September 30, 2004

Silly Poll of the Day

Posted by Ed

I'm not terribly familiar with the Orange Prize for Fiction, a literary award open only to women, but I do know one thing about it: the organization that awards it loves to conduct frivolous opinion polls. Earlier this year, the prize's organizers ran a poll of 1900 British women to find out which fictional character they'd most like to go on a date with or invite to a party. Fitzwilliam Darcy, from Austen's Pride and Prejudice, came in first in each poll.

I was first alerted to this story by an article in The Guardian, in which a writer named Cherry Potter questions the wisdom of this choice. Would you really want to invite Darcy to dinner, after all? As Potter points out, "surely Mr Darcy would spend the evening either gazing at the ceiling grunting with boredom or glowering at the guests." But the article focuses most of its attention on Darcy's success in the first poll question, about potential dates:

Of course, Austen's novel betrays nothing of Darcy's actual sexuality or lack of it. Apart from being subject to the obvious restrictions of a female writer in Regency times, she may also have realised that the best sex scenes reside in the secret imagination of her readers. But what she does provide is a perfect blank screen on to which Darcy's admirers, by identifying with Elizabeth Bennet, can project that most archetypal of all female fantasies - that they will be the one and only woman to discover the key to unlocking a man's tortured soul, thus setting free his hidden passions.

It's natural that such a fantasy held sway over women two centuries ago. When society was deeply patriarchal, men like Darcy really were severe, remote and all-powerful - in the novel, Darcy even describes himself as "selfish and overbearing". Women were separated from men by all sorts of formal conventions which left them little opportunity to get to know men until after they were married. The question is, why does Darcy continue to have a compelling hold over women, particularly educated literary feminist women, in the 21st century?

Here is the rub - Austen leaves us to assume that her heroine's marriages are happy despite portraying very few idyllic marriages in the rest of her texts. Also, Austen's deification as a novelist is such that one hardly dares to point out that when it comes to marriage and what goes on behind the bedroom door, she herself had no first-hand experience. But as modern women with our wealth of relationship experience and all the benefits brought about by feminism, we should know better. The fact is that dark, smouldering, moody, charismatic, arrogant Darcy types, whom we hate at first sight and then later find ourselves falling in love with, often - particularly after we have married them - turn out to be rigid, dominating and controlling.

Potter's article isn't the most profound, but there's some amusing stuff in it--and it's undoubtedly more serious an article than the poll deserved.

In case you're curious, here are some more detailed poll results. When asked which fictional character they'd most like to go on a date with, women provided these ten answers most frequently:

1. Mr Darcy
2. James Bond
3. Superman
4. Hercule Poirot
5. Inspector Morse
6. Heathcliffe
7. Sherlock Holmes
8. Rhett Butler
9. Prince Charming
10. Sharpe

There's an obvious lesson in this: if you're a British man desperate for a date, become a detective. (Poirot, Morse, and Holmes all did well in the poll.) Or, failing that, become a superhero or a secret agent.

The second poll question asked 1900 women to name three fictional characters they'd invite to an imaginary dinner party. Here are the most popular answers:

1. Mr Darcy
2. Hercule Poirot
3. Sherlock Holmes
4. James Bond
5. Miss Marple
6. Bridget Jones
7. Jane Eyre
8. Inspector Morse
9. Gandalf
10. Elizabeth Bennett

I'll refrain from commenting on this question, except to say that Gandalf--while surely a charming guest--wouldn't be the most delightful Middle Earth resident to invite to dinner. Besides, he might bring 13 dwarves with him, and that could lead to all sorts of problems!

Posted by Ed at September 30, 2004 01:01 PM

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