At the Chipping Norton Literary Festival last spring I attended an interesting session. It was a panel discussion of several romance authors debating the question of who was the greatest romantic hero in English literature. The candidates, each with an assigned defender were Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre, Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, and Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. Well, it’s no secret that my money was on Mr. Darcy, after all, I was just getting ready to edit my novel First Impressions in which Jane Austen appears as a major character, but I was fully prepared to enjoy the debate.
The presenters first made their individual cases (and I have to say, being reminded of the details of Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester—both of whom can be seen a pretty creepy at times) I was feeling confident about Darcy. But what followed when the conversation was thrown open to the audience shocked me. Such a barrage of Darcy bashing has probably never been seen in Chipping Norton—a market town whose history goes back far beyond the time of Jane Austen. He was judged by the audience, I felt, exactly as he is judged by the characters in the book—by their first impressions. It is true that when we first meet Darcy he seems pretty unpleasant, and all we learn of him for chapter after chapter is colored by our (and the characters’) first impressions of him. It’s easy to see why Jane Austen originally called the book First Impressions, and the discussion in Chipping Norton confirmed, at least, that I had picked well in deciding to use that same title for my novel about Jane Austen and the writing of Pride and Prejudice.
But all these people had read the whole book. They were not trapped at Longbourn or Merryton in the early chapters. They had been to Pemberley. They had found out what Darcy was really like. But boy, they still had some axes to grind. True, unkind words were said about Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff, but the majority of the open conversatiuon focused on Darcy (so much so that the presenters had to guide the audience into stiller waters at times) and most of what was said about Darcy was negative. One got the distinct impressions that the genius of Jane Austen’s creation of Darcy is that he possessed the same character traits as the ex-boyfriends of the female population of Chipping Norton 200 years later.
So, I was nervous when it came time to vote. Clearly the wise money would not be on Darcy. Hands went up for Heathcliff and were counted. Hands went up for Mr. Rochester and were counted. It looked like a close race. Then came time for the Darcy vote and I meekly raised my hand, expecting to be one of just a few. But, to my amazement, Darcy was the clear winner. It was a fun session, but I left with this question—why do people harbor so much resentment towards Darcy yet at the same time see him as a great romantic hero? Is it a commentary on Jane Austen or on modern relationships or both or neither. And if I ask you—who is the greatest romantic hero in English literature?