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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The rain falls mainly on Jane: Colin Firth as Darcy, A Single Man, ‘enry ‘iggins….& Milton’s Satan?

 For over a decade after Colin Firth took his famous dip in the pond at “Pemberley”, he was heard periodically to refer, in a mixture of complaint and wry irony, to “the curse of Darcy”. By this he meant that his long, distinguished and varied acting career had come to be completely overshadowed by his one iconic role as the brooding hero of the 1995 Andrew Davies Pride & Prejudice film adaptation that launched Austenmania into the stratosphere, a height it has still not descended from two decades later. Like George Reeves with Superman, or Carroll O’Connor with Archie Bunker, Colin Firth will forever be identified with Mr. Darcy in the imagination of millions of (mostly female) adoring fans.

And yet….you have to wonder whether that curse has retained a non-trivial portion of its power, because Firth himself has chosen, if you will, not to swim very far away from Mr. Darcy, let alone to towel him off. In, fact, upon closer examination, it emerges as a truth never acknowledged, that he has kept playing some variation or another on the character of Mr. Darcy, throughout his acting career since then.

Most visibly to the wider film audience, he has twice played Mark Darcy in the two Bridget Jones’s Diary spinoffs from P&P. But did you ever notice that when he gave his breakout, highly acclaimed performance in 2009 that earned him his first serious award nominations, the film he starred in,  A Single Man , just happened to have as its title a three word phrase which appears right in the middle of one of the most famous first sentences in novelistic history:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that A SINGLE MAN in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. “.  The “single man” who comes to Janeite minds everywhere upon reading that line is of course Mr. Darcy!  (and I won’t even get into the plausible shadow interpretation, that Ann Herendeen first presented to the world in her fanfic Pride(slash)Prejudice,  of Mr. Darcy as being attracted to men, as well as women, making the connection to his role as a gay man in mourning for his dead lover in that 2009 adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel even more interesting).

And, finally, I know I wasn’t the only Janeite to get an unexpected  kick out of noting that Firth shares a poignant scene with his 1995 “Eliza Bennet”, Jennifer Ehle, just before the end of The King’s Speech, the 2010 role that earned him the Oscar (she plays the spouse of Geoffrey Rush as his speech teacher).  What a fitting way for Darcy to finally lay the ghost (and curse) of Darcy to rest!

Or does Darcy’s ghost still walk? I ask this, because of the following online article from yesterday:      “Reports of an upcoming Broadway revival of My Fair Lady…continue to surface and according to Page Six of the New York Post, the lead role has already been cast…."New generations never saw it. Colin Firth is already set….”

I was immediately reminded of the post I wrote more than 2 years ago…
…in which I suggested that the spirited war of words between Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in GB Shaw’s Pygmalion (which of course was adapted into My Fair Lady) had at least some of its roots in the spirited war of words between Mr. Darcy and (the much more grammatical) Eliza Bennet in P&P!

So I figured it was a good day to revisit that preliminary bit of literary sleuthing, and I’m so glad I did, because (in addition to the passage in Pygmalion I quoted in my 2013 post in which Eliza Doolittle reverts to Cockney when she says “Not bloody likely!” to the suggestion that she might take an Eliza Bennet-like walk to her next destination, instead of a lady-like taxi ride), I found some more textual echoes, such as these two parallel conversations about civilized culture (i.e., polished society) vis a vis savagery:

Henry Higgins: You see, WE’RE ALL SAVAGES, MORE OR LESS. We're supposed to be CIVILIZED AND CULTURED—to know all about POETRY and philosophy and art and SCIENCE, and so on; but how many of us know even the meanings of these names? [To Miss Hill] What do you know of POETRY?

Sir William Lucas: "What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr. Darcy! There is nothing like dancing after all. I consider it as one of the FIRST REFINEMENTS OF POLISHED SOCIETY."
[Darcy] "Certainly, sir; and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world. EVERY SAVAGE CAN DANCE."
Sir William only smiled. "Your friend performs delightfully," he continued after a pause, on seeing Bingley join the group; "and I doubt not that you are an adept in the SCIENCE yourself, Mr. Darcy."


"I have been used to consider POETRY as the food of love," said Darcy.

And there are more echoes which popped out at me as I spent a very enjoyable hour scanning through Shaw’s witty play, which I’ll post about at another time. But I want to get right to the hint I gave at the end of my Subject Line, regarding the common literary ancestor I see both Henry Higgins and Mr. Darcy sharing---Milton’s Satan, the eloquent, seductive hero of Paradise Lost!

First, Shaw’s allusion to Milton is obvious, as was pointed out first here:

“Though almost universally interpreted as a critical statement on the artificiality of class and social status, Pygmalion is really just an update of Paradise Lost and the Genesis story of the Fall of Man.  This is most obvious from the way that Shaw changes the ending of the classic myth from which he borrows the plot and title and by his referring several times to Henry Higgins as Miltonic…. Liza ultimately chooses independence from her creator and marries the dull but earnest Freddy.  As Shaw said in a postscript which was added to later editions : “Galatea never does quite like Pygmalion: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable.”  And so you have it : God creates a creature in his own image, and is pleased with it, but wishes it to remain wholly His. The creature, created too well, wants its independence, more than it wants to bask in the reflected glow of the Creator, and so rebels….”

And in a full-fledged scholarly article,  “All about Eve: Testing the Miltonic Formula” [SHAW The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 23 (2003) 65-74] Prof. Rhoda Nathan wrote the following:
“Eve….the clearly defined mother of mankind in Milton's epic Paradise Lost, who develops from her first appearance in Book V to her final maturity in Book IX into a feminist heroine born of a Puritan ethos. Consciously or instinctively, in his shaping of women, Shaw adapted the Miltonic formula to the formulation of his own incarnations of Eve……Eliza Doolittle, at first glance an unlikely avatar, is a prime example. When Henry Higgins, an untamed Adam, picks her up, she is a cringing, childish, and, yes, dependent prelapsarian Eve. A thorough prude, she keeps whining: "I'm a good girl, I am." She can be seduced by a chocolate popped into her waiting mouth by the Satan of the phonetics hell. She brings her Svengali his slippers, orders his Stilton, sees to his morning tea. In that famous scene Higgins finally praises Eliza for having become a "tower of strength" and a "consort battleship," even though five minutes earlier he was berating himself for having wasted the treasures of his "Miltonic mind" on her. (What do you think he meant by his "Miltonic" mind in that context? Probably his Pygmalion role in fashioning her just as Milton shaped his Eve.) Still, of all Shaw's heroines, Eliza Doolittle appears to be the truest incarnation of his, and, thus, Milton's Eve. She has been given the gift of insight—possibly by the serpent—and finally has decided to use Higgins as a stepping stone to independence. She might be grateful to Col. Pickering for his kindness, but her instinctive shrewdness informs her that Higgins is her stepping stone into the middle class and independence….Whether or not Eliza will marry Freddy is moot. It is Higgins, the clever one, who was both serpent and savior to her.”

And to Judd’s and Nathan’s above analyses, I add the following subliminal textual hint that Shaw hid in very plain sight a dozen times in his play, by not only having “devil” be Higgins’s favorite swear word, but by also even having Mrs. Pearce bring it to the audience’s specific attention:

What a DEVIL of a name…what the DEVIL do you mean?…. 
MRS. PEARCE: …I don't mind your damning and blasting, and what the DEVIL and where the DEVIL and who the DEVIL— ……
And now, what the DEVIL are we going to talk about until Eliza comes?
What the DEVIL do you imagine I know of philosophy?
I wonder where the DEVIL my slippers are!
What the DEVIL have I done with my slippers?
How the DEVIL do I know what's to become of you?
Most men are the marrying sort (poor DEVILs!); and you're not bad-looking; it's quite a pleasure to look at you sometimes—not now, of course, because you're crying and looking as ugly as the very DEVIL;
I must clear off to bed: I'm DEVILish sleepy.
What the DEVIL use would they be to Pickering?
The DEVIL he does!
Where the DEVIL is that girl?

And then Liza herself calls Higgins out explicitly as a Satan at the very end, when she gives him what-for very much the way Eliza Bennet gives Darcy a tongue-lashing at Hunsford:
HIGGINS. I can't turn your soul on. Leave me those feelings; and you can take away the voice and the face. They are not you.
LIZA. Oh, you ARE a DEVIL. You can twist the heart in a girl as easy as some could twist her arms to hurt her. Mrs. Pearce warned me. Time and again she has wanted to leave you; and you always got round her at the last minute. And you don't care a bit for her. And you don't care a bit for me.
To which Higgins replies: “ I am not intimidated, like your father and your stepmother. So you can come back or go to the DEVIL: which you please.” which reminds us of Darcy’s witty reply to Eliza:  “I am not afraid of you”.

But how do I then make the leap from Henry Higgins as Satan to Mr. Darcy as Satan, too? There’s a very complicated answer to that legitimate, skeptical question, but my very short answer is that I read the shadow story of Pride & Prejudice as casting Eliza in the role of Eve in the Garden (with her aunt & uncle GARDINER) of Longbourn, a place where a succession of would-be persuaders “whisper” in her ear, and she must try to choose “the truth” from among their conflicting messages, like a jury must do in a court of law.

The conventional reading of P&P is that Wickham (“All Meryton seemed striving to blacken the man who, but three months before, had been almost an angel of light.”—Lucifer meaning “angel of light”!) is the Satan who at first convinces Eliza that Darcy is a bad man, but then Eliza is brought to the truth by Darcy’s reformation and repentance.

But in the shadow story I see in P&P, it is Darcy who is the greater Satan, who uses his enormous powers to demolish Eliza’s resistance to him. And I suggested five years ago  that it is Mary Bennet, Eliza’s sister, who literally whispers in Eliza’s ear “The men shan’t come and part us, I am determined. We want none of them; do we?", trying one last time to warn her to stay away from Darcy, who has shown up to claim her. But it is too late, Eliza has already permanently taken too large a bite out of Darcy’s subtly poisonous apple, and is beyond rescue back into the safe, purely female-centric world (including her secret lesbian admirer, Charlotte Lucas)  that was “pre-lapsarian” Meryton.

And, to conclude, I do believe that George Bernard Shaw recognized this Satanic aura of Mr. Darcy,, and wove it into the character of ‘enry ‘iggins---but he lets his Eliza escape with her heart and mind intact!

So…when Colin Firth takes the stage next year in My Fair Lady, keep the Satanic Mr. Darcy in the back of your mind, as well as the rain in Meryton, which mainly falls, it seems, on Jane (Bennet, that is).

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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