Professor Bhaer vs. Mr. Darcy

A friend of mine tagged me on Facebook in a post that linked to a blog which urges readers to “Stop Romanticizing Mr. Darcy When There are Way Better Options in Literature.” She asked what I thought, but as I started to reply, I realized this is not a FB reply; this is a blog post.

First of all, there are many wonderful options of leading men in literature. Mr. Darcy is not our only option. Clare Church, the blogger, argues for Professor Bhaer from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and also argues that Mr. Darcy, while changed by Lizzy, is a wealthy control freak. (Okay, those aren’t her words, but that’s the gist.)

Oh I think think that’s a bit ridiculous and biased. I do think Jo and Bhaer are a great couple, but comparing them to Lizzy and Darcy is apples to oranges.

Professor Bhaer is kind and comforting, like a teddy bear. (Sound out his name; that’s not a coincidence.) He is hard-working and loves children. What’s not to love about that? He supports Jo and her work fully. That’s lovable too. There is no argument that a man like Professor Bhaer would make a wonderful spouse. But as Church herself admits, he’s not “swoon-worthy.” Then again, many (most?) real-life, good men aren’t as well. We could do a lot worse than end up with a Professor Bhaer. I agree with Church that he is a worthy candidate for a significant-other model.

However, the characterization in Church’s post of both Lizzy and Darcy is too one-sided and misses the point of the novel, IMHO. Darcy changes because someone (Lizzy) finally has the gumption to tell him to his face that his manners are rude. He is forced to reconsider himself. As he begins his change, he has no hopes of gaining Lizzy’s hand; rather, he sees a disconnect between his own conception of his manners and how others view him. He aims to repair that. First, he sets the record straight with his letter, but he does not only defend himself, he also acknowledges that his assumptions about Jane must have been wrong because Lizzy knows her better than he. He later puts those assumptions to the test by visiting the Bennetts with Bingley to observe Jane’s interaction with him. He hears, acts, and learns. His attitude changes not only in respect to Lizzy, in fact at this point he does not think Lizzy will have him, but also in respect to Bingley, the Gardiners, and even Wickham. Darcy admits his faults and acts in a different manner than before in order to not repeat them.

In her post, Church quotes Chiara Atik saying “that it’s only the women in Darcy’s life ‘who are able to bring out this more personable and caring side.’” However, this is not really true. It is only the women who are their real selves around him who “‘bring out this more personable and caring side'” of him. Miss Bingley certainly does not, nor Mrs. Hurst, and they are of his circle. Elizabeth does because she does not kowtow; she speaks her mind. Georgiana does because of her innate simplicity and sweetness. Miss Bingley speaks to him as she imagines he wishes to be spoken to rather than with any real interest or understanding, and he does not respond to her artifice.

Furthermore, Church argues that Lizzy merely needs Darcy while Jo wants Bhaer. I challenge this assertion also. Yes, Darcy is the one with the money in the relationship, and Lizzy does not have her own career as Jo does, but Lizzy does want Darcy. In fact, she turns down an offer of marriage which would offer her stability, respectability, and the family home because she does not love Mr. Collins (who could?). Her need and her family’s need does not outweigh her desire to love and respect the man she marries. Lizzy lives in a time women’s dependence on men, but she manages to find a man not only wealthy, but who is worthy of her love and respect. Her father warns her not to marry a man she cannot respect, but the warning is unneeded. Had she merely been in need of a husband, Collins would do; rather, she desires a relationship which is why he does not suit.

Is Darcy intolerable at the beginning of the novel? Yes. Does he let his pride get the better of him? Yes. But we all have moments like that, don’t we? But if we learn from them and make amends when we can, are we not worthy of a second chance? Darcy hears Elizabeth and turns to introspection, concluding, “I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle…By you I was properly humbled…you showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.” (Austen) And if truth be told, it is not the bad-boy-to-good-boy change that I find swoon-worthy, but the Darcy he becomes. I romanticize the Darcy at the end of the novel and find no need to look for someone to change into him.

Mr. Darcy

A quick post-script here about the brief references to Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff in Church’s post. If Bhaer and Darcy are apples and oranges, Rochester and Heathcliff are figs and kumquats. Perhaps I will explore their just desserts in the panoply of romantic heroes in literature in future posts. Just know that they do not hold a candle to Darcy or Bhaer.

 

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Thomas Merton Exhibit

Yesterday, my friend Gerri and I went to a small show of 22 photographs taken by Thomas Merton, the late Trappist monk who was a poet, philosopher, author, social activist, and, apparently, a photographer. The photos are displayed in a chapel at Union Theological Seminary on 121st Street and Broadway. If you are so inclined between today and Friday, it is well worth a half hour of your time to view the photographs that at once display both the clarity of defined edges and the depth boundless meaning and focus our eyes on what we may have missed in ordinary objects. The curator paired each photo with a line or two from Merton’s writings, some hitting the mark perfectly, others less sp, but all still contemplative.

And Union Theological not only offers the photographs a meditative space in an English Gothic revivalist chapel replete with stained glass windows reminiscent early Anglican churches, but also an interior courtyard through which one passes to reach the chapel of Old English (or even Hogwartsian) beauty. And quiet. There in Manhattan, in the hustle bustle of Columbia University, there is peace.

Go if you can. Be inspired.