By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 13 2017 02:00PM
Edward IV, who reigned as king of England for most of the period from 1461-1483, was described by contemporaries as an unusually handsome man. But you wouldn’t guess it from looking at the paintings, which suggest he had an extremely long nose and an extraordinarily small mouth.*
This digression into medieval history, brought to you courtesy of my eighth-grade research paper on the Wars of the Roses, was inspired by last week’s tiny Internet furor over a British TV channel’s allegedly expert historical reconstruction of What Mr. Darcy Really Looked Like. (Unsurprisingly, this expert historical reconstruction was timed to draw attention to the channel’s new Jane Austen Season, featuring the rebroadcast of various beloved Austen adaptations.)
Georgian-historian-cum-TV-personality Amanda Vickery and Austen scholar John Sutherland teamed up to investigate the standards of male beauty that would likely have been in Jane Austen’s mind when she created her handsome hero. Surprise! Over the past two centuries, our idea of male beauty has. . . well, let’s just say changed. “Evolved” might denote condescension toward our ancestors’ misguided ideas of hotness. (See under: Edward IV.)
But on to Mr. Darcy. Tall, dark and handsome? Nah. Instead of muscular, square-jawed, altogether hunky Colin Firth or Matthew Macfadyen, the real Mr. Darcy would apparently have been pale, pointy-faced and narrow-shouldered. (Strapping chests were for common laborers, not gentlemen of leisure.) And he would have powdered his hair! And he would have stood only 5’11”! Frankly, the artist's rendition commissioned for the occasion makes him look like a bit of a dweeb.
I suppose it is churlish to point out that whatever the fashion when Jane Austen began writing First Impressions, by the time Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, powdered hair was passé. Or that 5’11”, while a few inches below the heights of Messrs. Firth and Macfadyen, is above average (i.e. tall) for white men in both England and the United States even today.
(Surely, however, we are allowed to giggle over the RadioTimes headline: “Science reveals what Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy would really have looked like.” You kind of wonder if the headline writer realized that Darcy is fictional, and therefore not easily accessible to science.)
This whole teapot tempest should remind us, again, that Jane Austen’s genius lies as much in what she leaves out as in what she puts in. Was Darcy a Colin Firth hunk, or a pointy-chinned aristocrat? She doesn’t really say. She leaves it to each of us to envision “his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien,” according to whatever historically inflected, invariably subjective standard we choose to apply. She puts our imaginations in service to her story, engaging us in the project of making her fictional worlds real. What did Mr. Darcy "really" look like? You tell me.
* Honesty compels me to admit that these paintings were created decades after Edward’s death. But my point remains: no one looking at them now would say, “Now, there’s a good-looking guy!”