This week, Benedict Cumberbatch triggered our collective crush reflex, when he recreated Colin Firth’s portrayal of Mr. Darcy for a charity photograph. Firth originally set hearts afire as Fitzwilliam Darcy in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. While Cumberbatch deserves credit for the swooning frenzy his photograph inspired, the fact that he was portraying Mr. Darcy was not insignificant.
The cult of Mr. Darcy is a serious, strong one that spans the far reaches of the Internet. Facebook groups in his honor include “I blame Mr. Darcy for my high expectations of men” and “Mr. Darcy’s Wet Shirt Appreciation Society” as well as “Every girl is waiting for their Mr. Darcy,” which doesn’t seem exactly accurate. Mr. Darcy is the subject of all manner of fan fiction, discussion forums and, yes, even a card game.
Reasons for devotion vary widely. Some praise Mr. Darcy’s British suaveness and standards. On the Goodreads thread “Why We Love Mr. Darcy,” readers cite Mr. Darcy as “a good picture of what a gentleman who is actually manly could look like.” Others, as blogger Theresa Basile points out, admire Mr. Darcy’s capacity for change. “The real reason women love Mr. Darcy has to do with his powers of receptive language,” Basile writes. “When Elizabeth tells him that he’s full of crap, he listens to her.”
But Pride and Prejudice’‘s Darcy is an unlikely romantic lead for 2014. He’s arrogant, he’s classist, he’s awkward. His modus operandi is disdain. He only warms to Elizabeth Bennett gradually, and has to overcome his deeply engrained sense of superiority. During his proposal, he reminds her of the difference in their social statuses. In short, he’s the kind of self-satisfied dude that would ask you out at the bar while reminding you that his salary is double yours and that he could probably do better. It takes serious rejection for him to appear more “gentlemanlike” to Lizzy.
So why does he inspire such devotion? Certainly, the 2005 film version of P&P helped revive all those old feelings. But if you want to look for the origins of the current cult of Mr. Darcy, you should probably turn to 1990s rom-coms. At least part of the Mr. Darcy revival is thanks to the Jane Austen film adaptation revival, a wave of ’90s rom-coms that had their roots in Austen’s work, from Amy Heckerling’s amazing Clueless (based on Austen’s Emma) to Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. Perhaps the turning point for Mr. Darcy was Colin Firth’s part as the dour gentleman in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. And then, Helen Fielding’s creation of Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’ Diary, a romantic lead not-so–loosely based on Pride and Prejudice.
It makes sense, given the current thrall of ’90s nostalgia, that Mr. Darcy would again be in vogue. And he is, like it or not, also the modern model for the rom-com romantic interest. He’s smart, interesting, and malleable. He’s won over not by Lizzy’s looks, but by her wit and charm, both tools in every contemporary rom-com protagonists’ arsenal. In that way, he’s perceived as an empowering romantic sparring partner, rather than a classic fairy-tale prince charming with the capacity to fall in love with a sleeping beauty. So is Mr. Darcy a feminist? According to some fans, he loosely fits that bill.
As one person wrote in the Goodreads thread devoted to Mr. Darcy, “People still love Mr Darcy because he treats Lizzy as an equal. It is her mind, first and foremost, that he loves and respects.” Still, Darcy has his flaws and maybe that’s part of the appeal. Maybe he represents that unicorn-like ideal partner—someone with the capacity to both stubbornly challenge and eventually change. Or maybe it has nothing to do with his progressive-for-an-old-guy status at all, but his classic notion of singular, utter devotion. Maybe it’s because he’s so old-fashioned that he’s idealized today. “Darcy isn’t one to mince words or play games,” writes Darcy fan Chiara Atik. “He tells Elizabeth exactly what he feels about her. Because he loves her. Ardently. People don’t do anything ardently enough anymore, do they?”