It is a truth universally acknowledged that no discussion about literary boyfriends could keep the elusive Mr. Darcy off the list. Whether you’ve read the book (I have, multiple times) or seen one of the various movies (Colin Firth’s Darcy arguably being the definitive model), Mr. Darcy is that one guy that you hate to love but you love him all the same.
Once again, spoilers abound. Consider yourself alerted.
For anyone who might be unfamiliar with Pride and Prejudice (shame on you!), Mr. Darcy is the proud best friend of an easily swayed wealthy bachelor (Mr. Bingley) who falls in love with a poor country girl (Jane). Of course, Mr. Darcy—being even richer than his friend—disapproves, earning him—among other things—the disdain of our heroine, Miss Elizabeth Bennett, Jane’s younger sister. The back and forth between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy is what gives this novel its bite, and it’s not much of a spoiler to say that it isn’t about whether Elizabeth and Darcy get together but how they do so.
In the opposite corner, wearing far less emotional armor and much more self-deprecating humor, is Mr. Knightley, the brother-in-law of one Emma Woodhouse, the meddling protagonist of the epynomous Emma. Which brings to the fore a key point about this match-up: the women involved.
Austen is a stellar writer of manners, but she doesn’t write flawless heroines. Elizabeth’s prejudice is so thick that it gets in the way of her self interest. In an unhappy version of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth might have ended up much like another profoundly flawed Austen heroine, Marianne Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility), who nearly dies—quite literally—of a broken heart. When Elizabeth first learns of Darcy’s love for her, she spurns him; this despite the fact that he holds almost her entire family’s future happiness in the palm of his hand. Austen’s point is that Darcy subsequently does all the right things because he truly has changed, but as smart as Elizabeth is, she should never have risked losing his favor simply because she didn’t like him (particularly considering she had already refused to marry her cousin, a man who was both ridiculous and unlikeable; Darcy, on the other hand, is among the most respected men in all of England).
Of all Austen’s literary women, however, perhaps none is more insidious than Emma, a woman whose standing in life allows her the ability to be as proud and condescending as Darcy but with none of his logic, poise or sense. It is only Mr. Knightley, among all her friends and acquaintances, who is able to “tame this shrew,” as it were, helping her to become a truly better woman worthy of her riches and good fortune.
Elizabeth, despite her shortsighted prejudices, is a truly magnanimous and loving character. She wants nothing more than for her sister to be happy in love, and even her initial refusal of Darcy is due to the fact that she is not a gold digger; she won’t say yes to a man she doesn’t like simply because he’s wealthy (not to mention her jilted sister’s ex’s best friend… a few womanly wiles could have persuaded Darcy to help patch things up between Jane and Bingley).
Thus, in the end, this battle comes down not to the suitor, but to the woman he loves. Darcy cannot bring himself to love the beguiling Elizabeth until he goes through wholesale rejection and is forced to change who he is for this amazing woman he’s spent two-thirds of the book trying to shame (a less stalwart woman of that time would have been done in by his demerits). On the other hand, Knightley sticks with a girl who needs a lot of improvement to become even likeable. He doesn’t cast her aside, but challenges her to be the woman he sees her capable of becoming. He loves her despite her flaws, whereas Darcy just comes to accept that Elizabeth’s flaws (and that of her family) can be overcome because of his love for her.
In a modern world, I’d guess that Elizabeth’s family would eventually become a cause for the two to divorce, whereas, well, Emma and Knightley already are family. Weird brotherly vibes aside (in Austen’s age, marrying a cousin was common, and Knightley and Emma aren’t blood relatives), this round goes to the Austen hero who needs no adjustments.
Mr. Knightley defeats Mr. Darcy in a first-round upset.