Being immersed in Austenite culture, I often hear the phrase “I’m still looking for my Mr. Darcy”. In many circles, Mr. Darcy is the epitome of what a man and, more importantly, a romantic hero should be. In many respects, this does make sense. While Mr. Darcy had his flaws, he was able to overcome those flaws. He was not a bad person, but someone with the very real human flaw of pride and ego, something that we see in everyone to some degree or another.
Due to this popularity, it makes sense that every romance author wants to follow this mold. The problem lies in a fundamental misunderstanding of Mr. Darcy, as well as in the very different morals in modern romances, as opposed to Austen’s own worldview.
Austen was Anglican, and, judging by not only the principles we see demonstrated in her novels but also by the prayers she herself wrote, a devout one. While some may argue that “society allowed certain things”, I really can’t see Mr. Darcy, or Mr. Knightley, or any of her other heroes visiting strumpets and sowing their wild oats before settling down to a proper marriage. Yes, it happened, but that doesn’t mean everyone did it.
In romance novels (unless they’re “inspirational” romance novels), the hero is invariably a rake of some sort or another. Sometimes the author will reluctantly make sure they aren’t known for “deflowering virgins” and whatnot, but that doesn’t stop them from sexing up all the low class girls around them. After all, they’re healthy hot blooded men, therefore they must have sex! (Perhaps the authors are confusing a human sex drive with Pon Farr. That would explain a lot.) Then, quite suddenly, once the hero falls in love with the heroine, he is perfectly happy to have only one single woman. Ah, that is the power of our heroine/self-insert. She can magically turn a rake into a respectable man! (Austen had something to say about that, too, if you read Mansfield Park.)
Another problem with romance novels is that the authors want the heroes to be “jerks with hearts of gold”, just like Mr. Darcy, supposedly. The difference lay in that these “jerks” do more than just insult a lady (without realizing she overheard) and being generally standoffish to the public. In one novel I read, the hero, annoyed by his father’s insinuations on his heritage, promptly seduces the heroine, just to prove he can catch a high class lady. In another, the hero makes out with the heroine, then turns around and blames her for going along with it.
Now, you can say that they have “flaws” just like any other human being, but not once do they get called out on their behavior, not once do they ever say, “I should not have done that”. They just magically become good, and the heroine magically assumes they are good.
Christian fiction is not averse to this trope either. In two different novels, the hero snubs and insults women, not because they’ve behaved wrong, but merely because they are admiring them. In the historical one, the hero uses his influence to screw up the ladies’ chances in high society for it; in the modern one, the hero makes sure the heroine hears his insult so she’ll stop “chasing him” (by “chasing him”, he means “she looked at me”.)
This is completely ridiculous. It would be one thing if this was part of the hero’s character arc, and he learned from his mistakes before. But they never do.
And this is why these cheap imitations fail. The point of Pride and Prejudice is that both Elizabeth and Darcy have flaws they must work through before they can find happiness together. They must learn to quell their pride and to be more cautious in their judgments of other people. It is only after they both learn their lesson that the novel brings them together again. In regular romance novels, no one learns any lesson, they simply get together and somehow the magic of their love will make them work. While this may be escapist fiction, it certainly is poor escapist fiction where you deliberately give your characters’ glaring flaws and then proceed to never do a thing about them.
Dear romance authors,