By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 30 2015 01:00PM
Another day, another Mr. Darcy.
Over the years, various ambitious authors and breathless journalists have informed us of their amazing discoveries! based on virtually incontrovertible evidence! that Jane Austen didn’t do anything so mundane as imagine the hero of Pride and Prejudice.
No, no! Mr. Darcy – the character who, post-Colin Firth, has become the icon of romantic wish-fulfillment, heterosexual female division – was modeled on someone. Perhaps Tom Lefroy, Austen’s youthful flirtation; or Samuel Blackall, a clergyman acquaintance; or William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, the fabulously wealthy 4th Earl Fitzwilliam, whose palatial Yorkshire home, Wentworth Woodhouse, must have been the original of Pemberley – unless that was actually the Duke of Devonshire’s palatial Derbyshire home, Chatsworth.
The latest candidate for Real-Life Mr. Darcy is John Parker, 1st Earl of Morley, or so says British writer Susan Law. As reported in the Daily Mail, Law’s evidence sounds less than iron-clad. She notes that the earl was tall, dark, handsome and brooding (puh-leeze); says that he knew Austen’s brother Henry; and asserts that Jane Austen and the Countess of Morley were close friends.
If true, this last point would be news, since, as far as I know, the only evidence of contact between the two women is a single exchange in late 1815: a short fan letter from the countess to Jane Austen, thanking her for a presentation copy of the newly published Emma; and a short reply from Austen to the countess [134(A), 134(D) and 134 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of the letters].
Nothing about these two brief and rather formal letters suggests a personal relationship between the correspondents, though of course that doesn’t prove there wasn’t one. (Later, Austen also recorded the countess’ opinion of Emma on the list she kept of reactions to the novel, but I am not aware of a second exchange of letters.)
Law also notes that some of Austen’s early readers suspected that Frances Parker, Lady Boringdon, later to become the Countess of Morley, had herself written the anonymously published P&P, partly because they saw in Mr. Darcy a portrait of Frances’ husband, the future earl. But so what? Even today, we recognize our friends and relatives in Austen’s characters. That’s testimony to her powers of psychological insight, not proof that she had our acquaintances in mind while she wrote.
To me, all these efforts to find The Model For Mr. Darcy, or for any of Austen’s other characters, seem unduly literal-minded. As she built her stories, Austen no doubt pilfered, magpie-like, from the lives of those she saw around her. News flash: that’s what writers do.
Sure, it can be fun to speculate about which tidbits she wove into her ultimate design and how close the published version was to her raw materials. (Key word: speculate. Absent an undiscovered Austen letter spelling out her creative process, we’re never going to know for sure.)
Too often, however, these speculations come dangerously close to suggesting that, rather than exercising her considerable imaginative powers, Austen took dictation from a universe that helpfully threw Austen-like people into her path.
Guess what? She didn’t need to do that. It was all in her head.