seared on Doctor Olivia Murphy’s brain.
Lust for the character of Mr Darcy in Jane Austen's 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice - played by Colin Firth, pictured here, in the 1995 BBC television adaptation of the novel - has weathered all kinds of cultural changes.Credit:AGE-Contributor
“My mother would rewind it and watch it again, you know the video used to go fuzzy at the top, that part of the video would go out of alignment, then we’d kind of move on and watch the rest of the show,” says Murphy, who was 13 at the time she watched the 1995 series, and who is now an associate professor at the University of Sydney, who has long taught Austen’s novels, both here, and at Oxford University.
But Murphy was far from alone, in experiencing a tricky social interaction that is potentially about as appealing as eating a sand toastie: watching your mother get hot and bothered.
“Oh yeah, my mum loved Darcy,” says University of Wollongong lecturer Dr Sarah Ailwood, who was 17 when the BBC series came out, adding that she too thought of him as an ideal partner, at the time.
And – here's the kicker – we're still in love, and lust, with Mr Darcy. (And the mother and daughter lustathon endures, too.)
In a survey in August this year of 2000 Britons commissioned by UKTV Drama channel, 79 per cent said that Mr Darcy is the “tastiest” male lead to appear in a British TV period drama in the last 30 years. (It's no wonder the channel ordered a six-foot tall Victorian sponge cake of Mr Darcy, and erected it, this month, at Lyme Park in Cheshire, which was used as the location for Mr Darcy’s home, Pemberley, in the BBC mini-series.)
But, why? How is it, that a character that graced our screens 25 years ago, and who was originally written into existence more than 200 years ago, is still considered some paragon of partnership, and an object of lust? And why do so many people, across generations, respond to Mr Darcy – an arrogant, enigmatic and wealthy bachelor who first asks Elizabeth Bennet, the book’s witty and nearly-destitute heroine, to marry him, after telling her that every rational thought tells him to run – like a collective 12-year-old girl, doodling in her diary, “Me + Darcy Forever”?
Ever since nearly half of England (about 10-11 million viewers per episode) tuned in to the first episode of the BBC's 1995 broadcast, on September 24 – along with countless others around the world – we've been enthralled by "Darcymania". It has manifested itself, in the years following the TV series’ airing, in a variety of forms: felt Christmas ornaments in his likeness, erotic fiction (like Spank Me, Darcy), a 2016 retelling of the novel, Eligible (set in modern-day Cincinnati), and a travelling exhibit of the blouse Firth wore in the infamous lake scene, which landed at, among other destinations, The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. In 2010, British researchers who found a sex pheromone in male mice – that stimulates female memory and sexual attraction to an individual male’s odour – named it after him: Darcin.
“Darcy’s still seen as hot,” says Murphy, of how her student’s feel about him.
It’s the same in our nation’s capital.
“I’ve always thought that Wentworth from Persuasion [the hero in another Austen novel] who loves [the heroine] Anne for seven years after she rejects him would be more appealing, but for students, it’s all about Mr Darcy,” says Australian National University Austen associate professor of literature Kate Mitchell, even though, as one of her students once pointed out, “He’s kind of a douche to her”. (She adds that the 1995 TV series plays “a big role” in their desire for Mr Darcy.)
Jane Austen's hero, Mr Darcy, has been reincarnated countless times over the years, including in Colin Firth's portrayal of Mark Darcy in the film versions of Helen Fielding's novel, Bridget Jones's Diary. Seen here, with co-star Renee Zellweger, in the 2004 film, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.Credit:Credit: Laurie Sparham
Forgetting, for a moment, this massive red flag, why has the allure of Mr Darcy remained undimmed?
Other fictitious heartthrobs from 1995 have not fared as well. (Nobody’s making felt Christmas ornaments in the likeness of Ross from Friends, Kevin Costner from Waterworld, or Peter Phelps’ firefighter Nick Connor in Fire.)
But Mr Darcy has something they don’t: three key personality “dimensions” – warmth/loyalty, vitality/attractiveness, and status/resources – that a group of psychologists identified in 1999, as making up the “ideal” partner, says University of Sydney psychology lecturer Dr Rebecca Pinkus.
Called “The Ideal Standards” model of intimate relationships, the theory proposes that we select these particular categories, in a mate, for evolutionary survival – as a way of ensuring that our genes are passed down. (The model studied heterosexual “ideals” only.)
“Oh yeah, he ticks the boxes for these three domains… although perhaps not the warmth/trustworthiness/kindness initially,” says Pinkus of Mr Darcy, referring to the first half of Pride and Prejudice, when he looks down his nose at Elizabeth Bennet’s family, which includes an often-drunk social gadfly of a mother, and a vain, gossipy sister who runs off with the book’s hot and shady military rake.
But it’s Mr Darcy’s drastic change, from the first half of the book, to the second, when he recognises the offensiveness of his previous self-superiority –“By you, I was properly humbled,” he says to Elizabeth, at the end of the book – that is precisely what Mitchell’s students find particularly alluring about him.
In 1940, viewers pined for the Laurence Olivier version of Mr Darcy, seen here in that year's film adaptation with co-star Greer Garson, which was radically different from both Austen's book, and later versions, chiefly because he was far friendlier, and open.
“They do often comment on the fact that he does change and is willing to change and recognise that he, for example, could’ve behaved in a more gentlemanly like manner, as Elizabeth tells him,” says Mitchell.
Even more alluring to many people today – who were not yet born, when the BBC series aired – is the fact that Mr Darcy loves Elizabeth specifically, a radical cheerleader for gender equality, says Ailwood, whose book Jane Austen’s Men: Rewriting Masculinity in the Romantic Era came out last year.
“She is so in control of her herself, so intelligent… she talks truth to power, she’s not intimidated by anyone, least of all him [Mr Darcy], she speaks her mind, she has her own sense of agency and self, and he loves it,” says Ailwood. “So that’s why so many modern women identify with her, and then she finds this man who loves that about her, that’s why Mr Darcy is so popular.”
There is, she adds, “a certain universalism” to his appeal, explaining why both mothers and their daughters lust after him – often at the same time.
“What he represents in terms of his attitude towards [women]… women have been wanting people, men who will treat them with respect for generations,” she says, adding that the #MeToo movement and current debates around gender equality have made Mr Darcy seem, now, more than 200 years after he was created, like an ideal partner.
“We need – and want – him now more than ever,” says Ailwood. “We need men who want this sort of [gender] equality as our political leaders. We need more men who want women to be like that [Elizabeth], and enable that to happen and he is that man… I don’t like the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’, [but] he is the opposite of ‘toxic masculinity’.”
But then, Mr Darcy has been tasked with being the miraculous solution to huge social problems since his creation in 1813.
“A major social problem in Austen’s time, as in our own, was increasing economic inequality, [and] this (again as today) tended to hit women harder than men,” says Murphy, noting that women generally had less money in the 1800s than they did in the 1700s, when they inherited money more equally from their parents, alongside their brothers, and were “much more likely to have businesses and jobs”.
“I don’t like the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’, [but] he is the opposite of ‘toxic masculinity’.”Dr Ailwood, author of Jane Austen’s Men: Rewriting Masculinity in the Romantic Era
“The major way that the English novel tried to solve this problem was to make the representative of inequality – a rich, powerful, able-bodied tall, most likely white man from a family that had been wealthy and powerful for generations – into an object of affection, admiration and lust,” with Mr Darcy as one prime embodiment of this tactic.
It’s a lot for one, fictional, man.
But, perhaps, in the end, his appeal to people – across age brackets and genders, as his character has also been fawned over in a number of book adaptations viewed through a queer lens – comes down to one of the less-publicised parts of his personality: he doesn’t say much. Ever.
“Jane Austen really lets him say very little in the course of the book, he’s sort of there, but doesn’t say a lot,” says Susannah Fullerton, president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, and the owner of a car number plate frame that reads, “I’d rather live at Pemberley”.
“A lot of other characters do a huge amount of talking, but not Darcy… He comes across as the strong and silent type,” says Fullerton, whose lecture, “Men, Glorious Men –Mr Darcy”, was packed to capacity, at a Sydney auditorium, over two days in October.
Could this, in the end, be the mark of our ultimate fantasy partner? A person who lets us live according to the renowned insight by New York social commentator Fran Lebowitz that: “the opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting”?
“Absolutely,” says Fullerton, before adding that she can’t envision Mr Darcy losing his fantasy status anytime soon.
“My grandmother adored the Laurence Olivier/Greer Garson movie [of the novel, in 1940], girls in their 20s fell for the Kiera Knightley, Matthew Macfadyen [movie version of the book, in 2005], maybe in another 10 years they’ll be making another version, and that will be the version for the people who are 10-years-old today.”