Recommending Oneself to Strangers

I am ill qualified to recommend myself to strangers…I have not the talent which some people possess,’ said Darcy, ‘of conversing easily with those I have never seen before.’

While watching the BBC programme Faulks on Fiction on Saturday night, I was very incensed by the theory Sebastian Faulks put forward that Mr Darcy suffered from some sort of clinical depression. Not because there is anything wrong with anyone suffering from a mental illness, including a romantic hero, but because it seemed to me to be a complete misjudgement of one of my favourite fictional characters.

I have always believed Mr Darcy to be shy above all else, and I’ve not changed my mind on seeing any of the adaptations or, as unusual as it sounds, reading the book. He has his fair share of misplaced pride and arrogance, but all of this is controlled and dominated by shyness.

The quote above, from Mr Darcy’s conversation with Elizabeth at Rosings, is absolutely typical of a shy person, and his behaviour at the Meryton assembly probably how I would behave at a similar event, without the filter before people’s eyes of being a rich, handsome bachelor. Granted, it’s a bit of an understatement – given the choice, most shy people would probably change it to “I am completely unable to recommend myself to strangers and I have not the talent of conversing with almost everyone unless I’m very comfortable with them.” Let’s look at the evidence…

  • Meryton assembly – our first meeting with Darcy. He only dances with the ladies he has come with, he only speaks to his own party. And the speech which seals his fate with Lizzie?

You know how I detest [dancing], unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At an assembly such as this, it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room, whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with.

I have to say, if I were brought along to a boisterous party full of total strangers, it would be a punishment to me to dance with them as well. And, as Lizzie points out later, talking while dancing is common or even obligatory, making the whole thing so much worse. That telling phrase, “Unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner” is so important but missed out of most of the adaptations. It could be superfluous, except that it’s an important distinction when you are shy and could mark Darcy out early on as shy rather than proud.

  • The quote at the start of this post. He is “ill-qualified to recommend himself to strangers”. We should be as puzzled as Lizzie – why? He is young, handsome, rich, and brought up in the circles which should have put him most at ease. It is not just in Meryton company that he is uneasy; he does not make a distinction between being able to converse easily with strangers in a different social sphere or his own.
  • It is obviously a family trait – as soon as Elizabeth meets Georgiana she recognises that she is exceedingly shy although she has been spoken of as proud.
  • The evidence of his friends, with whom he is obviously comfortable and able to relax. They see him as a good friend. Even Wickham allows that he is different among friends, but turns it around to mean “equals in station” rather than intimate acquaintances.
  • The most important thing in my opinion – when we see Darcy on his home turf, he is a different person. He is calm, collected, pleasant and very welcoming to Mr & Mrs Gardiner, even though (as Lizzie thinks) they are “some of those very people against whom his pride had revolted”.

I think there are two strands to the problem. Firstly, it is a truth universally acknowledged that people who are shy are often mistaken for proud, haughty or above themselves. I don’t know how many times I have been painfully conscious of giving this impression myself but been completely unable to change my behaviour. The alternative impression is that we are just plain stupid and dull and cannot think of anything interesting to say. Mr Darcy’s situation in life, combined with an element of natural pride, sets him up for the first mistake. And to someone as outgoing as Lizzie, his behaviour must be completely incomprehensible.

Secondly, Darcy is as much a victim of his times and circumstances as a beneficiary of them. Even now, in an age where it is generally recommended that men get in touch with their sensitive sides, you don’t get many men admitting to shyness. Women are slightly more open about it, but men will tend to disguise it wherever possible; there is still an image of the ideal man as being strong and confident as much as there is of the ideal woman being so. In Georgian England, men (particularly of Darcy’s standing) were confident or weak, no grey areas. Darcy can’t afford to be weak, he has an estate to run, a sister to protect and establish and family reputation to uphold. Haughty, and therefore confident, it is. A big difference is in how Lizzie reacts to the two Darcys. Mr Darcy is proud and disagreeable; Georgiana, by virtue of her youth and sex, is allowed to be shy. He also has to be wary of showing weakness – remember, a close friend betrayed him. Combined with a natural shyness, it’s the death blow to any social confidence or ability to relax and trust that Darcy may have had.

So that’s my case for him being shy. With respect to Mr Faulks, I can’t help disagreeing about the clinical depression. I’m not an expert on mental health, but I’ve had some experience of depression with people close to me, and what I’ve noticed in their behaviour doesn’t correspond at all to Darcy’s. They had mood swings, and the times of detachment from those around them was completely indiscriminatory, being the same to either strangers or friends with the exception that those they trusted most got the worst of it, not the best as in Darcy’s case. He also shows no signs of neglecting his estate or retreating from social occasions; he might be quiet, even surly, but he’s there and other than the Meryton assembly, he even dances. Granted, there might be the odd time he seems dejected or morose, but a) he’s suffering from unrequited love, give him a break, and b) what kind of romantic hero doesn’t brood every now and then? in fact, what kind of human doesn’t brood every now and then?

Given all the above, I’m sticking with my original picture of Mr Darcy as shy and sensitive.┬áIt’s actually, in my opinion, quite astute of a Georgian spinster to have drawn a shy man so deftly.

Top job, Miss Austen.