Who is the most popular, most fascinating character in English literature?
Judging by the number of spinoffs bearing his name, the hands-down winner has to be Jane Austen's haughty Mr. Darcy.
A quick and far from exhaustive search on Amazon revealed the following titles (my apologies to anyone I have left out):
I cannot pretend to have read or seen all or even a small part of these -- and in fact one could spend an entire lifetime of reading immersed in the Mr. Darcy sub-genre. But I did read the recently published Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James, who is a formidable author in her own right. Unfortunately, it was quite a let-down.
After reading it, two questions arose in my mind: first, why do prequels and "postquels" of classic works almost always fail to come close to their precursors? And, second: why can't we leave well alone? At the end of P&P, Elizabeth and Darcy are united, presumably to live happily ever after. Why do we need to know the minute details?
As to the first question, I think it's because the author, even a great author like P.D. James, is animating (or trying to animate) characters created by someone else. It was Jane Austen, and Jane Austen alone, who created Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Anyone else who tries to tinker with that character is, to quote yet another current title, playing the part of the zombie in Pride and Prejudice.
In P.D. James' account, we meet Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy five years into their happy marriage. But it is not the same Elizabeth and Darcy we have known. Elizabeth, retired into domestic bliss as a mother and the chatelaine of Pemberley, has lost that crucial wit and spark -- that feistiness and sense of self -- that Austen gave her and which made us love her. She's a subsidiary character in this book. Darcy, still a haughty snob obsessed with social niceties, is definitely the main focus.
There is a murder and Mr. Wickham is accused. We get an investigation and trial and a bunch of blah, blah, blah, until it all ends with a recap of the main points of Pride and Prejudice.
As for the second question, I think we need the assurance that the happy ending the author promises in fact comes to pass. We don't want to hear about Elizabeth and Darcy growing old and wrinkly -- of Elizabeth succumbing to Alzheimer's, of Darcy coming down with gout and turning into a curmudgeon. We don't want to hear how their oldest son, Fitzwilliam Junior, flunks out of Cambridge University and becomes an alcoholic; of how their second son Montmorency becomes a vicar and is found in flagrante delicto with a choirboy, or of how their daughter Esmeralda runs away and becomes a showgirl in Deadwood, S.D.
No, we need them to be eternally young, eternally happy, living in an eternal Pemberley, eternally playing whist in the evening, eternally listening to Georgiana playing the piano, eternally taking country walks, sitting through boring sermons by Mr. Collins on Sundays, spending Aprils in Bath taking the waters and Septembers in London for the season from which they return with relief to Derbyshire.
We need their biggest worry to be the prospect of Mr. Wickham showing up unexpectedly or of Mrs. Bennet betraying her vulgarity or of one of the servants slipping and spraining an ankle, or of a favorite horse coming down with whatever horses come down with -- and then recovering. They can age a bit -- say to their mid-30s -- but no further. They can have children -- safely left in the nursery -- but not grandchildren. They can never die.
Jane Austen was smart. She left the characters just where they needed to be left, with their lives ahead of them. Whatever good and bad those lives would bring, she left to our imagination.
Oh, that we could be as smart as Jane.
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