The 'real' Mr Darcy is no Colin Firth

Pride And Prejudice starring Colin Firth as Mr Darcy.
Pride And Prejudice starring Colin Firth as Mr Darcy. PHOTO: UIP

LONDON - Basically, Mr Darcy, the dark, brooding hero of one of Jane Austen's most famous novels, Pride And Prejudice, would not have looked at all like Colin Firth.

Rather, the "real" Darcy would have been pale and pointy-chinned, and would have had a long nose on an oval, beardless face. His hair, strangely, would have been white. And he would have been slightly undernourished, with sloping shoulders - "more ballet dancer than beefcake", according to one of the authors of a new study.

Hardly a steamy romantic hero, then, in modern eyes.

Ahead of the 200th anniversary of Austen's death, Fitzwilliam Darcy, the much-fantasised hero of her novel Pride And Prejudice, was given a rather unflattering makeover in a study published on Thursday (Feb 9), shocking fans and possibly forever altering their adoration of English literature's most eligible bachelor.

The study, by Dr John Sutherland, professor of modern English literature at University College London, and Professor Amanda Vickery of early modern history at Queen Mary University of London, was billed as the first historically accurate portrait of the fictional character.

It came attached with a series of illustrations that show what a gentleman, one who shunned fieldwork, would have looked like in 1813, when the novel was published.

A real-life Darcy in that era would have been a "far cry from muscular modern-day television representations" portrayed by actors such as Firth, Elliot Cowan and Matthew Macfayden, the study concluded. Firth, who is most often associated with the role, is broad-shouldered, with short, dark curls framing a square jaw.

One of the most memorable moments in the BBC's 1995 adaptation of Pride And Prejudice showed Firth, as Darcy, emerging from a lake in a soaking wet shirt that displayed the contours of his ripped torso.

Had he actually existed in 19th-century Britain, Darcy would not have been "Colin Firth emerging like Venus from the waves", Dr Sutherland said. Nor would he have resembled Laurence Olivier "looking diabolical" in a 1940 film adaptation.

It is likely, he surmised, that a proud Darcy "expressed very little except mild contempt". The academics conducted a month-long investigation into the norms of male beauty during the Georgian period (roughly 1714 to 1830), as well as the author's romantic relationships, thought to have provided inspiration for her hero.

Austen herself offered readers very little description of Darcy, introducing him only as someone who drew "the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien". The dearth of details allowed filmmakers and television producers to adapt his looks to modern beauty standards.

Darcy, said Dr Sutherland, is the "beau idéal, the male star of Austen's fictional world". But "we don't know what he looks like". The absence of details was intentional, he said. "This is not because she couldn't write, but because she knew the important thing that fiction is not what you say, but what you don't say," he said. "Good practitioners of fiction know how to use this expertly."

Yet, even the professor admitted being unable to remove Darcy's association with the actors who have portrayed him. "Colin Firth does dominate my visual field, which is a pity," he said, "because TV and film fix an image of a character whom Jane Austen, for artistic reasons, left vacuous."

Ms Delia Cazzato, 50, from North London, was understandably upset when she read the study. She was so aghast, she said, that she almost fell off her chair.

"I love Pride And Prejudice, and when I saw the illustrations, I was disillusioned," she said. "Mr Darcy looked like a shorter version of Napoleon." She remains a firm fan of Firth, however.

The study's finding that Darcy most likely had a pale complexion and a long oval face were in keeping with the qualities associated with wealth and privilege during Austen's time because aristocrats usually avoided the sun.

"In the late 1790s, square jaws were practically unheard-of amongst the upper classes," the study said, "with the pointy chin and small mouth evident on Mr Darcy very common features of the gentlemen of the era."

Darcy-in-real-life's slim, sloping shoulders were often found in the landed gentry at the time, with strong legs and "well modelled thighs a sign of virility, a good fencer and horseman". And - gasp! - he would have had only a "modest chest", because having a muscular chest was often associated with a "labourer, not a gentleman", the study said.

In drawing their conclusions by considering Austen's own romantic interests, the academics studied in particular the 1st Earl of Morley John Parker and Thomas Lefroy, who later became a Chief Justice of Ireland. Both are thought to have inspired Darcy's character.

Both men "sported powdered hair and had long, youthful faces with pale complexions", the study said. Other noblemen who were considered sex symbols of the time had similar features, including Admiral Lord Nelson, who led Britain to victory against the French in the Battle of Trafalgar, and the 1st Duke of Wellington, another British military hero.

Some readers, however, remained unfazed by Darcy's drastic reimagining.

"This is what the real Mr Darcy looks like, except for the fact that he is a figment of the imagination," Mr Stig Abell, the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, wrote on Twitter. "And so it is bollocks."