The Historically Accurate Mr. Darcy

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October 3rd is apparently National Boyfriend Day, and for many lovers of historical flicks, Mr. Darcy represents a kind of collective “boyfriend.” Colin Firth’s portrayal of him in the BBC’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries was so iconic that Darcy became a meme of sorts, showing up as a love interest in Helen Fielding’s novel Bridget Jones’s Diary (and sequels), and who was later played by Firth in the film version for maximum inside joke nerdery. So, today, I thought we should take a moment to analyze Mr. Darcy, not as he was played by any number of the dozen or so actors who have donned the role for film and television, but what the man might have looked like in real life.

I don’t intend to delve into the rabbit hole that is the question of who Jane Austen based Mr. Darcy on — there’s a fair number of contenders, from to Irish nobleman Thomas Langlois Lefroy (played by the ridiculously sexy James McAvoy in Becoming Jane) to John Parker, 1st Earl of Morley (who has yet to be portrayed on film, but just give it time…) to a mashup of those two and who knows how many others.

I will never not seize the opportunity to post this gif if presented it.

Really, what I’m interested in is discussing the article that hit every major English-speaking newspaper a while back, about a composite image created by historian Amanda Vickery and English professor John Sutherland of the “historical Mr. Darcy.” It features a sallow-looking creature with a pointy face and white shoulder-length hair, or as Jezebel writer Aimée Lutkin put it, “a pointy-chinned elf” and “maybe kinda looks like Orlando Bloom in Lord of the Rings?”

“Who’re you calling ‘pointy-chinned’?”

That’s being flattering. I’d say, based on the description, if we’re going with any J.R.R. Tolkien equivalent, it would be a far less interesting Thranduil.

Pretty sure the artist heard “pointy chin and white hair” and immediately looked at a pic of Lee Pace in The Hobbit.

Apparently the historians spent a whole month researching what the actual Mr. Darcy would have looked like in 1796 when the book was first written (under the title First Impressions) and somehow still managed to not look at any primary source imagery from the late-1790s. According to Vickery and Sutherland, Fitzwilliam Darcy would have been about 5’11 at most (because everyone was super short back in ye olden times, naturally, so 5’11 would have been giant status), would have lacked the manly square jaw sported by the likes of Colin Firth, would have been pale because going outside was for peasants, had narrow shoulders because inbreeding (sigh), and white powdered hair pulled back in a ponytail.

Pretty much looking nothing like this whatsoever. THANKS, SCIENCE, FOR RUINING MY DREAMS.

I think, regardless of the somewhat less-than-flattering features they insist were more historically accurate, it’s the powdered hair that’s set off a mighty chorus of “OH HELL NO” from the historical costuming community. Vickery and Sutherland decided to base their Darcy in the era in which Pride and Prejudice was originally written, which puts him at the tail end of the 18th century. And since they did not bother sharing with us plebes the visual sources they used as documentation for their decision to put Darcy in powdered hair, it sure looks like they simply said “Oh, 18th-century men all wore their hair in ponytails and powdered it” and left it at that.

Benjamin West, Portrait of the Artist’s Sons, c. 1796.

Here’s the thing: by the time this theoretical 28-year-old man of £10,000 a year would have been breaking hearts in rural Hertfordshire, powdered hair was on its way out for the fashionable sort. Older men and servants still wore their hair powdered (and in the case of servants, this tradition carried well into the 19th century, long after everyone else had given it up), but a guy like Fitzwilliam Darcy, who was possessed not only of a fortune but of a fashionable London residence and the means to rub elbows with the Ton, would have abandoned long, powdered hair in favor of the more au courant natural look. And even if he stuck with the hair powder, even if he wasn’t on trend, it’s likely he did not wear his hair long enough to queue.

Ralph Earl, Portrait of Philo Ruggles, 1796.

Yes, if he were a rural lord who wasn’t much for the excitement of the city, sure, I could see him being a little behind in fashion and persisting with the long powdered hair, but Darcy comes across as exotic to the less-refined denizens of Meryton and its surrounding lands. Jane Austen doesn’t spend much time describing him in detail, only mentioning that he’s taller than average; instead she spends more time describing his personality. But you get the impression that not only is Darcy handsome and rich, he’s different in some fundamental way than the other young men in Hertfordshire, and it isn’t just his snobbishness.

Maybe it is the indescribable scent of wealth that makes him stand apart from the local fare. Or that he’s fashionable where the other males in the vicinity aren’t. There were lots of soldiers around Meryton, obviously, so there’s something to be said for Darcy standing out by not being in uniform. Or, like other men I’ve known, he’s mastered the art of being just quiet enough for people to imbue him with presumptions about his personality that have no basis in reality … Wait, that’s totally the plot of Pride and Prejudice.

Darcy understands you, never forget that.

 

What do you think the real Mr. Darcy would have looked like?

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Website

Sarah discovered her dual passion for history and costume right around the age of twelve. Dragged kicking and screaming to her first Renaissance Faire at Black Point, she was convinced she was going to hate it, but to her surprise, she fell head over heels in love with the world of reenactment and dress up immediately. Her undergraduate degree is in Clothing & Textile Design, and she has a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture. When she’s not hauling crap to SCA events and ren faires, Sarah enjoys reading true crime books, writing fiction, and sewing historical clothing from the Middle Ages through the 20th-century. One of these days, she might even start updating her old costuming blog again.

23 Responses

  1. Jillian

    Pride and Prejudice was originally written under the title ‘First Impressions’. Love And Friendship was based on Austen’s novel Lady Susan

    Reply
  2. Mary Wagner

    Alexander Hamilton portraits show me someone from about that same time period, who wouod be considered a hottie-with-a-difference-from-the-usual-aristocrat, both then and now.

    Reply
  3. Lynne Connolly

    yes, this. By 1795 hair powder was well out of fashion. The French Revolution, the move to classicism and increasing taxes on hair powder pretty much killed it.
    Inbreeding, really? Not so much in England. Even if you stuck to the aristocracy, there were a lot of them to choose from, enough to avoid inbreeding. While there were only 25 dukes, there were hundreds of earls and viscounts, and they all had families. Some were related, true, but the system was set up so that new blood could be injected. And in Darcy’s social sphere, the gentry, they were even more diverse. So I don’t know where the inbreeding comment comes from. That was for repeated marriages between members of the same family, like the monarchs of Spain, and even then it took a few hundred years of marrying sisters, cousins, aunts, for it to kill them.

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      I seriously think that the historians involved in this just half-assed the “study” based on the broadest, most easily disputable factoids they could come up with over several glasses of wine.

      And I like Amanda Vickery as an historian! Feeling deeply betrayed by the laziness showed here.

      Reply
      • Nzie

        The inbreeding thing got me, too. Ok, so one royal house got super weird results, and a bunch were cousins following Victoria and predisposed to hemophilia—that does not mean everyone was inbred. I almost wondered, when I read it, whether they’d seen some of those 18th century portraits where the faces all look similar and just… assumed it was genetics rather than limited artistic skill? Makes about as much sense…

        Reply
  4. Roxana

    What nonsense! A well nourished gentleman like Darcy could easily be over six feet and what is this inbreeding idiocy. Darcy is clearly a thoroughly eye catching young man, hence the gneral disappointment when his personality fails to match his prepossessing appearance.

    Reply
  5. Emily

    When I read that article, in addition to the powdered wig complaint, I took umbrage with their assertion that because the novel was started in 1796, we should assume that’s when it took place. But Jane put the novel away, then revised it (possibly quite heavily) in 1811, and I’m one of those who argues that the action is set in 1811.

    Not least because of the November 26 thing. There is precisely one complete date in the book: the Netherfield ball occurs Tuesday, November 26. Do you know when there was a Tuesday, November 26? 1811, when Jane rewrote the book. Do you know when there wasn’t a Tuesday, November 26? 1796.

    Reply
    • MoHub

      Actually, the Norton Edition includes an appendix with the calendar Austen used in creating the timelines of the novel, and it does indeed take place in the late 1790s.

      Reply
    • Maggie May

      Copley is wearing a powdered wig over his own long hair in this painting dated 1780-84. His portraits of John Hancock and Dr Joseph Warren show the same look–young men with long hair who occasionally still wore wigs befitting their stations in life. He also painted an elegant gentleman of the old school in a sumptuous banyan with a turban on his shaven head. And Paul Revere–part of the patriot circle but a prosperous silversmith, not a gentleman–with long, unpowdered hair in a queue.

      Copley lived in a time of change, stylistically as well as politically. The portraits reflect provincial Boston just before the Revolution. He painted himself just after removing to London. When the picture was displayed in Houston, his very faint 5 o’clock shadow was mentioned in the description. Quite unusual in that clean shaven age.

      Reply
  6. Rebecca Roberts

    Indoors? Pshaw. Gentlemen spent scads of time hunting and fishing in the season.
    Also, interestingly, one of Benjamin West’s sons was a main character in Stephanie Barron’s Austen mystery series.

    Reply
  7. Saraquill

    Was the “historically accurate Mr. Darcy” article meant to be clickbait? It sounds as accurate as “wimminz back then bled in their skirts.”

    Reply
  8. Cheryl from Maryland

    In 1795, William Pitt the Younger as PM of England introduced a tax on hair powder (Pitt was a youngish man of 36 at the time). Reformists and those opposed to Pitt (mainly Whigs – but the Whigs were famously corrupt, so it’s convoluted) adopted the cropped hairstyle from the Revolution (sometimes called the French Cut) no matter what their age. Although the tax cost them money, Tories and those pro Pitt often kept powdering their hair. The tax hastened the change to natural hair.

    So in 1796, would Darcy have been a Whig or a Tory? I’m guessing a Whig or some type of reformist considering how his father and he dealt with Pemberly and educating Wickham. Natural hair it is.

    Reply
    • Lynne Connolly

      He was gentry, and the gentry were overwhelmingly Tory. Although he was related to minor aristocracy, he didn’t belong in that class. By 1795 short, natural hair wasn’t just a statement of politics, it was the fashion. Anyone with a powdered wig, unless they were actually politicians, would be considered old-fashioned. All you have to do is look at portraits of British men dating 1795. The young ones are sporting natural hair. Interestingly, the fashion for wigs and hair powder lingered a bit longer in the USA, but then, they weren’t subject to the hair tax.

      Reply
  9. Nigel King

    If you can fi nd a portrait of a man called Robert Cary Elwes then you have a picture of what Mr. Darcy looked like FOR HE IS THE ORIGINAL MR.DARCY
    I have researched this man quite carefully and I have found much much more than just the original Mr.Darcy
    For example the original location for Thornton Lacey . It’s a real village in Northamptonshire and is where RCE lived.
    The real life location for Northanger Abbey. It’s a real life abbey owned by a cousin of RCE, and was easy walking distance of Jane Austen during the time she wrote Northanger Abbey.
    I can explain how they could have met there was an actual ball in Winchester that both could have and certainly Jane Austen attended.
    I can explain much more but
    Finally for now I have discovered 2 types of” Eastrr Eggs ” within Jane Austen’s work based around anagrams and names. RCE can be found 3 times
    You can iif interested read more at my blog WISDENSSECRET.COM where all that has been found so far is explained.

    Reply
    • Lynne Connolly

      I’m an author, and I write historical romance.
      I use real-life buildings and real-life characters in my books. They fit two categories: historical characters like Pitt, Wellington, and the monarchs who existed. They are as accurately described as I can make them and I don’t deviate from the historical record. The other kind are the characters I invent, and the houses I invent. While they are often based on reality, the word “based” is what matters. Because I’m writing fiction, I feel free to deviate from the historical facts when they suit me.
      For instance, I wrote a book called “A Touch of Silver,” with a central character based on one of my ancestors, the silversmith Hester Bateman. But Hester never remarried after the death of her husband, and she remained in control of the business she founded. In my book, I renamed Hester into Annie, and gave her a romance. That would have been totally unacceptable in an account of someone called Hester Bateman, but for Annie Cathcart, it was okay. If I’d stuck with calling her Hester, then I’d have stuck to the historical facts. But I didn’t.
      Jane did the same thing in her books. Most authors do. So while the “real” Darcy might have been based on Elwes, there are significant differences.

      Reply
  10. Aleko

    The thing about sloping shoulders is nonsense too. The point about the 18th-century and Regency-period coat was that sloping shoulders were admired in a gentleman (showed he wasn’t a coalheaver or ploughboy) and the coat was very carefully cut to make it look as though they sloped like the shoulders of a hock bottle – the very opposite of modern tailoring, where the jacket shoulders are always at least a bit padded, to give the appearance of fine broad shoulders, which is what is admired today.

    Reply
  11. Katie O.

    I’m not going to pile on to the significant list of historical hand-waving that seems to have been necessary for that article to reach its conclusions, but I can’t help but wonder if it even matters what Mr. Darcy’s “historically accurate” appearance would have been. I think Austen barely describes his appearance because it’s less important than his personality and his character. I also think that books that do that age better too because each generation can imagine their own “Mr. Darcy” based on what their own perceptions. So if Mr. Darcy would look like a pale, inbred, short guy with a pointy chin or a tall, swarthy guy with brown hair and smoldering eyes, it doesn’t affect their love story so it shouldn’t matter! It reminds me of “Gotcha” journalism except that the person they’re “exposing” is a fictional character from 200 years ago. It seems both lazy and ridiculous.

    Reply

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