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.ย It’s actually, in my opinion, quite astute of a Georgian spinster to have drawn a shy man so deftly.

Top job, Miss Austen.

12 thoughts on “Recommending Oneself to Strangers”

  1. I agree with you completely. I haven’t watched Sebastian Faulks’ programmes and hadn’t intended to, partly because I so intensely disliked the one novel of his that I’ve read, and partly because I’m suspicious of TV celeb-ish expositions about things I love: ‘Tread softly – because you tread on my dreams’ type of thing.

    It never occurred to me that anyone could think of Mr Darcy as anything but shy. He has all the symptoms of shyness and no signs of being a depressive – or at least, nothing like any depressive people that I know well. I think he feels scorn for the trappings and nonsenses of Society, but is too considerate to express it. At the same time he is too honest to use guile and is considered rude, merely because he says what he thinks. And we readers know, really, that he’s right, even if we think he’s being prickly and unpleasant when we first begin to know him.

    How many living novelists could develop a character that complex and beautiful, and with such economy? John Updike came close, but he’s no longer with us so doesn’t count.

  2. Completely agree, Becca! Especially when you consider your excellent points above with the fact that he is infinitely more delightful, chatty and flipping fabulous when he finds Lizzie at Pemberley. He’s at home, he’s comfy, he knows Lizzie well enough by now (as well as being madly in love with her) and he loses his shyness. Sigh. Lovely man.


  3. I’ve never read Sebastian Faulks’ books, and I’m trying to like the Faulks on Fiction series but… ๐Ÿ™‚

    That’s a really good point, that Darcy is too honest to use guile, as he says himself – “disguise of every sort is my abhorrence”. I do think there’s a bit of a macho thing that men aren’t supposed to be shy, certainly in Austen’s day, that perhaps affected Sebastian Faulks’ interpretation? Dunno!

    So right, he’s a marvellous character and Austen did an amazing job. I find all of her characters have much more subtlety than they’re credited with, especially Mrs Bennett. In fact I feel another post coming on…

    Thanks so much for reading and commenting Nigel.

  4. Yes, he’s on his own turf, it does give you that feeling of solid ground. Also if you think about it, she’s already ripped him to shreds, he’s really got nothing left to lose. The fact that she’s even talking to him civilly after how they parted must give him some confidence!

    Thanks lovely ๐Ÿ˜€

  5. I also had this comment from someone whose computer was playing up so they emailed me what they had to say. I’m not making it up, honest gov! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    From Squeaky:
    have to say, i wasn’t too convinced when i first started reading this. “yes, ok,” i thought, “there may be an *element* of shyness…” but i always thought it more a streak of arrogance/superiority/the opportunity to put Lizzy and her family in their place when he said things like:
    “I am ill qualified to recommend myself to strangersโ€ฆI have not the talent which some people possess,” said Darcy, “of conversing easily with those I have never seen before.”
    kind of him saying, “I am *properly* polite and observe the most refined and decorous social manners, whilst *some* people (i.e. Lizzy and her family) go around imposing themselves all over others who do not wish to be imposed upon.”
    as i read on, though, you swayed me further and further to your explanation of his behaviour, with your most excellent and eloquent presenting of the facts. the added bonus being, it just makes ol’ Fitzwilliam *even sexier*! *swoon*
    *cough* good point, very well made. ๐Ÿ™‚
    also, i’d forgotten how much i love this book. think i might have to dust it off again soon – i\’ve got a new light to read it in, now… ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Thanks, Squeaky for commenting, and going to extra trouble to do so! I think it’s a clever trick of Austen’s to have him say things like that which can be taken at face value but when read properly mean so much more. In light of the other evidence I really think it backs up his shyness, and I’m glad I was able to persuade you!

  7. Totally agree–I watched the first 2 programmes but don’t think I can take much more. And don’t get me started on SF’s comments about Hardy’s Tess. Unspeakable.

    I am shy and remember well a new boss telling me not to be so stand-offish with my fellow workers. I wasn’t; just too shy to start chatting and joking with total strangers on my very first day.

    Darcy clinically depressed? No way.

  8. I’m sticking with it, if only because it gets me thinking. I’m looking forward to the Villains episode!

    I don’t remember much about the Tess part, probably because I was still riled up about Darcy, and because Tess isn’t a character I know all that well.

    I had the same thing with one of my bosses, because I didn’t laugh or joke on enough in the staffroom *rolls eyes*. There’s a lot of ignorance about something so common.

    Thanks for commenting Sally!

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