Pride and Prejudice

Diving in the Deep Pool of Pride and Prejudice Fan Fiction

By Madelyn M. Ritrosky-Winslow

Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. 

These literary lovers, who come to life in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), have intrigued readers for two hundred years:  “Fitzwilliam Darcy defies our expectations for how a man in his position would respond to a woman like Elizabeth,” who is “quite a revolutionary for her time” – and they both “grow because of their connection” (Abigail R., fan fiction author). 

The characters are classic soul mates whose dynamic relationship continues to resonate in our times, circulating through the original novel, sequels and modern adaptations, including Internet fan fiction, and other interest in Austen.  Numerous writers have created a burgeoning amount of sequels, prequels, what-ifs, missing scenes, and modern adaptations.  A heady amount of fan fiction – short stories to novels that rework the original – is now available online.  “The more modern fan fiction one reads, the more one realizes that the interpretations are well nigh unlimited” (Renée O., fanfic author).

The 1995 screen adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, the BBC/A&E miniseries written by Andrew Davies, electrified the ongoing cultural history of this classic story. 

Starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, it generated record audiences and much commentary, igniting new dimensions which continue to reverberate.  Although the book has always had fans, the miniseries unquestionably adds to the allure. 

As Renée O. affirms, “the images were just so vivid.”  The miniseries splashed on to the scene just as Internet culture was taking off.  At least two fan fiction sites began in 1996.  Following debates in the online community regarding steamy renditions, two more sites offering R-rated stories were created in 2002.  And there are other sites.

Pride and Prejudice fan Helen Fielding hit it big with her modern adaptation – her fan fiction – Bridget Jones’s Diary.  She references the miniseries in her best-selling books:  Mark is modeled on Mr. Darcy as portrayed by Firth, and Bridget obsesses over Firth as Mr. Darcy in the miniseries and interviews him. 

Firth portrays Mark Darcy in the Bridget films, which Fielding and Davies co-wrote, along with Richard Curtis.  Bridget Jones’s Diary, 1996 book and 2001 film, has brought more fans to Austen web sites.  Perhaps the same will happen with the upcoming Pride and Prejudice (2005), Working Title’s latest entry following its Bridget franchise.

The Fitzwilliam Darcy-Elizabeth Bennet relationship is the heart of Pride and Prejudice fan fiction.  Writers explore nuanced interpretations of what make these characters and this love story so powerful.  Pent-up desire looms large, and some tales are quite erotic. 

The connection of destiny is a strong undercurrent, sometimes an overt story element.  For example, the characters might dream simultaneously that they are making love, the dreams engendering a spiritual togetherness that’s made manifest in physical longing and emotional intensity.  Whatever the level of sensuality, profound human connection, provocatively signified through emotional intimacy, is a central theme. 

In Screen Couple Chemistry, Martha Nochimson suggests that such a couple provides a way of “contemplating intimacy, its mysterious fusion of two into a manifold one, that terrible and wonderful sliding of individual boundaries.”  The most compelling media couples are “powerfully matched male and female partners whose images depict interchange” and the connection of “the domestic realm to the larger reality, suggesting that beauty (in both men and women) [is] a metaphor for the rich bounty of the pleasures of intimacy, with its capacity to confound the constricting incursions of social structures upon the human spirit.”

Belén, a fanfic writer, sees this in freedom of expression for the characters:  “People express themselves differently (more freely – openly) while making love to the person they truly love.”  As readers and writers, we contemplate this liberating intimacy through our “desire to see a favorite couple get to that point in the relationship where they give into each other wholly” (Amber).  Plus, as Abigail R. observes, Austen “established that both Darcy and Elizabeth are people who break the rules” so their spirits can soar.

The miniseries unabashedly placed sexually passionate longing and intimate connection front and center – almost without a kiss.  Passionate sex?  No.  Sexual passion?  Absolutely.  Firth conveys repressed raging desire.  Belén claims, “His eyes, his mouth, the way he walks, his superior air, he’s just perfect.”  Julie C. feels the famous pond dive and wet shirt “gave rise to the fandom cliché of Darcy as a man repressing a very deep physical desire for a woman who has rejected him.” 

Carthia cheekily remarks, take into account the “scenes in which he was (half) naked and you can guess the less literary motives why one likes to write about a naked Darcy.”  Some authors deliver on this:  overpowering emotions and sexual passion spiral into profound love and passionate sex (“on-screen” and “off-”).  They also deliver on Firth’s “presence,” his Darcy figuring prominently in the online landscape.  There are images of the actor and site designations incorporating “Firth” and “Darcy.”

Firth’s embodiment of Mr. Darcy, amplified by Mark Darcy, has been an important influence on some writers – probably a sizable percentage of writers and readers more or less envision Firth’s Darcy.  We know his subtly explosive performance in Pride and Prejudice influenced Fielding.  References in fanfic stories include:  occasional mentions of the actor; hall-of-mirrors references to Bridget Jones, like one modern story where Lizzy (Elizabeth’s usual nickname) muses about Mark Darcy as she reads Bridget Jones’s Diary while sitting next to her Darcy; Darcy’s passion, discreetly conveyed by Austen but made so palpable by Firth; and Darcy’s appearance.

Austen describes Darcy as a “fine, tall person” with “handsome features.”  Fanfic authors are fond of “tall, dark, and handsome,” that archetypal ideal which Firth exemplifies.  Descriptions sometimes move beyond the actor, like a 6’4” ex-NFL quarterback Darcy, but writers often linger on physical attributes that conjure Firth, some specifically envisioning his Darcy while writing.  The character is always tall with broad shoulders, always has dark curly/wavy hair that entices Lizzy’s fingers, always has intense dark eyes painted as deep pools in which his lover drowns most erotically, and regularly flashes meltingly sexy dimples.

What else makes William Darcy (his modernized moniker) such a compelling romantic figure?  As a women’s fantasy man, admired traits include the devoted strength of his love for one woman, his respect for her as an equal, and how he changes for her from “a good man into something better” (Julie C.). 

Carthia refers to her Darcy creation:  “He’s pretty much perfect . . . but not many people have the privilege to get a glimpse of his true inner self.  Elizabeth is one lucky girl to be the one who does.”  His appeal also seems grounded in so-called feminine traits fused with so-called masculine ones, where traditional images of gender and sexuality get reworked to mold Darcy into a satisfyingly negotiated depiction of heterosexual masculinity.  As Renée O. exclaims, “He wants her to love him for him. . . . I so LOVE that!  What a man!” 

What is it about Elizabeth that, despite enormous changes in women’s circumstances and gender relations, continues to draw women into identification with her as she grapples with self-awareness and love?  Interpersonal growth and respect, profound feelings, and partnership of intelligent and caring equals clearly constitute an ideal for today.  Austen was a daring writer for her time, Lizzy a rare female character – headstrong and playful, growing even wiser through the serendipitous find of a loving egalitarian relationship.  Unimpressed by Darcy’s wealth, Lizzy does come to love him for him.  Each character gains self-understanding as understanding of the other grows. 

It’s significant that the man opens up to the woman.  The thrill of Darcy is, perhaps, the thrill of a private striptease:  once he realizes his lady love is before him, this attractive yet guarded man drops his restrictive outer layers to reveal himself to her in all his vulnerability and desire.  Lizzy’s agitated distance becomes overwhelming desire, too, as she realizes he is dancing closer and closer, promising an intimate human connection of profound exploratory potential.  Initially misreading the outer layers as the whole show, she is mesmerized as he bares himself to her.  Her acceptance urges him to remove the last layer, offering up his entire being – or, as Belén succinctly states, “He opens his soul to her.”  Lizzy reciprocates, thus the intense love story.

Darcy’s heterosexual masculinity is never in question even as he plunges beyond “rational” control and into the “messy” realm of amorphous pleasures.  As a representation of masculinity, this is a hugely vulnerable position.  The “masculine” is guileless, unhinged, and out of control in euphoria.  Does this bring to mind dominant images of “feminine” sexuality?  It should.  Darcy is definitely shaking it up – so much so that we want “more, more, more of this gorgeous Mr. Darcy and his lucky Elizabeth” (Renée O.).

Dominant cultural definitions of gender and images of sexuality proffer masculinity and male heterosexual desire as “active,” “dominant,” “in control.” Femininity and female heterosexual desire is represented as “passive,” “compliant,” “yielding.”  Lynne Segal, in Straight Sex: Rethinking the Politics of Pleasure, digs into this and asks, “Is it not precisely in sexual experiences that we most often . . . break through the male-as-subject female-as-object absurdity of gendered positions?” Pride and Prejudice fan fiction uses various intimate experiences to loosen this subject-object rigidity. 

Segal hopes heterosexual representations can aspire to the parity found in Joan Nestle’s lesbian erotica, which “celebrates the place and the fluidity of power as it animates non-coercive sexual encounters.  The ‘passive’ partner . . . is also actively demanding, educating, orchestrating and receiving pleasure; the ‘active’ partner, also passively dependent in her [or his] need, through her [or his] gentleness and her [or his] desire to please. . . . [This] rewrites submission as power, power as submission, in sexual embraces which . . . are invariably loving and respectful.”  This is Elizabeth and William. 

Susan Bordo, in The Male Body, also discusses dominant representations of heterosexual passion:  men take women into ecstasy.  Men do not lose control – only women do.  Bordo and Segal observe that in real-life sexual intimacy, men are not always the initiators nor do they want to be.  The passive-active dichotomy is inaccurate and constraining. 

Bordo suggests “receptive” pleasure better “describes what’s going on when one person offers himself or herself to another.”  In The Lover Within, Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette emphasize that men and women draw on both yin (yielding) and yang (aggressive) energies, and “a man cannot be fully masculine, in a mature way, without being in an intimate and creative relationship” with yin energy.  When a man and a woman access both energies in loving intimacy, ecstasy can be at its most profound.  “Ecstasy, by its very nature, transcends boundaries and structures” in every sense, “breaking the ethical boundaries by which people regulate their lives . . . , [opening] up the possibility of loving more deeply and authentically.”

We lose control of our sense of self yet there is self-discovery – for women and men.  Yet dominant representations disallow men being swept away in ecstasy by women.  This unsettles presumed “masculine” control and suggests “feminine” acquiescence and emotionality.  Segal observes that an “imagined threat to manliness always attaches itself to the image of male passivity” in various guises, sliding into anxiety over the “feminine.”  

Darcy is passively dependent in various ways because he, like Lizzy, surrenders to loving advances, exposes himself completely, and gets swept away in ecstasy.  With dominant images, male self-discovery in receptive pleasure seems lost.  William Darcy, however, is on the slow boat to self-discovery – his shared, provocative interactions with Elizabeth Bennet are integral to and proof of his journey to a mature masculinity. 

Pride and Prejudice fan fiction takes a powerful love story and explores ideas about gender and intimacy, where a sense of equality comes from shifting subject-object positions, receptive pleasures, and mutual self-discovery – and from the close dancing of Darcy.  It’s so captivating we “just don’t want the love story between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy ever to end” (Renée O.).

P&P Index:
"The Timelessness of Jane Austen’s Classic Romance" Review
"Becoming Jane"

* Many thanks to the authors who graciously agreed to discuss Pride and Prejudice, the fan fiction, and their own work.  I look forward to more chats and more stories.  If you’re interested in reading P&P fan fiction but uneasy about the sexuality:  there are plenty of stories without overt sexuality; some focus on the characters as a married couple; casual sex is utterly alien to Darcy and Lizzy; and, the vast majority of R-rated stories are accessible only to members of the particular websites.

Pride and Prejudice
(Special Edition) DVD

Pride and Prejudice

Author: JANE AUSTEN

Pride and Prejudice:

The Original Soundtrack from the A&E Special Presentation