Listen, can we talk about something crazy for a moment? I want to talk about how I approach the mental state of my favorite Austen characters – specifically Pride and Prejudice’s Darcy, Elizabeth and Lydia. Now before you tag or @ me on Instagram, I’m not going down into a discussion about neurodiversity and classical characters. There’s a big debate around the inter-webs about whether Darcy (and Mr. Bennet, and Lydia, and Lady Catherine – basically everyone but Elizabeth) is some kind of neurodivergent. There are also quite a few people out there who say we should not diagnose fictional characters with neurodivergent disorders who were not intended by the original author to be diagnosed with such a disorder (Don’t ‘diagnose’ fictional characters by: Shirley Dent, The Guardian).
I am not going to try to enter into the discussion about how people with various diagnoses relate to the characters in any book. I will say that I fully support other readers and authors taking classic characters with relatable traits and exploring how those characters might have been living with similar challenges to people today. Anyone taking a moment to feel seen and represented in literature is a beautiful thing to me.
What I want to talk about is a bit more generally relatable – age, responsibility and maturity.
In Jane Austen’s original book, Elizabeth is 20/21 years old, Darcy is 27/28 and please, let us not forget, Lydia is 16!
Now, it’s been a few years since I was any classification of “young.” I’m afraid that I’m fully Cheugy, as the kids today say. But I definitely remember being 21 years old. Do you remember being that young? If you could talk to 21-year-old E.M., she’d say she was an adult and ready to make her own decisions, but in reality, I shouldn’t have been allowed to decide what I had for breakfast at 21. Somehow, I have survived my 30s, nearly 40, without too many massive mistakes to haunt my Google search history. However, I think that has more to do with my overachieving anxiety ridden personality than any real forethought in my 20s.
In most popular images, Darcy, Elizabeth and Lydia look like this:
And we move that image into today, giving them the characteristics, and holding them to the standards, of people much older. Even in a lot of modern adaptations that I’ve read – and LOVED! – the characters have a lot of maturity for their ages.
In reality (or in my head) they should look more like this:
BTW – I highly identify with the girl in the black top on the right of the first picture.
I believe that we forget how the standards of Austen’s time, more than 200 years ago now, informed the actions of the characters. At 22, an unmarried woman could be considered “on the shelf” and many women married, and gave birth to their first child, before their 20th birthday. Today there’s a whole shame culture dedicated to teenaged moms.
But just because in the Regency era young people were expected to take on adult responsibilities earlier in life, that doesn’t change the development of the human brain. People 200 years ago were not somehow more developmentally mature at 21 than we are today. Their frontal lobes developed just as slowly in 1811 as they do today (Brain Maturity Extends Well Beyond Teen Years).
So how does this color the depictions of Austen’s characters in my variation novels?
Let’s start with the easiest – Lydia. At 16 she is old enough to know the difference between right and wrong, but she’s also a high energy teenager without much parental attention or guidance. In my opinion, she is not really responsible for anything that happens to her. She should have been protected, not thrown to wolves. (Sidebar – Wickham was supposed to be the same age as Darcy, so 27ish, and he’s sniffing around girls who are 15 and 16. Today he’d be in jail!) Personally, I like to give Lydia a redemption arc from the Wickham debacle. I’m also really into stories that save her all together. When someone in the story decides to be an adult and protect the child from a sexual predator – that’s my jam 😊
Next is Elizabeth. She is an obstinate, headstrong girl with strong opinions and stubbornly trusts only herself and her own opinions. This checks out with being a little bit immature. Going with your first impression and resisting change, even when people you usually trust (like Charlotte, Aunt Gardiner and Jane) caution against such a staunch dislike for one man and a pointed preference for the other, reeks of someone who has never faced their own fallibility. This is the ultimate problem for Elizabeth to overcome – no great insight there, it’s literally in the name of the book (Darcy has to overcome Pride, Elizabeth has to overcome Prejudice – again, don’t @ me, I will die on this sword).
But it also speaks to a deeper character trait that in my variations manifest in being pigheaded about other things. I’ve gotten a lot of push back from beta’s about how hard I harp on this flaw. Specifically, in my newest book set to launch in April 2023, I’ve reversed their interaction during the Meryton Assembly Ball. Darcy and Elizabeth become friends from the beginning. However, it’s still a medium-high angst level story because Elizabeth has to learn to trust someone other than herself. If she doesn’t, they can’t really have the best happily-ever-after.
Now for the hardest character to talk about, Darcy. As mentioned above, there is a hearty debate about Darcy’s neuro-typical or neurodivergent status. I have no authority to say that he is or is not on the autism spectrum, so I won’t. What I will say, and I think this is unobjectionable, is that he is an extremely introverted person with social anxiety.
Does that excuse his actions in regard to his rudeness? No, it doesn’t.
But what about the rudeness of the Hertfordshire matrons gossiping about his annual income at indecorous volume “within five minutes after his entrance” to the Meryton Assembly? Is his reaction to their society so surprising?
For someone who is used to being treated like a piece of meat, like a prize to be won, by women and men, a bit of haughty distain is understandable. Darcy’s situation, and his reaction, brings to mind the way women today getting cat-called on the street (10 Hours Walking in NYC as a Woman). It’s embarrassing and frustrating, and sometimes it’s frightening. The prevailing advice today is to put on a disinterested face, and don’t engage.
Maybe Darcy was just a feminist ahead of his time 😊 (but that’s a whole different post).
Something else that I think is important when writing Darcy is to remember how much responsibility has been thrust upon him at such a young age. While it’s not explicitly stated in the original text, the prevailing theory is that Lady Anne Darcy died giving birth to Georgiana or in the years shortly thereafter. So, Darcy lost his mother somewhere between the ages of 12 and 16. It’s probably more on the young end because if Lady Anne had made it to Darcy’s later teen years, the issue of a formal engagement with Anne de Bourgh, as Lady Catherine declares was the “favourite wish” of both mothers, probably would have been settled. We also know that Darcy’s father died about five years before the events in the original book based on what Wickham tells Elizabeth. So, Darcy was 22/23 and Georgiana was 10/11 when their father died.
Losing a parent always hurts, but to be truly orphaned at 22 plus having to also take on the responsibility for the large family business and a grieving 10-year-old child, that is horrible. He had the whole responsibility of hundreds of people who rely on Pemberley for their livelihood, his sister, a legacy that stretches back hundreds of years, the expectations of the ton, pressures from his relations, … Should I go on?
Combined with his shy demeanor, social anxiety, and the pressure of being pursued constantly by mothers (and fathers) looking for advantageous marriages for their daughters, well, he’s probably got a lot of feelings and trauma bottled up inside.
How do I deal with this anxious traumatized Darcy? Well, everyone needs a place where they can be free to let their emotions come out. My Darcy always finds an outlet for his innermost thoughts, be that his journal, conversations with Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam or Charles Bingley, and sometimes Georgiana. A place where he can be less exact in his speech, less regulated in his thoughts and say that which he would not say in company. I’m also working on a story with a time travel element and finding a lot of personal satisfaction in giving Darcy freedom to talk to the original character that has come from the future and therefore is somewhat above the societal constraints of 1811. It’s a lot of fun.
I also see Darcy as someone desperately looking for a partner to alleviate the burden of making all these decisions alone.
In my head-con, that is the real reason he is so attracted to Elizabeth in the first place. She represents a woman who would not add to his responsibilities to care for her and lord over her as many men did in his time. Elizabeth is a woman capable of taking care of herself and intelligent enough to even take on some of Darcy’s burdens.
Ultimately for me, the heart is never the issue with my Darcy-Elizabeth HEAs, it’s always the head. I am always looking for the partnership and how each can help the other overcome the immature habits so ingrained into their respective personalities.
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