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Friday, February 24, 2017

“The Real Mr Darcy” or Perhaps Not?

Having just visited the “Jane Austen Among Family and Friends” mini exhibition at the British Library, I thought I would share my thoughts about the exhibition, but decided against it, as something else quite captivating has cropped up! Don’t take me wrong, I did enjoy the exhibition, which forms part of the several Jane Austen 200 festivities that take place around Britain this year to mark the bicentenary of her death. It was interesting to see some of Jane Austen’s teenage writings, as well as many of her original letters where she lists people’s opinions on her works and describes important personal events, such as her father’s death. The touching writing desk and glasses were exhibited at Willis Museum in Basingstoke last year. However, for understandable reasons, photography is not allowed at the British Library and I didn’t come back with much to share.

However, I thought I should mention my thoughts regarding the current hot topic of “The Real Mr Darcy”! It amuses me how scholars have taken up a criticism of the current representation of Mr Darcy in popular culture and have gone to lengths to prove that the popular image of Mr Darcy is utterly wrong! The topic has been on all the leading UK newsmedia with sensational headlines, such as “the 'Real’ Mr Darcy was nothing like Colin Firth” (the BBC) and “Real Mr Darcy was more ballet dancer than beefcake” (The Times), and so on and so forth. The whole discussion has left austenites almost betrayed, begging to keep the “hot Mr Darcy” of their imagination.

Watch the making of the portrait: 

The whole discussion is based on revelations made by professors John Sutherland and Amanda Vickery who spent a month researching the male beauty norms of Georgian England, and actually commissioned “the first historically accurate portrait” of Mr Darcy, created by the artist Nick Hardcastle. The portrait shows a pale-skinned man with narrow shoulders and strong, defined legs, with long, powdered hair, a narrow jaw and a long, pointy nose. The portrait would appear to be a contrast to the muscular, angular-jawed Colin Firth who in the adaptation has short, dark hair and slightly tanned skin.

Now I do feel that there is truth in that the noblemen of the period would probably have spent a great deal of time indoors and been quite pale in general, which clearly was the beauty norm of the day. It is also quite likely that muscular torsos were associated with the working classes and, as the main sports popular at the time were horse-riding and fencing, gentlemen must have been more slender and had muscular legs rather than well-built upper bodies. Many of the icons of the time period did have long, narrow jaws and long, pointy noses, as did the Austen brothers in their portraits.

However, I am not at all convinced that the hairstyle sported by Mr Darcy would necessarily have been long and powdered or that he would have worn a wig. Jane Austen wrote the first version of Pride and Prejudice, then called "First Impressions", in 1796-1797, which she revised for publication in 1811-1812. As I have written previously, the fashion revolution that significantly reduced the use of wigs and powder took place in 1795, the same year as hair powder tax was introduced. After that, powder was mainly used by liveried servants, lawyers and perhaps the older generations, who in many ways preferred the old styles of fashion. Most young people must have switched to the more modern, relaxed, shorter hairstyles that required no powder. And I believe that Mr Darcy must have been at the forefront of fashion, mixing with the fashionable crowds of London.

I am also skeptical of the claim that the character of Mr Darcy was inspired by the First Earl of Morley. I don’t think that Jane Austen would have admired him, as he was known to be mired in a sex scandal and that is a topic that Jane Austen dealt with strictly in Mansfield Park. She was a moral writer, with a strong sense of responsibility, critical of "loose morals", and Morley simply wasn't her type. 

The novel is clearly a product of the Georgian rather than of the Regency period, but we will never know for sure exactly how Mr Darcy would have looked in the author’s imagination. Does it really matter?

What is so great about Colin Firth is not whether his looks are a historically accurate match for Mr Darcy, but that he really brought the character to life, appealing to the modern audience. Thanks to the adaptation, Pride and Prejudice is now much better known all around the world, and I’m thankful for it.