Yesterday was Jane Austen's birthday. For all those of us out there who identify as Janeites, this is a cause for much rejoicing.
Unfortunately, I think it should also be a cause for some soul-searching.
Rebecca wrote a great piece the other day about our high expectations for men. One of the ways I think we do this is by comparing the young men we see around us to our favorite Romantic* heroes. If I had a nickel for every time I've heard someone say, "If only there were more guys like ______." Jane Austen's heroes are definitely favorites for this kind of wish especially, for some strange reason, Mr. Darcy.
You're probably wondering why I think that's strange. Well, I know he was played by Colin Firth in the miniseries. However, if you read the novel closely, you suddenly realize that for much of the story, he's not all that nice a character. He insults Elizabeth multiple times including while proposing to her, breaks her sister's heart, and is generally fairly proud and somewhat annoying.
Which is to say he's human. Sure, he's not the really rotten character we might think he is at certain points. He's not guilty of cheating Wickham out of his inheritance. On the other hand, he himself admits that he has great faults. Even at the end of the novel Elizabeth notes that "he had yet to learn to be laught at" (Chapter XVI). The strength of Darcy is not that he's a perfect character but precisely that he's not perfect. He, like Elizabeth, has to recognize his own faults and begin to change before their story can reach a happy resolution. We can certainly love Mr. Darcy. But if we love him, we should love him as another human being who struggles along and we should recognize that making him into a pinnacle of perfection does a disservice to ourselves, to the young men around us, and to Austen's story.
*For you literature types out there, yes Romantic is deliberately capitalized.