What did Austen’s Mr Darcy really look like?

A few months ago, Professor John Sutherland and his team undertook to research a historically accurate portrait of what the real Mr. Darcy would have looked like for the “Drama” TV channel. The resulting image was that of a thin man wearing a powdered wig. And slightly surprisingly, the image went viral – it was covered by the likes of the BBC, CNN, The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph.

Over the last few weeks I have had to endure hundreds of posts with various women declaring that their Mr. Darcy would always be Colin Firth or Matthew MacFayden, and others deploring the historically inaccurate portrayal of Mr. Darcy in various screen adaptations. The whole exercise to me seemed slightly pointless. After all, the ‘real Mr. Darcy’’ can only be said to look like this.

 

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By the kind permission of the Morgan Library and Museum. Not to be copied without the Museum’s permission. Austen’s letter to Cassandra, 24 May 1813

 

Yes, this is the word ‘Darcy’ written in Austen’s handwriting. This is as real as Mr. Darcy gets. The only real Mr Darcy is the interaction of pen on paper.

Professor Sutherland’s quest to specify what Austen imagined when she wrote Mr. Darcy must be deemed fruitless. In 1795 the hair powder tax was introduced, and wigs began to steadily go out of fashion- Jane Austen started writing the first draft of First Impressions in 1796. By 1813, when the book was published, many fashionable young men had abandoned the wig – the sex symbol of the age was already wigless.

NPG 4243; George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron by Richard Westall
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron by Richard Westall, oil on canvas, 1813, National Portrait Gallery, NPG 4243

So even if Austen imagined the original Darcy as wearing a wig, it might well be the case that by the time she had rewritten her first draft she might have been imagining him without one.

In short, Austen’s description of Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice is nothing but non-committal “Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien”. Even Elizabeth Bennet has more of a description than that: she at least has the “fine dark eyes” which are the subject of Mr. Darcy’s admiration. I would argue, however, that the lack of description attached to Mr. Darcy is partially the reason why he has been the subject of so many different female fantasies and idealizations. After all, every reader will decide what “handsome features” mean in the context of their own day and age.

 

 

 

 

*I am being slightly facetious here. The word “Darcy” in the context of this letter appears only as a part of “Mrs Darcy”.

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