Mr Darcy’s reputation as romantic hero trashed at Cheltenham literature festival

Writer Dolly Alderton says the ‘conceited’ Jane Austen character invented negging

Mr Darcy is not the dashing, romantic hero some people might fondly imagine. He is a probably ugly, conceited, rude, humourless snob who has had a dangerous effect on dating culture which lingers to the present day.

The reputation of Jane Austen’s hero from Pride and Prejudice was thoroughly and comprehensively trashed at the Cheltenham literature festival on Sunday.

Forget Colin Firth emerging glistening from a lake. “Him being held up as a romantic hero is a myth which has had a really insidious ripple effect on dating culture right up until now,” said the writer and podcaster Dolly Alderton.

She said it was Darcy who first came up with ‘negging’, a phrase which has caught on after being coined by the American writer Neil Strauss in his book The Game: Penetrating The Secret Society of Pick-Up Artists.

Negging is the act of emotional manipulation whereby a person makes a deliberate backhanded compliment, or flirtatious remark, to undermine someone’s confidence and increase the need for approval.

So a man might come up to Alderton afterwards and say, “Oh, you were quite good because normally women aren’t that funny”.

Alderton quoted from Pride and Prejudice where Darcy says of Elizabeth Bennet, in earshot, “she is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.”

She said many women had a kind of Stockholm syndrome to the character. “When you Google Mr Darcy there are so many female apologists for his behaviour.” So many say he is just shy. “Women are so, so keen to preserve the romantic mysticism of Mr Darcy.”

Author Jane Austen.
Author Jane Austen. Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex Features

There was no excuse for his ghastly behaviour to Elizabeth, Alderton said; he was a “conceited, bullish and rude snob who, as my fellow millennials would say, needs to check his privilege”.

One way of reading the book is that Elizabeth cracks Darcy, love prevails. It was a dangerous message, said Alderton. “The idea that a man is there to be cracked or is hard to get or something to be won I think is very, very damaging. It should not be that difficult. Elizabeth is the prize to be won.”

He probably was not good-looking, either – less handsome Firth and more “powdery grey hair, pink face and short, with fat calves”.

Alderton was joined in her condemnation of Darcy by the novelist Sebastian Faulks who suggested Darcy may have been clinically depressed, but that did not excuse him.

“He is a manipulative, hypocritical, self-centred depressive, aware of some of his faults but unapologetic for them, because he is bound by arrogance to ignore them.”

The writers were taking part in an entertaining session asking the question Heathcliff versus Darcy: Who is the Bigger Shit?

On the opposing side were novelists Sarah Moss and Philip Hensher. Moss said it was obvious that a man who hanged dogs, beat up old women and imprisoned young women was more of a shit.

Hensher meanwhile argued that Darcy was not a shit, but an “arsehole” and there was an important difference. An arsehole parks in the parking space for a disabled person at Waitrose. A shit sees a disabled person driving into the space and overtakes them to get it.

Democracy was called on and a show of hands from the 1,400 people present ruled that the biggest shit is Heathcliff.


Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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