Pride and Prejudice is, in many ways, one of three ‘parents’ of the modern romantic comedy, alongside It Happened One Night and When Harry Met Sally. So much of the structure of the traditional romcom borrows from Jane Austen’s 1813 novel that it might seem like there’s nothing left to mine more than two centuries later. And yet, most romance filmmakers leave some incredibly important lessons on the table.
One of the most important lessons is one that I think (mostly male) filmmakers struggle with frequently: Consent.
You know the scene. Noah emotionally blackmails Allie for a date in The Notebook by threatening suicide. Edward sneaks into Bella’s room at night to watch her sleep without her knowing in Twilight. Dean just straight up kidnapping amnesiac Joanna in Overboard. Jake ‘gives’ his passed-out-drunk girlfriend to Ted in exchange for another girl’s underwear in Sixteen Candles. Barney Stinson constantly lies about his identity and plies women with drinks, doing anything to get them in bed in How I Met Your Mother. Lloyd Dobler gets dumped and, after his friends tell him to ‘be a man’, shows up at his ex’s house in the middle of the night to blast Peter Gabriel on a boombox as a sign of his continued devotion. Uh… literally the whole plot of There’s Something About Mary, basically.
There are a hundred more examples or more, some of which take the trope from psychological abuse into outright sexual assault (particularly in the 80’s; the 80’s were awful). If love conquers all, then anything and everything is fair game to get to that happy ending, and the romance genre knows it. Lionizing men who are so passionate for you that they simply won’t take no for an answer is such a common trope that satirical paper the Onion has written about it, TV Tropes has multiple pages on it, and psychologists have researched its effects. It’s been part of the genre for nearly as long as the genre itself has existed.
I often see Mr. Darcy, the restrained romantic hero of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, listed as an inspiration or at least an example of this trope. After all, he vigorously pursues Elizabeth, and even after she rejects him thoroughly, they still end up back together. Darcy is precisely the sort of strong-willed, handsome, wealthy man that this trope is often trying to emulate, that it just feels right to add him to that list.
Except, well, the story doesn’t agree with that reading.
When Darcy asks Elizabeth to marry him, she says no. Austen had built to the moment perfectly – Elizabeth has been plied with horror stories about Darcy’s past by Wickham throughout the book, and Darcy has acted uncouth enough for us to easily believe them to be true. And Darcy’s proposal is littered with class issues, comments on Elizabeth’s family that, while true, are also considerably mean. Elizabeth rejects him… and the first-time viewer is far from heartbroken about this. She turned down incredible wealth and a loveless marriage. While much of this is later reversed by revelations on Darcy’s past and Wickham’s morals – and Elizabeth’s unwillingness to look beneath the surface – the book gives Elizabeth (and readers/viewers) time process her feelings about Darcy. Even after she learns the truth, it still takes her some time to consider her feelings about him.
More importantly, however, when Elizabeth says no to Darcy, he accepts it completely and they move on. He treats her with respect, and does not attempt to seduce her or push his case – while he has strong feelings, Elizabeth’s are less certain, and he respects that. Even after they reunite in a friendly way, Darcy waits to pursue her romantically until after Elizabeth expresses a clear signal of interest through Lady Catherine de Bourgh before he makes his move. Darcy never pursues or harangues, he doesn’t try to seduce. He merely waits for Elizabeth to understand what she wants.
Because perhaps the sexiest thing about Mr. Darcy is that he is a man who will take no for an answer.
Romance and romcom writers and directors have mined Pride & Prejudice for a hundred lessons on structure, dialogue, and character, but somehow, few of them as as progressive in their gender politics as Austen’s 200-year-old novel.
Pride & Prejudice was initially published in 1813. Written by Jane Austen, the now-iconic story has been adapted for film and television multiple times, most notably as a 1995 BBC miniseries starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, a 2005 prestige drama starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen, and a 2004 Bollywood musical called Bride & Prejudice.