Jane Austen has been busy lately. In the last decade or so, full-length feature films have been made of ‘Emma’ (twice), ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and, this year (2005), ‘Pride and Prejudice’. There was already a ‘Pride and Prejudice’ firmly embedded in the nation’s hearts, the recent TV adaptation starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, and those with memories as long as mine can remember an early-70s BBC TV series of ‘Emma’ starring Doran Godwin. We have also had one ‘Persuasion’ and one ‘Mansfield Park’. What a pity the lady didn’t write more.
Of all Miss Austen’s oeuvre, I would guess that ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Emma’ are the most consistently popular—especially with females. On a recent and rare visit to the cinema to see the new ‘P & P’, I estimate I was the only male in a fairly well packed house. The main attraction of ‘P & P’ is said to be the personality of Mr Darcy. To get Darcy “right” is considered an achievement. By all accounts Colin Firth pulled it off, the new chap didn’t—quite, though he took a good shot at it.
By contrast, the main attraction in ‘Emma’ is Emma herself, particularly the contradictions and indulgences in her character (usually kindly meant) which lead her into error. She is then taken in hand—there is no other term for it—by Mr Knightley, who in many respects is Mr Darcy’s literary double. Mr Knightley in fact conforms almost ideally to the Taken In Hand archetype male (willing to administer discipline as well as love, wears riding boots etc.) whereas poor Darcy, utterly crushed by Elizabeth’s initial rejection, made to feel his own faults keenly and to acknowledge them openly, is a seething mass of wimpish complexities by comparison. He accepts the pain she dishes out and benefits from it. How Takeninhand is that?
Far more Taken In Hand is the verbal spanking (“Badly done, Emma! Badly done indeed!”) Knightley hands out after the Miss Bates episode on Box Hill. This is probably the most “alpha” speech Miss Austen gives to any of her leading males and yet Knightley remains totally uninteresting. Alongside Darcy, he is a cardboard construct.
Darcy is ten times more attractive a leading male than Knightley, in film, TV and book. The latter is a prig, brooding judgmentally on the sidelines. Darcy does his share of brooding, admittedly, and certainly he is judgmental. But he is also wrong with a capital R, about Elizabeth and her family (though not, as it turns out, about Wickham). Taken In Hand men are seldom wrong, least of all as spectacularly as this. Putting matters right (as Darcy generously does) is the act of a gentleman, but not necessarily of a Taken In Hand chap.
So if there is a literary message to be drawn from the pen of England’s most beloved novelist, it is that the Ideal Taken In Hand man may not exist —and if he does, he is as liable as Knightley to be a humourless, critical martinet. He will be No Fun. Real men are surely more interesting than that—and more fun. They have their complexities too, and sometimes they even need to make mistakes and be slapped down for them, because this is something everybody requires from time to time. This is what happens to Mr Darcy, one of the most romantic male heroes in fiction, and it hardly seems to diminish his appeal. Perhaps the definition of the ideal Taken In Hand male is subconsciously broader than anyone thinks?