If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then I wouldn’t bother reading on, if I were you. You have to be a Jane Austen fan – or just a Colin Firth one – to appreciate what it’s all about. For if Colin Firth is the quintessential Mr. Darcy, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is the quintessence of English literature. The exaggerated manners, the emphasis on social status based on land and money (although some of that remains even today) and marrying “properly,” the inferior place of women in society, their dainty pastimes, their cumbersome dress (not to mention the fact that they rarely bathed, but you won’t find such an impolite subject in Austen’s books) – all these outdated notions have somehow managed to transcend 200 years and make the book still highly enjoyable today (well, for some people…).
When I first read Pride and Prejudice as a young teenager, there was no Colin Firth around, or none that I knew about. I had to imagine Mr. Darcy myself. I could never see his face in my mind, only a vague outline. But when the 1995 TV mini-series was aired his image fell into place. Colin Firth was Mr. Darcy and has remained so ever since. Witness his appearance in the film version of Bridget Jones’ Diary as the arrogant lawyer Mark Darcy; Firth was almost certainly the actor Helen Fielding, the author of the book, had in mind for this character. And he has played similar roles ever since.
It is hard to imagine Jane Austen’s characters written into a 21st century setting:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” – these opening lines of Pride and Prejudice, would go straight out the window, for a start, since the premise is just incorrect.
In the unlikely event that the story were to take place in the 21st century and the wealthy man from a good family is introduced at a party to a girl from a middle class background, we would have, instead of “Miss Bennett. May I introduce Mr. Charles Darcy? Mr. Darcy, Miss Elizabeth Bennett,” there would be a brief “Liz, meet Charles [or Chas or Chuck – ugh]. He’s in stockbroking. Liz is a journalist.” Maybe, though, they would meet more causally, while jogging in the park or working out in the gym.
How unromantic! How much more romantic for Elizabeth to meet Mr. Darcy at a ball in a grand mansion, with a huge fireplace, candles, servants and chaperons for the young ladies. Although, as might be expected, the beginning is not auspicious, with Elizabeth being snubbed when they first meet, Darcy is gradually drawn to her by her intellect and charms. No, you could not change Austen’s 19th century setting for a 21st century one. It just wouldn’t work.
It is that very 19th century setting evoking a genteel, bygone era, combined with Austen’s gentle humor and her memorable characters (the insufferable and long-suffering Mrs. Bennett, the obsequious Mr. Collins, the overbearing Lady Catherine de Bourgh…) that has made her a much loved author. The numerous adaptions and several attempts to place her characters in other books (P.D. James, Death Comes to Pemberley, for example) have increased her - and Colin Firth's - popularity manifold.