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How Would Jane Austen Have Seen Male Handsomeness -- and Therefore Health?

Newspaper article

How Would Jane Austen Have Seen Male Handsomeness -- and Therefore Health?

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Earlier this month, two British academics issued a "re- appraisal" of what Jane Austen's most famous hero, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy of "Pride and Prejudice," would have looked like -- in the minds of Austen and her 18th-century contemporaries, that is.

Their conclusion? He would have looked nothing like Colin Firth, the dark-haired, broad-shouldered, square-jawed actor who today is, perhaps, most synonymous with Mr. Darcy, after portraying him in the BBC's 1995 adaptation of the novel.

According to John Sutherland, a professor of modern English literature at University College London, and Amanda Vickery, a professor of early modern history at Queen Mary University of London, the "real" Darcy would have been "more ballet dancer than beef-cake," with slim, sloping shoulders, a modest-sized chest and muscular thighs (mainly from horseback riding).

It was also considered "good breeding" (and may actually have been a sign of inbreeding among 18th-century Britain's upper classes) for wealthy, aristocratic men like Darcy to have a "pointy chin," a "small mouth" and an "equine long nose," the scholars add.

Darcy also probably powdered his mid-length hair, they say. As for his skin, it would have been pale (only laborers and military men let their skin get tanned) and smooth. The latter was a sign of health because it meant he had escaped smallpox.

"Handsomeness like beauty rested on health," Sutherland and Vickery explain.

Austen was famously sparse in her physical description of her best-known hero. All she says about Darcy's appearance occurs in a brief passage that marks his initial scene in the novel: "Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien, and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand [British pounds] a year."

That has left succeeding generations of readers of "Pride and Prejudice" to paint their own visual portrait of what Mr. Darcy looked like. And each generation has done so based on their period of history's cultural image of both male health and attractiveness.

A Minnesotan view

Sutherland and Vickery's description of what the "real" Darcy would have looked like has caused quite a bit of (usually bemused) consternation among many "Pride and Prejudice" devotees. In an article entitled "Leave Mr. Darcy Alone," Washington Post opinion writer Alexandra Petri writes, "Mr. Darcy appears to be the before picture in an ad for liver supplements. Soon there will be no fictional heart-throbs left."

To get another opinion on the "real" Mr. Darcy -- and how our images of male attractiveness (and, thus, male health) have changed since Jane Austen's lifetime -- I spoke with one of Minnesota's leading experts on all things Austen: Geri Chavis, a professor of English and Women's Studies at St. Catherine University, whose specialties include 19th- and early 20th-century British and American literature. An edited version of the conversation follows.

MinnPost: What do you think of this "re-appraisal" of the "real" Mr. Darcy? Is it an accurate picture of what men of that time would have looked like -- and what was generally considered healthy and attractive?

Geri Chavis: I have to say that my personal gut reaction as a lover of Jane Austen's work and her heroes is that it's off-putting to have this image. But I understand what [Sutherland and Vickery] were doing. Jane Austen is not someone who gives us elaborate physical descriptions for any of her characters. So we have to use our imagination. I'm not sure if she deliberately did that so that readers down the years would use their imagination. Unfortunately, we don't have a large paper trail on her opinions about her own work. It's striking that you feel like you know these people [the characters in her books] really well. And yet when you look [at "Pride and Prejudice"] you get this description at the beginning, when Darcy is first being seen, that includes only half his features. …

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