In the latest Bridget Jones book, Mark Darcy, as much a heartthrob as his 18th Century namesake, has been killed off by author Helen Fielding. Even reviewers are dismayed, and fans of this ditsy heroine will feel outright woe. Their loss will never rank with, say, Sherlock Holmes plunging off a rocky ledge into Reichenbach Falls, but their feelings certainly run deep. Many of Fielding’s readers no doubt dream of meeting their own Mr Darcy one day.
Though I shrug over the death of fictional Mark Darcy, there are some literary heroes I’d like to see strolling up to my front door, and they are not the rich and handsome ones. When a mature reader lets fiction run away with her, she looks for character, not money and good looks.
I talked to some friends about what kind of fictional man they had serious feelings about. Apart from one who had impure thoughts about Othello, and younger women who sighed over Heathcliff, most of them seemed to look for intelligence, an infinite capacity for love, and the ability to put up shelves in a pinch. Professor Bhaer from Little Women, Adam Bede, the Phantom (the one married to Diana), various dignified and chivalrous gents and a sound assortment of detectives were the more common focus of our longing.
I’ve always been fond of Diggory Venn, the reddleman in The Return of the Native. In pastoral communities, the reddleman travelled from district to district marking sheep, and he was usually stained from head to toe from handling red pigment.
Hardy clearly wants us to judge Diggory not by the colour of his skin but by the content of his character. The man is comely, saves his earnings and darns his own socks. He is canny, especially in serving the woman he loves. Most endearing is that he belongs to the heath as much as any bird nesting in the turf. When the book opens, Diggory is rescuing his beloved, Thomasin Yeobright, from humiliation and getting her discreetly and safely home across Egdon Heath. Thomasin had once gently refused Diggory’s proposal of marriage and she is now waiting for her betrothed, Damon Wildeve, to marry her. Wildeve, meanwhile, hankers after the beauteous Eustacia Vye, who toys with him. The capricious behaviour of that pair often distresses Thomasin, and Diggory gets her out of many a potential pickle.
Diggory Venn is not the hero of Hardy’s novel. In the narrative he seems to rank below Wildeve and below Clym Yeobright, the returned native of the title. But Yeobright and Wildeve are unheroic to me precisely because they are besotted, as Hardy himself seems to be, with the petty Eustacia, without doing her any good at all. Hardy had intended Diggory to wander the heath alone in the end but was persuaded by his publishers to let the honest reddleman regain his natural colour, turn to dairy farming, and marry Thomasin. Even before it was published, evidently, Hardy’s fiction had run away with him.