I’ve had a career as a journalist, and I write crime novels, and I’ve always loved Jane Austen. But when I was approached to work on a book titled, What Jane Austen Didn’t Tell Us! The Backstories of Seventeen Characters in Pride and Prejudice, I hesitated, knowing that I wasn’t entirely in love with researching other periods—especially since everything about Austen merits exhaustive examination by experts. But the project was very attractive to me, because it was an opportunity to crystallize who the Pride and Prejudice characters were before the novel began.
Aha! It’s a mystery, I thought—and one that had the wonderful allure of allowing me to write about a male character I’ve loved most of my life: Fitzwilliam Darcy. I read Pride and Prejudice when I was nine years old, and it was at this vulnerable age that I first considered that a smart and sassy girl could get her way with a mean and powerful male and completely tame him.
Wow! How did Lizzy do it? Well, she was pretty, and she always said what was on her mind.
So Lizzy became my role model. As for sassy, my mother exclaimed often that I was a bundle of trouble, always asking questions that weren’t nice. Sometimes she sounded like Mrs. Bennet.
What would become of me, my mother often lamented. It helped when I learned how to cook and sew easily—but when I hid out at the library to sneak a look at Lady Chatterley’s Lover, she warned me that I might be on my way to hell.
As I became a young woman, I learned that when it comes to romantic love, a lot of unhappiness occurs. It was in the headlines and in books and films—impossible to avoid. Because of this, I’d often reread Pride and Prejudice to remember Darcy.
Why did I adore the man? He’s introduced as a haughty snob, mean to Lizzy, and arrogant to everybody. But in the end, Lizzy’s high-spirited ways crack his unpleasant armor.
When I was cowriting the Darcy character for What Jane Austen Didn’t Tell Us!, I meditated a great deal on what was really going on with Darcy in the early pages of Pride and Prejudice. What was in his heart and his soul? What was his secret that Austen didn’t tell us?
My answer came in a dream: his heart had been torn to shreds by tragedy. Of course, this might be considered a transformation for Austen’s character. Yet the image stayed with me as I spent days rereading Pride and Prejudice and marking down the scenes where Darcy is surprisingly sensitive to others, especially to people in trouble.
What was Austen truly saying? Was this love story actually a revolutionary tale of how the middle classes and the upper classes could bond? Or was it simply the formula for all great love stories: people at opposite ends of society falling for each other?
That’s when I decided to simply follow my subconscious, as I usually did with my work, and invent a past that gives Darcy a valid reason to be the snob he is at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice. Austen would be proud, I told myself. But then I panicked. Would she be annoyed that I’d dared interfere with the obvious portrayal of Darcy as an arrogant fellow?
In my crime novels, I always try to explain the killer’s motives to show him or her as a human being. But that doesn’t mean I soft-soap the crime. In my Darcy backstory, I did the same: I created the inner self of an outwardly arrogant man.
If Austen were alive, she might not forgive me—but then she might. Because it’s obvious in Pride and Prejudice that she adores Darcy as much as I do.
As for Austen readers, I hope they will understand how an early lost love would have affected a proud young man like Darcy. And they might also understand why Austen’s truthful and courageous Lizzy could open his heart again—but, then again, maybe they wouldn’t.
Above all, most Austen fans are devoted to the Pride and Prejudice that exists in their heads. They invent their own dialogues and relationships with Darcy. Some hate him. Some assume he will make Lizzie’s life miserable. And some will offer very passionate opinions of my daring to offer a suggestion about a character created by Austen. But for readers who enjoy my Darcy, I can share that writing about him was like seeing an old friend who will always be there for me.
Rosemary Santini cowrote What Jane Austen Didn’t Tell Us! The Backstories of Seventeen Characters in Pride and Prejudice (2017).