Get down and party with Mr Darcy

down to Darcy's wet shirt, says Liz Hunt

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man possessed of good fortune who emerges from a lake clothed in tight white breeches and a frilly shirt must have a lasting impact on the female psyche.

Nine months after Mr Darcy glowered meaningfully at Lizzy Bennet for the last time in BBC 1's adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Darcy mania shows no sign of abating. Indeed, it is finding new and unexpected outlets, from Darcy Parties, Darcy Weekends, and Darcy Walks to Pride and Prejudice Balls, as women deprived of their weekly fix and overdosed on the video of the series find ways to satisfy their craving for the proud, moody hero played by Colin Firth.

Tomorrow, the Jane Austen Society celebrates its most successful year at its annual meeting at Chawton Great House in Hampshire, where the author's brother Edward lived. Membership is up by more than 10 per cent on last year, and interest in the novelist's life and works has never been greater. The P&P serialisation, the success of the film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility starring Emma Thompson, and of course the Darcy factor, are responsible.

Purists acknowledge the key role of Fitzwilliam Darcy, in his screen incarnation, in bringing the novels of Jane Austen to a wider audience, but they are reluctant to engage in debate about its implications. Why? "Well, its all about sex, isn't it? And I just don't think she would have liked it," said one.

Instead, 600 or so of the Austen faithful will be listening to Paul Johnson, the historian and right-wing pundit, holding forth on "Jane Austen, Coleridge, and Geopolitics" at their meeting. But Susan McCartan, honorary secretary, takes a more pragmatic view of the debt that the society owes to Darcy mania - and she doesn't mind talking about sex.

"Sexual passion throbs through Austen's novels, particularly P&P, and Persuasion," she enthuses. "Women love the romance because it is largely missing from their everyday lives. Darcy is a gripping character; that initial stand-offishness just makes him more alluring. You've got to get over a few hurdles with this man before you get him.

"It fulfils a deep need in this time of failed relationships," she continues. "It satisfies, in the abstract, that longing women have. They get that little bit of fulfilment from Darcy and they can go back to washing the dishes or whatever."

Deborah Taylor Young, head of staff training at Lloyd's of London, decided to fulfil her need and that of 10 or so good friends by throwing a Darcy party, a new social phenomenon in the capital. Champagne, good wine and delectable food sustained the women through five and a half hours of the P&P video. Her friends were professional women in their thirties and forties. One had travelled from Bournemouth and another from Birmingham for the occasion last week, lured by invitation to "Come and worship Mr Darcy".

The highlight of the occasion is the "wet-shirt" scene or the "Darcy dip", when Lizzy Bennet, on a visit to Darcy's estate at Pemberley, chances on a damp and tousled hero who has just taken a swim in his lake. Another seminal Darcy moment occurs again at Pemberley, when he and Lizzy exchange smouldering looks across the room as she entertains fellow guests on the piano. "That's it, that's when they both just know. It is all so suppressed, so simmering. Sort of physical and spiritual," one devotee says.

The degree of bitchiness levelled at the lead female characters increased with the amount of wine drunk. Jane Bennet has a "thick neck". Lizzy's eyes are just not fine or dark enough. "Perhaps there should have been fewer heaving bosoms and a bit more witty repartee from the girls," is one of the less malicious comments.

In the anti-climactic aftermath of the screening, the women attempt to explain the eternal appeal of P&P. A learned literary discussion soon tails off into an analysis of the appeal of this particular Darcy. "It's your classic Mills & Boon, really, isn't it?" says Ms Taylor Young. "She falls for the wrong man first, but then realises her error and opts for the dark, brooding hero."

Another of the well-documented beneficiaries of Darcy mania has been the National Trust, whose properties feature prominently in the BBC serialisation. Visitors to the sumptuous hall and grounds at Lyme Park in Cheshire, which provided the exterior shots of Pemberley, are up by more than 200 per cent on last year. When Lyme Hall closed to the public for the winter last October, visitors to the grounds were still flooding in, so Vicki Dawson, the property manager, devised the Pemberley Trail, or the "Darcy Walk" as it has been dubbed. The two-mile hike around the estate takes in many of the locations featured in the serial; the spot where Lizzy had her first glimpse of Pemberley; the driveway where she and Darcy exchanged yearning looks as her carriage pulled away, and of course the pond (not a lake) where he took his dip.

The original map for the trail was a handwritten, photocopied affair, costing 10p. By February, when the trust had banked pounds 700 from map sales alone, Ms Dawson decided something a little more formal was needed, and a glossy colour brochure is now available. A map doesn't solve all the problems, however. "We've got three ponds at Lyme Park, so you often come across starry-eyed women standing at the wrong pond. " Ms Dawson says.

One visitor to the house recently found it "seething with teenage girls", and Ms Dawson admits that Darcy is the draw. "Lots of them come inappropriately dressed. They feel as if they are coming to meet Darcy, not to hike around the estate."

But women of all ages have succumbed to Darcy mania. "There were two women here, both the wrong side of 55, and they didn't think they could make it up the hill to the pond. But they wanted to make their pilgrimage, so they left us their names and addresses with instructions to phone their husbands if they weren't back in an hour or so."

The Darcy Weekend, which unlike the Pemberley Trail is not advertised as such by the National Trust, has come about because it allows visits not only to Lyme Park, but also to Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire, used to film the interior shots of Pemberley. Sally Baker, 36, an insurance executive from Horsham, will spend this weekend with two friends reliving their favourite moments from P&P at both houses.

"We all watched it," says Ms Baker. "It was wonderful. I got the video and read the book because I hadn't before. It had everything, didn't it? Mrs Bennet was over the top but Mr Collins [the curate rejected as suitor by Lizzy] really made my skin crawl. And of course there is Darcy ... I'm having a hot flush just talking about him!"

Fundraisers have also been quick to seize on P&P's potential. Last month the first P&P Ball was held at Ashe Park in Steventon, Hampshire, in aid of the Cancer Relief Macmillan Fund, with dancing led by the Bath Minuet Company and the English Quadrille. Jane Austen was a frequent visitor to the house in her twenties.

Deborah Bennett, one of the organisers, says it was an evening to remember. "There was a Darcy table, and a Bennet table, and there were lots of teenagers there, debutantes, who looked so beautiful by candlelight in those Empire Line dresses. And you know how men never want to dance, well they were just enjoying it all so much."

The ball raised more than pounds 70,000, and the idea has caught on. The Grand Assembly Rooms at York will host the next P&P Ball, in October, in aid of the city's St Leonard's Hospice. More than 400 guests are expected. All the members of the P&P cast have been invited.

Susan McCartan believes that Darcy mania will run its course, although two rival adaptations of Emma, one by the BBC and the other by ITV, are likely to sustain Austen fever for some time. She predicts that the Bronte sisters, whose work is receiving close attention from scriptwriters, will replace Jane in the public's affections. But can the psychopathic Heathcliffe or the depressive Mr Rochester, although heroes in the mean and moody mould, really hope to rival Mr Darcy in the hearts of British women?

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