Jane Austen was a smart novelist. Smart enough to know that it's not what you describe. It's sometimes what you don't describe that can fly the story off the page into the reader's imagination.
There's no question as to what Miss Austen's most popular novel is - Pride and Prejudice. Nor is there dispute as to whom the leading man in her fiction is. Fitzwilliam Darcy. The name rolls round the tongue like fine wine. But what, precisely, does Mr Darcy look like?
Austen's genius was to allow each generation to infuse Darcy with their own fantasy of masculine beauty. Colin Firth in his wet shirt tells us a lot more about the 1990s than the 1790s.
But how was Mr Darcy imagined by his author and first readers?
There are at least fifty different features to consider in putting together a portrait. Let's review some of them. Jane Austen artfully withholds full description of the most eligible man in her fiction. But she gives us pregnant details for the thoughtful reader to compose their own portrait.
The following is what get by way of description. It's terse - offhand almost. But we are being told a lot more than first meets the eye:
Mr. Bingley was good-looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, andbeasy, unaffected manners .... His brother-in-law, Mr. Hurst, merely looked the gentleman; but his friend Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien, and the report which was inbgeneral circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year.
It's a loaded description. Darcy, by his presence alone, is good looking enough to draw every woman's attention (and, we may suppose, every man's envy). He outshines his two companions. How does Ophelia describe Hamlet? 'The glass of fashion and the mould of form / Th' observed of all observers'. That could be said of Fitzwilliam Darcy.
But, to return to that initial question, what, precisely, does this paragon, Fitzwilliam Darcy, look like? Casting directors scratch their heads; every reader is obliged to construct their own identikit.
Hair colour? Brown or blond? Neither, probably. There's something dark about the name -and, possibly, we shall learn, character. Darcy is 'Pride' incarnate. The title of the novel tells us that fact. Images of Milton's incarnation of Pride, Lucifer, come to mind. A whiff of - what is it? - sulphur. Just a whiff. Olivier, in the classic 1940s film, brought something Heathcliff-like to his interpretation. Austen seems to be asking us to imagine soot black hair.
A full head of hair? Yes, but curled (Darcy will have the services of an expert barber) or straight? Most famous actors playing the part go for a few curls and mutton chops: suggesting a controlled wildness. But one doesn't want to think of Fitzwilliam Darcy in curlers, or being done over with a curling iron. 'Natural' is the key word.
How long? After the demise of the male white wig at the end of the 1700s locks flowed. Down to the shoulders, often. Romanticism was in the air. The young man, John Parker, whom Jane Austen is supposed to have modelled Darcy, had hair as long as Elizabeth Bennet's. But Darcy is not, like Parker, in the first flush of youth. He is twenty-eight, seven years older than Elizabeth (the ideal age difference people believed, for a happy marriage). A man restyles at that age. Virility lay in adult maturity.
At the time when Austen wrote the novel in the 1790s, although not published until 1813, Darcy would, from all evidence available, have had loose powdered mid length hair, much akin to the popular male style of the era.
Moustache? Beard? Somehow it seems wrong for Darcy. Pride and Prejudice has squads of soldiers in the background. There is a war going on and a fear of French invasion. The soldiers might well have sported manly facial hair, to frighten the enemy and attract the girls. Wickham, the seducer, leading the charge. The lesser Bennet sisters are shameless camp followers. They love the military bristle. But for high-born young men about town (Darcy has a London house, as well as an estate) facial hair would not, at this period, be comme il faut.
One of the standards of beauty at the period was the display, or covering up, of the neck, not just for women. Men of the era swathed their necks in intricately tied cravat arrangements, which could take half an hour, in front of a mirror (again, forget Firth's wet shirt).
Darcy's eye shape (oval not slit) and colour (dark and flashing). His height? We are told more than once that he is tall, a sign of rank and social status. At a historical period when average male heights hovered around 5' 6", he might be considered tall at a modest 5 ' 10". On the other hand, one of Austen's brothers was a full six-footer and Jane herself was considered of 'middle height', around 5.5", or 5 foot 6" we may guess. In Mansfield Park a jealous character denounces the sexy Mr Crawford on grounds of stature. "'Nobody can call such an under-sized man handsome. He is not five foot nine. I should not wonder if he was not more than five foot eight'". All of the evidence would suggest that Darcy was about 5 foot 11 inches.
His complexion? An important marker of social significance. Handsomeness like beauty rested on health. He would have smooth, unmarked skin and must have escaped the ravages of small-pox. Odds-on he was as pale as marble, with something of the classical statue. By contrast, soldiers of officer rank, like Wickham, would have had a tan. Their profession was outdoor. So too with naval officers, such as Captain Wentworth and the weathered Admiral Croft in Persuasion. But for civilian men, pallor indicated a man did not work. (And remember Lizzie Bennet is criticised for her unladylike tan.) When at Pemberley Darcy may well cut a different figure, especially when at his favourite sport, angling, under, of course, a wide brimmed hat to protect his pale complexion. Work? Let the working classes do it. That is what Darcy's facial 'colour' will proclaim.
Darcy's teeth will not yet be decayed. He may well, unlike the mass of the English population, carry them into late life. As we are reminded in Sense and Sensibility a gentleman kept his gnashers in good shape with a toothpick (often with precious metal ornamentation) and perfumed sponge. Gentlemen and courtiers had long been instructed in the niceties of clean linen, tooth-picks, handkerchiefs and 'nice' personal habits. Darcy may well have smelt of musk or flowers. Perfumes were unisex in the period.
Darcy is worth £10,000 a year. Jane Austen may be remiss on physiognomy but she rarely forgets to mention the bank balance. It is a huge sum, translating into half a million, or more, in modern value. A man marinated in that kind of cash will reflect it in his demeanour. The rich, as Scott Fitzgerald said, are different. Darcy's 'carriage', the way he 'bears' himself will declare his 'worth'. His 'difference'. His very deportment conveys the self-assurance of birth and command. His clothes, will be exquisitely well tailored - bespoke to his body, and probably fashionably dark. Bingley, nouveau riche that he is has a vivid blue coat (the Bennet sisters comment on it). A touch vulgar. Bingley too is rich, but his wealth is (it's plausibly speculated) only one generation away from trade (the slave trade, it has been speculated). Bingley is merely 'gentlemanlike'. Darcy is 'noble'. The real thing. He is also noble by blood.
The British upper classes preserve their status by interbreeding (Lady Catherine de Bourgh is insistent on the point). It led, in leading families, to pronounced features---the Hanoverian jaw, for instance (still evident in our monarch today). And, quite likely, an equine long nose. Darcy, it's fair to say, may have one betokening 'breeding'. The Duke of Wellington, with a nose long enough to hang a lamp on, was something of a pin up among the ladies. So too were Charles Grey the lover of the sexiest woman in London, Granville Leveson Gower a notorious heart-breaker, and the above mentioned John Parker, first Earl Morley. All of them had pale skin, long oval faces, long noses, small mouths and pointy chins. The square jawed hero is virtually unknown at this period.
Darcy's physicality conveyed a trained & highly controlled gracefulness. A real gentleman carried himself like a gentleman, not an awkward, clumsy clod. A young gentleman's training aimed at cultivating gracefulness, often through dancing lessons. Lessons helped a boy walk well, control his limbs and manage his sword, hat and cane. He also had to learn to salute a lady, enter and leave a room, toast the company and so on. Deportment was important. We know Darcy's posture was impressively erect and commanding - 'his fine, tall person' - but he would be elegant rather than brawny.
Naturally Darcy would be able to dance, ride, and fence. These were all activities which developed the thigh and calf muscles. A fine leg was an index of virility. Women looked out for a well-defined calf muscle, and strong thighs on horseback. Spindle shanks were a sign of ebbing manhood, likely impotence. French men were invariably caricatured as thin of leg & deficient of courage.
The Regency fashion of tight breeches and cut away coats guaranteed a man's thighs and calves were exposed to the female gaze. (Cavalry officers were rumoured to shrink their breeches to their bodies in the bath, the better to reveal their quads). Buckskin clung to a man's musculature like a second skin, leaving nothing to the imagination.
It was all about the legs. The six pack was unknown and square shouldered bulk was the mark of the navvy not the gentlemen. Chests were modest and shoulders sloping. Arm holes cut high and to the back rather pinioning the man within. The general effect was one of languid, graceful length not breadth. More ballet dancer than beef-cake.
In modern parlance we can choose to see Darcy as a hunk, a fop, Darcy Lite, Heathcliffian, a dandy, a toff. The latest dramatisations have gone for barely controlled testosterone. As Andrew Davies, whose 1995 adaptation is the most influential of recent times was forthright on the subject, said:
Costume dramas were buttoned up to the neck and the men needed butching up... Pride and Prejudice is about sex and money and I wanted to emphasise the physicality. It's about young people with their hormones, with as few clothes on as possible.
Firth did the butching up to perfection.
JOHN SUTHERLAND, LORD NORTHCLIFFE PROFESSOR EMERITUS OF MODERN ENGLISH LITERATURE AT UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LONDON AND AMANDA VICKERY, PROFESSOR OF EARLY MODERN HISTORY AT QUEEN MARY UNIVERSITY OF LONDON
9th FEBRUARY 2017