Recently, a friend attributed my love of Pride and Prejudice to the appeal of a soaking wet Colin Firth emerging from a lake. Heaven knows in the 20 years since it aired it's remained one of the iconic heart throb moments and caused millions to swoon.
I. Think. Not.
I hate that scene. It's one of my most loathed scenes on telly. More than the time Gordon Ramsay tricked a vegetarian into eating pizza with bacon and boasted about it, more than any appearance by Jeremy Clarkson. Even more than John Selwyn-Gummer shoving a burger into his little girl's face during the BSE crisis. Allow me to explain.
I love Colin Firth. I think he's marvellous - very talented, extremely attractive and charming. I've seen Fever Pitch more times than I can remember and pretty much every film he's made since. Although singing in Mamma Mia wasn't one of his better moments...
In no way whatsoever is Colin Firth responsible for that dreadful scene. It's entirely the fault of Andrew Davies, the ferociously successful TV writer. He wanted to sex up the dry and proper Mr Darcy for modern audiences so he had him partially disrobe and plunge into the water, emerging all tousled and hunky.
That's attractive and all, if it weren't for the fact that I know Fitzwilliam Darcy. I know him pretty well; I've spent countless hours with him. I read P&P at least twice a year. What he looks like is pretty fluid and the nuances of his motivation I'm happy to let others play with, but at his heart I know him. I know his faults and his strength and I love him for them.
Mr Darcy is a very proper young man. He, like another of Jane Austen's heroes Mr Knightly, believes in honour, dignity, duty and being a gentleman. He is proper in the old-fashioned sense. Darcy is intensely private and reserved - rather shy really, retreating into stiffness when confronted with the unfamiliar.
His reversal in behaviour comes when Elizabeth forces him to recognise that his sense of self-worth has lead him to behave with arrogance, valuing his consequence above all else. It's awful realising you're in the wrong. He is hurt and but once his temper cools he realises the truth in her accusation. So when he sees her in the grounds of Pemberley he wants to prove her wrong, to be welcoming. Gracious even. "Look how wrong you were about me, I am a true gentleman" which progresses into "I realised you were right, so I've fixed it."
That meeting is both awkward and touching - both characters discomfited, neither quite knowing what to do, and aware of a change in themselves they can't yet let the other know of. I love it. It's perfectly written just as it is.
Darcy wouldn't plunge himself into a lake on his way home unless her were actually aflame. Even then he'd be more likely to take the offending jacket off and throw it to the ground. He's not the impulsive, physical type. Andrew Davies wanted to make him more appealing to a modern viewer by showing a relaxed, unguarded man indulging in a relief from a stuffy day. In a different character I'd have liked it - hell, as a human, heterosexual woman I like it, but I absolutely loathe that he did that to Darcy. Davies rewrote him to sex it up a bit, and that re-write became the image of Mr Darcy in popular culture. Andrew Davies deserves a slap with a kipper.
Incidentally, Matthew Macfadyen's Darcy works well for me - again, there's a modern slant as you see more vulnerability, but it's emotionally and psychologically consistent with the Darcy Jane Austen wrote. Nice work, Deborah Moggach (except for the ghastly scene added for American audiences that I've done my best to blot from memory.) It helps that Matthew Macfadyen is utterly lovely.
I know my fixation with some of my literary heroes can make me a cussed thing - I refuse to watch Life of Pi because the book in my head is so perfect. (This drives Luke crazy. ) I am happy with my images from the author's words and don't want them supplanted by someone else's vision.
I wouldn't watch To Kill A Mockingbird until I was in my 30s because Gregory Peck plainly isn't Atticus Finch. Gregory Peck is about as handsome, authoritative and charming as a man can be, and an absolute idol. Atticus is older, thin, with fading eyesight, thinning hair and a tendency to stoop, and he can't play ballgames like the other kids' dads. He isn't a fine figure of a man but he's a very fine man indeed.
Anne Shirley, Gilbert Blythe, Laura Ingalls, Scout and Atticus, Charlotte and Wilbur, Lizzie Bennett and Darcy, Elinor Dashwood, Dorothea Brooke, The Grand Sophy and so many others have been amongst my dearest and most cherished friends for years. I want to share them with the world, buy copies for my friends' children, revisit them regularly.
I don't need to shove them in a lake to see their appeal.