It is a truth universally acknowledged that a hero drenched with water is sexier than a dry one.
Every woman I know has seen the infamous ‘lake scene’ from the 1995 television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, but the deprived minority and any male readers can see it here:
This version of the literary classic set the bar high for the period dramas to come after, especially in terms of romance. Although Darcy is renowned for being a somewhat solemn character, screenwriter Andrew Davies wanted to give the men more presence and more screen time. This involved, to the delight of many and displeasure of an uptight few, actor Colin firth perspiring beautifully whilst fencing, lounging languidly in the bath (and throwing his hair back in fair imitation of a shampoo advert) and of course the aforementioned lake scene.
Whilst some have tried to explain this as Darcy physically punishing, and distracting himself from desires he cannot control, the more practical of us will admit that it is in fact the viewer’s fanaticism over Darcy in the abstract that is being rewarded. Fans of Austen admire the physicality of this Darcy so much that Colin Firth’s depiction is repeatedly voted the favourite in various polls. Many of these same fans would melt if they knew Davies’ original intention was to have Darcy dive into the lake naked! Surely Austen would faint at such brazenness? But what else is to be expected from a writer who gave us some of the more overtly sexualised dramas of the past decade: Tipping the Velvet (BBC, 2002), A Room With A View (ITV, 2007), Fanny Hill (BBC, 2007) and Sense and Sensibility (BBC, 2008) to name a few.
Although Firth almost didn’t take the role, and seems constantly at war with the public opinion of him as the embodiment of one of literature’s greatest-loved heroes, this scene has been paid homage to in several of his later roles. This is made obvious in St. Trinians (Parker, Thompson, 2007), in which he strolls towards ex-love Camilla Fritton having been thrown out a window into a pond and soaked, however, in Love Actually (Curtis, 2003) the reference is more ambiguous. To rescue his writing and save face, his character, Jamie, jumps into the lake while unromantically exclaiming “Right, and now she’ll think I’m a total spaz if I don’t go in too”. And of course who could forget Bridget Jones Diary (Maguire, 2001) and its sequel Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (Kidron, 2004) in which he plays Marc Darcy in a pastiche of his previous role as Mr Darcy. It all gets very confusing and meta from there folks.
But what of the extension of the Pride and prejudice legacy? The 2005 film starring Matthew Macfadyen as Darcy vetoed the lake but gave us another swoon-worthy damp shirt moment in the first proposal scene. But perhaps the most eloquent reference has been in Lost In Austen (ITV, 2008) when a giggling Jemima Rooper asked Elliot Cowan as Mr Darcy to stand in a lake. I can imagine a collective gasp as all the viewers shared in her gratuitous appreciation - “I am having a bit of a strange post-modern moment here”. The phrase bodice-ripper has long been applied to period dramas of the more erotic persuasion, but given this recent bending of authenticity, should we be calling them shirt-drenchers instead?
Some might ask why this particular subject holds sway over large groups of women, is it just a reversal of the male gaze, the female gaze having power over the objectified male body? Although I’m sure it would serve Austen’s criticism of gender inequalities and despite all my pandering towards that conclusion, I think not. This moment, crafted to perfection by Davies and his team, is one of revelation. Darcy is caught at his most vulnerable, all his snobbery and superiority are forgotten in his utter shock at seeing Elizabeth Bennett. She too, having seen him minus all the pomp and circumstance, begins to recognise Darcy’s true self. This scene fits the narrative completely, his state of undress providing a reason why Darcy must excuse himself so abruptly (something left slightly ambiguous in the novel) and perhaps adding a more romantically flirtatious bent to Elizabeth’s later confession that she began to love him “from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.” (* I refuse to imply the ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’, but I give you permission to infer it)
So does being soaking wet make a period drama hero sexier? Damn skippy it does. But the academic and television enthusiast inside me refuses to believe that is the only reason Colin Firth appeared on tv in damp ruffles and britches. After all he did have the option of going naked.