One of the issues of many film adaptations of Pride & Prejudice is the lack of understanding of the character of Fitzwilliam Darcy, whom we will call Darcy from here on out in order to keep it shorter. To be fair, Jane Austen’s novel leaves much of Darcy’s life mysterious and unknown to the reader, which leaves a reader at a disadvantage when trying to figure out Darcy’s consistency of character. Some readers may be torn between an initial hostility to Darcy based on his rude and dismissive behavior towards Lizzy, who generally has the sympathy of (almost) every reader and admiration and attraction for the man by the end of the novel when he is shown to be not only a person of great wealth (12,000 pounds per year would have made him among the wealthiest people in England of his time) but also of noble and generous character. On what grounds may Darcy be shown to be consistent in character and inconsistent only in appearance, based both on what we read in Pride & Prejudice and what can be inferred from what we read? It would take a lengthy essay to discuss this in detail, but what I wish to provide are some brief and preliminary notes to show the grounds on which a defense may be made.
The first ground of defense is the wealth of Darcy, and his conception of how other people view it. From the novel itself, we see at least a few characteristic situations where Darcy is viewed as a target of opportunity for gold diggers. Caroline Bingley stands as the chief offender within the novel, an heiress to a merchantile family seeking a rise in status into the gentry who continually and unsuccessfully attempts to flirt with Darcy about the evenness of his handwriting, even stooping to the level of reading the second volume of a series because he is looking at the first. Although Darcy’s behavior towards Miss Bingley is restrained and gracious, there is also a fair amount of cutting wit to it as well, and enough frustration to make it clear that her continual attention is unwelcome, even if she refuses to take the hint. Lady DeBurgh also views Darcy as a target for her sickly and rather plain daughter, and though he is polite to his relatives, again he is very restrained and makes no sort of sign that the plan is according to his own desires. From these examples we see Darcy as having a consistent pattern of restraint in dealing with unwelcome advances, but until we see him with Lizzy, we do not see what kind of efforts at courtship he makes, and we see that these are somewhat hesitating and halting as well, coming in the forms of letters, and in awkward attempts at personal conversation. Darcy, rather than being a person obsessed with pride, seems to be a person who is frequently overcome by an intense natural sense of reserve.
There are yet other reasons for this reserve, if we take the inference of the novel. Darcy is portrayed as a man who likes to hunt, and by his class and income level, he would have been among the sort of men who were a part of the elite social circles not far from that of the dissolute royal princes. In this social circle, hunting animals from shire to shire often meant a great deal of locker room conversation with immoral wealthy men and the company (with the associated risk of early 19th century venereal disease) of various lewd women. Nowhere does Darcy give any sort of hint that he is involved in such immoral activity, but he must have witnessed it, and probably assumed that most women who eagerly sought his company were women of low repute or interested in him merely because of his income. When this is added to his natural shyness, one can reasonably infer that Darcy’s lack of an early marriage came about because few people were able to take the time to realize he was a decent guy, and to show that they were indeed decent girls without ulterior motives. This is not merely a problem of the early 19th century, we should note.
If we might think it uncharitable that Darcy would be a bit hard on others for being less principled and less clever than himself, the example of Mr. Bennet deserves to be mentioned in this context. If Darcy is to be blamed for underestimating Lizzy’s sense initially, such a mistake would be pardonable in that she is a comparative stranger to him. The fact that he misjudges Jane would spring from similar ground as well, as he would assume that all of the other Bennet girls are as aggressive as hunters of men as their mother is on their behalf, considering he only really got to know Lizzy well initially, as a result of her obvious lack of desire in flattering him. People misjudge those they do not know very well often, and though lamentable it is something that must be handled charitably. Mr. Bennet, though, similarly underestimates the wisdom of his second daughter, when she urges him to decline the invitation of Col. Forester and his wife in Brighton. The fact that he misjudges Lizzy despite the fact that he has known her all her life, and the fact that he lacks an equal peer in terms of wisdom and discernment within the family, is a much more difficult matter to overlook. Once Darcy knows Lizzy better, his respect for her is sufficiently obvious that a kind reader can assume that he will be an attentive and considerate husband.
A final ground of defense may be made for Darcy on account of the company he keeps. Without exception, everyone that Darcy chooses to consider close that we meet in the pages of Pride & Prejudice is a very kind person. Charles Bingley is earnest and gracious, an open-hearted soul perfect for the lovely ingénue Jane. Miss Darcy is sweet and affectionate, and obviously in awe of her reserved and proper, but very generous, older brother. The housekeeper at Pemberley is similarly very passionate in describing his virtues, even when he is not around, to people who are strangers to her. Col. Fitzwilliam, his cousin and co-guardian of his sister, is similarly a decent and friendly and very personable young man. Darcy is a good enough friend to Charles, for example, that he puts up with Charles’ lazy brother-in-law and irritatingly flirtatious sister. Indeed, Darcy’s skill in choosing friends well may be compared with that of Elizabeth, who similarly, within her more limited social circle, has sought the same sort of decent friends for herself, and who finds herself relating on friendly terms to all of his closest friends and servants, which speaks well as to her own judgment of character as well. In many ways, therefore, Jane Austen’s initial title for Pride & Prejudice, First Impressions, give us a useful way to understand a problem that Darcy and Lizzy share with many people, a difficulty in making a good first impression that makes the process of courtship a difficult and complicated one, but successful enough to give others a hope for success for themselves.