Mr. Darcy, Colin Firth’s Wet Shirt, And The Revival of British Literature

I happened on a broadcast of Kingsman: The Secret Service last week, watched it to the end, and enjoyed some of it quite a bit. As one might expect, the French have a word for this sort of amiable bloodbath, a Grand Guignol, a sort of celebratory horror tale with a twist of humor, and, as I had seen the film some months ago, the choreographed exploding of heads, languid eviscerations, and widespread arterial spraying was only mildly distracting from Colin Firth’s turn as an aristocratic spy with a penchant for mayhem.

Really? Mayhem? Colin Firth?

It’s not likely that Firth will follow Liam Neeson into making a string of hyper-violent vigilante/revenge/action thrillers (Taken, Taken 2, The Next Three Days, The Unknown, The Grey, Nonstop, A Walk Among the Tombstones, Run All Night, Taken 3, and the upcoming The Commuter). The fun of Kingsman was in the contrast between the polished club man and the highly effective assassin, but, even in this incarnation, Colin Firth’s stony stoicism belied goodhearted generosity. That peculiar ability, to project icy distance while suggesting hidden capacity for friendship, loyalty, and love, made Firth an ideal Fitzwilliam Darcy in the BBC’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

Moving from cool, almost caddish disdain to absolute devotion, Firth’s Darcy reached the pinnacle of fan frenzy in episode IV, in a scene not in the novel. Darcy has literally jumped into a lake on his estate in order to cool his turbulent emotions with regard to Elizabeth Bennet, climbing out of the water only to find Elizabeth walking the estate’s grounds and approaching the lake. Darcy is shaken and embarrassed, in a state of undress, charmingly awkward. Many viewers, however, were impressed with Firth’s manly form in what a survey of British critics called, “the most memorable moment in British television history.” I will venture to say that there was considerably more buzz about “the shirt” than about Austen’s use of irony in Pride and Prejudice.

The final episode of the BBC series claimed 40% of the viewing public, and the first run of the double-video set sold out within the first two hours of its release. The shirt was later placed on display in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. as part of an exhibition entitled, “Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity”.

I’m going to go out on a limb here; I credit Colin Firth with reanimating interest in Pride and Prejudice, the Austen novels, and English literature as a whole.

Too much?

I think not. My colleagues at several ambitious independent schools had given up on teaching Austen, finding that their students simply could not connect with a novel of manners set in the early 18th Century. Teach Austen? Not possible. No Way. Better off hacking away at Hawthorne, or connecting Thoreau with contemporary mindfulness and environmental awareness. Teachers devoted to Austen longed to wallow in the pleasure of reading Pride and Prejudice aloud, but feared a cold response from students steeped in flashier, more contemporary, novels.

There are a host of reasons that an Austen novel succeeds where others of her generation have sunk into obscurity. She writes with wit, clarity, and an unerring ability to lampoon the entirely lampoonable. She creates character with dimension, some to be reviled and some admired, and she writes dialogue that continues to ring true, as in this understated comic exchange between the narcissistic and tedious Mrs. Bennet and her husband.

“Mr. Bennet, how can you abuse your own children in such a way? You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion for my poor nerves.”

“You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these last twenty years at least.”

All of those qualities were present in her work all along, but it took what some besotted partisans called Firth’s” smoldering passion” to pull viewers into fascination with all things Austen. Readers rediscovered Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Persuasion, Mansfield Park, and Northanger Abbey. Book clubs devoted to Jane Austen began to spring up across the globe. In 1996, the best selling new novel. The Runaway Jury by John Grisham sold 73,337 copies; in that year, Pride and Prejudice sold 110,000 copies in the U.S. alone. To date, the book has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. Just as the (continuing) Harry Potter fever brought readers back to books, the 1995 Pride and Prejudice pulled readers further into Austen, and then to the Brontes. Sales of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights also experienced rediscovery as readers exhausted their store of Austen novels.

Versions of P and P soon appeared in theaters and on television. The Diary of Bridget Jones took the structure of the novel, pulled Firth back into the role of clumsy suitor (Mark Darcy), brought the story into the 21st Century and added Hugh Grant as designated rotter, Daniel Cleaver, the George Wickham analog.The first Bridget Jones featured a lovely self-referential moment in which Bridget watches the Colin Firth Darcy emerge from the lake. In 2005 a well designed theatrical release brought Keira Knightley to the role of Lizzie Bennett, . The Bollywood version, Bride and Prejudice, still has a loyal following, and scores of far flung fantasies attached to the novel continue to appear. Hank Green, brother of John Green and co-developer of the Vlogbrothers, created the Lizzie Bennet Diaries with Bernie Su, a video blog which became the first digital series to win an Emmy.

Not convinced that all of this is related to the most memorable moment in British television?

A twelve foot statue of Darcy (clearly resembling Firth) emerging with wet shirt (more prominent nipplage this time) was commissioned to be placed in Serpentine lake in Hyde Park, then to be transported to its home in the lake at Lyme Place, the estate used as Pemberely . In a surprise acquisition, however, Australia’s National Trust bought the statue to be placed in a watery site in Melbourne. Divers dismantled the mooring, the statue was packaged with great care, and viewers in Melbourne assert that fiberglass Darcy still looks “pretty good”.

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