Neurodiversity and Mr. Darcy

Neurodiversity and Mr. Darcy

It’s April, and that means many things. It is, according to TS Eliot, “…the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.” Perhaps not coincidentally, it is also the month when many in North America settle in to do their taxes for the previous year. It is often the month when Easter is celebrated and when spring really settles in. And, in many parts of the world, it is recognized as Autism Awareness Month.

Autism was only identified as a developmental phenomenon in the 20th century. The term was coined by Eugen Bleuler in 1908 and the characteristics we now associate with the autism spectrum were described more fully by Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger in the 1940s. But, as with so many such things, the reality of autism far predates that. When we look at historical and literary figures, we see characteristics now associated with the autism spectrum in so many places.

Depending on what traits one looks for, such luminaries as Sir Isaac Newton, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Emily Dickinson, and Nicola Tesla have been identified as possibly being autistic. When I look at Jane Austen’s writings, I am convinced she knew somebody on the spectrum, because for me, Mr. Darcy is almost a classic Aspie – someone with high functioning autism, formerly referred to as Asperger’s Syndrome.

Why do I think this? The evidence that speaks to me comes from the man himself. In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy excuses his unsociable behaviour by telling Elizabeth,

“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”

Many, many years ago I did some work for a charity that helped kids on the autism spectrum, and I have a son who flirts with the edges of Asperger’s Syndrome (now classified as a type of “high-functioning” autism). Consequently, I’ve done a fair bit of reading and research, and Darcy’s words leapt out at me. These are exactly the things that someone with Asperger’s would find challenging: understanding tone of voice, figuring out facial expressions, reading between the lines, feigning interest where there is none. These are the subtle cues that are so much a part of “normal” interactions and which can be all but incomprehensible to someone whose brain works differently.

But there is something else I feel very strongly about. Just because someone has a neurological difference, that does not mean he or she is “lesser” in any way. My son, for example, might have trouble reading between the lines and have his particular obsessions (his latest one is making cocktails, so I’m not complaining), but he also has some gifts that are the other side of that coin. He does the most complicated maths in his head, has a phenomenal memory, and learns languages like they’re the easiest things in the world. It’s a difference, but I can’t call that a disability.

And so I began to think about Mr. Darcy in this light. I think Austen’s Darcy IS different, and he struggles with social conventions, but he is not a damaged character in any way. He has tremendous strengths, ones which Elizabeth learns to appreciate over time.

In my novel Through a Different Lens, I play with this idea. I nudged Darcy just a bit further along the spectrum and gave Lizzy some tools by which to understand him better, in the form of a young cousin with autism. These characters are romantic and intelligent and creative, and their differences allow them to be the heroes in a story that is really close to my heart.

In recognition of Autism Awareness Month, I have put Through a Different Lens on sale for 0.99.

Here is an excerpt from Through a Different Lens.

“I am,” stated the grave gentleman as he stood so awkwardly by the pianoforte, “ill qualified to recommend myself to strangers.”

Elizabeth heard these words somewhat distractedly, as she perused the selection of music being placed before her by the colonel, his friendly eyes matched by an engaging grin. Still, something in the more serious man’s demeanour caught her attention. She had never liked him, but she had always found herself fascinated by him. She sat up a little straighter and listened as Fitzwilliam Darcy continued to explain himself. He spoke, as always, formally, somewhat stiffly, as if acting the part of himself in the grand production of his life.

“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess,” said he, “of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”

Suddenly, with these words, Elizabeth felt her world shift slightly. With every syllable that haughty man uttered, isolated facets to his perplexing character seemed to realign themselves and come into focus. She stared at him as if seeing him for the first time. He cleared his throat and stepped back an inch, standing quite still and averting his eyes from her curious gaze. A flood of recollections and half-formed ideas cascaded through her consciousness. She stared up again at the stiff and serious man half hiding in the shadows, wondering if her suppositions might be correct.

“Miss Bennet?” the genial colonel sounded concerned. “Are you well?”

Realising she had been distracted most grievously from her supposed task of selecting music, she uttered a rushed apology. “Indeed, very well, Colonel Fitzwilliam. Forgive my wandering mind, please. I have no excuse but that your cousin, Mr. Darcy, suddenly reminded me of somebody I know, and at that realisation, you might have knocked me down with a feather, it was so surprising.”

The man under discussion drew closer, edging towards the pianoforte where the two were conversing with such easy repartee. “Knocked you down with a feather?” he asked in some confusion, “How could that possibly be? While you are by no means a large woman, your weight most certainly surpasses that of a bird’s plumage, even that of an ostrich or a peacock. To knock you down would surely take something much more substantial than a mere feather!”

Exchanging an understanding smile with the colonel, Elizabeth replied evenly, “It is an expression, sir, meaning to surprise greatly. Is this, may I ask, but one example of why you feel discomfort joining others’ conversations?”

The man nodded. “Indeed it is so. I seem, always, to miss the meaning of what is being said. Not everybody is as compassionate as you, to explain the nuances I do not catch.”

 

 

17 Responses to Neurodiversity and Mr. Darcy

  1. Your Mr. Darcy reminds me of my adult son who skirts the edge of AS. Socializing is something my son despairs of and prefers his own quiet amusements. Thank you for presenting this facet of AS to JAFF.

    • Thanks for your comment.
      As you know, there are so many aspects to AS, and every person is different. My young adult son can be very social at times, but often misses cues and undercurrents, and conversations can take very strange turns! And the sensory issues when he was young were something else. I wanted to show both the challenges of AS, but also the strengths it can offer. I hope you enjoyed the story.

  2. Oh, I didn’t see this post right away, but I love it! I’ll have to read this one. Having a son on the spectrum also, it sounds amazing. I hadn’t thought of Mr. Darcy that way- though now that you point it out, it could definitely work! In one of my stories I wrote Anne de Bourgh as if she were on the spectrum, which now I think about it, could totally work with your theory as there is supposedly a genetic component. Thanks for the post!

  3. I think all of us have gifts in different areas, and those who are autistic seem to be of a genius bent in one or more talents. I get the impression that their gifts and the characteristics where they seem to be lacking are out of balance. How important it is that we acknowledge that imbalance and recognize the gifts that these individuals have. How wonderful that you recognize your son and his gifts. That is a blessing for both of you. <3

    • I once heard a saying, that if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.

      It is my completely uneducated opinion that if we look for talents and gifts in other people, we’ll be amazed at what we find. Some people’s strengths are obvious. Other people’s are more subtle. But if we look, who knows what wonderful things we’ll find.

      Be well!

  4. We all deserve compassion. I suppose each of us travels through life under some restriction. None of us are perfect.
    Thank you for tackling this subject. I have this book and look forward to reading it. Blessings on all your hard work, stay safe, and healthy.

    • Yes, I so agree. We all have our faults and differences. And can you imagine how boring the world would be if we were all the same?
      I hope you really enjoy this story. Be well!

  5. I loved “Through A Different Lens”. If anyone hasn’t bought it yet, I recommend taking advantage of the sale. Thank you for a unique take on P&P, Riana!

  6. Through a Different Lens is a wonderful book. I read it on one of the boards before you released it and fell in love with Mr. Darcy all over again. Thank you for the sale.

    • Thank you so much!
      Yes, this one hits close to home for me too. In some ways this Darcy is very much like my son. He is different, but with so many gifts that I cannot think of it as a disability.

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