Mr. Darcy’s Lent

Originally posted March 11, 2013, in the middle of the penitential season of Lent.

It would be fun to edit a collection of Jane Austen’s letters called From Miss Austen, With Tongue in Cheek.  The thought occurred to me this week as I perused Jane’s letters to her sister, Cassandra.  One comment, which Jane wrote almost exactly two centuries ago, shortly after sending Pride and Prejudice off for publication, particularly caught my attention: she said her great masterpiece “wanted shade.”

The subject matter of the book underscores the preposterousness of the comment.  Had Jane written that about Emma, one might take it as earnest self-criticism. But when she wrote it about Pride and Prejudice she hardly needed to add any further comment to make clear that she was jesting. Six women threatened with financial ruin on account of an entailed estate, whose ruin is then all but assured by the foolishness of the youngest daughter, isn’t exactly “lite” stuff.  But there’s more to the book’s shade than the threat of financial ruin, or the threat posed by blackguards like George Wickham.  For the longest and deepest shadow on the story is cast by its hero, Mr. Darcy.

darcy-elizabethMr. Darcy remains a near-perfect mystery until the last pages of Pride and Prejudice.  This owes nothing to calculated aloofness or distance, and everything to the subtlety of his mind and the depth of his character.  Such depth, by its nature, cannot appear on the surface.  Thus the man casts deep shade despite his total lack of shadiness; without being secretive, he yet remains a very great secret.

So we are surprised as Elizabeth Bennet’s prejudices against Mr. Darcy are broken gradually by the real Mr. Darcy.  “When I said that he improved on acquaintance,” she says to Wickham, “I did not mean that either his mind or manners were in a state of improvement, but that from knowing him better, his disposition was better understood.”[1]  The change in Elizabeth’s opinion of the man, however, conceals Mr. Darcy’s greatest surprise: that, following his first (rejected) proposal to Elizabeth, his mind does undergo a state of improvement.  He repents.

That he repented at all is noteworthy enough.  Darcy had (correctly) observed that Elizabeth’s particular defect “is willfully to misunderstand”[2] everyone, and it would have been easy enough for him to attribute her rejection of his first proposal to her particular fault, rather than his own. But the depth of his repentance is truly remarkable:

I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately an only son (for many years an only child), I was spoilt by my parents, who, though good themselves (my father, particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable), allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing; to care for none beyond my own family circle; to think meanly of all the rest of the world; to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Such I was, from eight to eight and twenty . . .[3]

That Darcy has the keenness of mind to trace appearances, actions, and principles down to their root motives, we learn early in Pride and Prejudice.  For example, in one brisk exchange with Elizabeth and the Bingleys on the subject of Mr. Bingley’s humility, Darcy says, quite correctly, that “nothing is more deceitful than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast.”[4]  Where Darcy surprises is in having enough real humility to turn his well-trained mind upon himself – to take the time to do a careful Lenten inventory of his life, and to follow his established flaws down to their deep root: pride.  By that combination — subtlety of thought, with humility and contrition to repent of pride — Mr. Darcy has cast his shadow, over the pages of Pride and Prejudice and beyond, for a full two centuries.

[1] Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, ch. 41 (1813).

[2] Pride and Prejudice at ch. 11.

[3] Id. at ch. 58.

[4] Id. at ch. 10.