I’ve recently been reading Jessica Morrell’s Bullies, Bastards and Bitches, which is, ostensibly, about writing villains, but also discusses heroes, unsympathetic protagonists, dark heroes and bad boys. It’s a fantastic book, nicely set out, with some very interesting observations about characterisation, and I would highly recommend it to any aspiring (or, indeed, professional) writer. At one point it talks about alpha males and beta males and uses Mr Darcy as an example of the former, and Mr Bingley as an example of the latter. Morrell suggests that women want to marry a Mr Bingley but want to read, and fantasise about, Mr Darcy. It’s an interesting and, I think, accurate suggestion.
Mr Darcy – and most of the romantic male leads in the Madeleine Brent books – are, in some ways, anachronistic. Women do not depend on men in the same sort of way in the modern world, and marriage is not a woman’s sole preoccupation. When I studied A Level Sociology, we looked at articles from the 1950’s giving advice to wives and I remember being particularly horrified by a passage suggesting women take a nap shortly before their husbands were due to arrive home so that they would be suitably refreshed to receive him. They were then to change their dress, put a new ribbon in her hair, and greet the husband at the door with his slippers. In addition, they should not be the ones to instigate conversation because the husband has had a long day and might be tired etc. That being the case, the last thing he wants is a chattering wife bleating dull, domestic trivialities in his ear. Garghh! It’s just too awful! And only fifty years ago!
So, this is a problem with some male romantic leads like Mr Darcy. It might have been fine back then, but modern women do not want such over-bearing coddling. The feminist in me revolts against this character type.
And yet . . .
Who can deny that there is an appeal in spite of all this? I have recently watched the excellent Lost in Austen and am now re-watching the definitive Pride and Prejudice (of Mr Colin Firth renown), and I will admit that I am as much enamoured with Mr Darcy as the rest of the female audience/readership. I will also admit that I am an avid reader of the Madeleine Brent books, even though I feel they are something of a guilty pleasure. I feel I ought not to like them – being modern and all – but I am hooked regardless.
But much as I enjoy Darcy’s character in the book and TV adaptations, a real life version is really the very last thing I would want. And that is because, for me, a Darcy ceases to be interesting as soon as he professes his love. As soon as he does that, he is no longer cold and immovable but just another silly sap mooning after a woman. The book has to end with the marriage because nothing would be interesting after that. You want the characters to get to that point but have no interest in reading beyond it. Nobody likes gooey love, after all.
This is why I think that Jessica Morrell’s suggestion above is an accurate one. Marriage to Darcy may sound great on the face of it, but in reality? Surely one of the most important aspects of a relationship is that you are able to have fun with your partner. For example, I’m not sure that I could have a long-lasting relationship with a guy who refused to wear a silly hat at a Christmas party. There is always one whose vanity forbids it. And there is always one who collects the spare hats, and ends up wearing two, or even three silly hats all at the same time. The cold aloof Darcy routine is fine for creating mystique etc, but it might start to wear a little thin once you were actually married.
So although at first it seems quite odd to suggest that women might prefer one kind of man in dreams, and another in real life, I think there is definitely some truth to this. I don’t know if the same thing applies to male readers having an ideal female character in film/literature but quite a different ideal woman in real life. Presumably the same principle might apply, although I haven’t seen as much evidence of it.
I suppose the point is that characters like Mr Darcy drive the story more, so they are far more exciting and entertaining to read about. Characters like Mr Bingley (or, say, John-Boy Walton, or George Bailey), whilst being ideal husband material, are not exciting, so they do not get to take on the smouldering romantic roles in a book (or film). Perhaps the difference is that real life cannot be exciting all the time – and who would want it to be? As Morrell points out, alpha males are not going to be the types to stumble out of bed to see to the baby in the middle of the night, or clean out the cat tray – or, indeed, take great delight in wearing lots of silly hats at a party. And, much as I love Mr Darcy in the context of his own little fantasy world, in real life I would always rather be with the guy wearing three hats rather than the guy who is too far above himself to even pull a cracker with someone, let alone wear the paper hat inside it.