I watched “Northanger Abbey” (2007) the other night. Again. Because, why not? How can you resist JJ Feild and Felicity Jones? (And it bears noting that as of this month, two of the actresses in this production have gone on to receive Academy Award nominations for Best Actress: Felicity Jones and Carey Mulligan. So there’s that, as well.)
After it was over, I couldn’t help but consider — again — Henry Tilney as an exemplary leading man. Charming; intelligent; kind; forward thinking (especially for a clergyman); good humored; gentle, playful and protective with the women he loves: quite a catch indeed.
Which got me to thinking further: Austen’s heroes are, for the most part, kind and solid men. The kind of men you can rely on in a pinch. Men who will wait around for you for as long as it takes. Good guys. The kind of men women always say they want.
So what does it say about us, as modern women, that Mr. Darcy is considered to be the pinnacle of Austen’s men?
He’s not a good guy. He’s proud, arrogant and, at times, mean. Seriously: “I’d as soon call her mother a wit”? That’s cruel to two women at once, neither of whom is there to defend herself, and one of whom wouldn’t have even realized she’d just been insulted. He’s hard to talk to; every conversation is like dragging a donkey cart through the mud. “Forty miles of good road? Yes, I’d say that’s an easy distance.” Ugh. You really want to engage with this for the rest of your life? You’d always have to be on edge, ready to strike back with some bon mot, some sparkle of rapier sharp wit, some devastating comment. To paraphrase Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing,” Darcy may be fine for Sundays, but you’d want a different husband for every day wear.
Darcy needs fixing; he admits as much himself. And we all know that, fancy words aside, he’s not “fixed” at the end of the novel. He’ll relapse and need more work. Authors have made a cottage industry of P&P continuation novels which we’ve all consumed voraciously just to watch the lovebirds struggle to maintain that delicate equilibrium of the final pages.
I ask you, ladies, is this really what you imagine the perfect man — the perfect relationship — to be? A life of constant struggle, conflict and one-upsmanship? Always reminding your man to be his best self? How long before that joy (“And so I might still be if not for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth”) grew into something intolerable (“How long are you going to hold THAT over my head, woman?”).
Consider the alternative. Or, rather, the alternatives.
Now, we can set aside a couple of gentlemen right away. That Edward/Edmund fellow from “Mansfield Park” is distinguished only by the fact that he was once played in a film by Jonny Lee Miller. He’s not nearly as interesting as the Crawfords, and for heaven’s sake, he and Fanny are practically brother and sister! As my niece would say, “Ewwwwwww!” And I’m not big on Mr. Knightley either. He’s so patronizing and paternal towards Emma, and so much older than her, it’s really rather creepy. Plus, he and Emma have this strange mom-and-dad thing going on towards HER father, the whole thing puts me off.
There’s Colonel Brandon, who devotes himself wholeheartedly to the women he loves, even when there is no hope of any return of affection. There is Captain Wentworth, whose loyalty and honor is as central to “Persuasion” as Anne Elliot’s. There is Mr. Tilney, whose virtues I’ve listed above. Mr. Ferrers is rather dull, it’s true, but you have to admire a man who is willing to shackle himself to Lucy Steele on a matter of principle.
Not a fixer-upper in the bunch.
So why, oh modern women, do you go sighing over the difficult, the challenging, the “I can change him” man instead of one of these kind, stable, amiable men?
Oh, right. Colin Firth. I’ll shut up now.