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