The internet has been all over this, a “dramatic re-appraisal,” as the headline breathlessly puts it. But we never knew just what Darcy looked like in the first place — all Jane Austen gives us is “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 pounds a year.” But the piece by John Sutherland and Amanda Vickery is great, a thorough exploration of early 19th-century ideas about male desirability, ticking through things like the importance of cravats, knowing how to move gracefully, and having a well-turned leg. None of this was news to me, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that the first readers of Pride and Prejudice probably did not imagine him as looking like a certain English actor.
What surprised me instead was that was seen as surprising. Colin Firth has become our age’s Mr. Darcy, testament to the degree to which that film version of Austen’s best-known work has superseded the novel in the popular imagination. In part, this is because it is such a fabulous adaptation. I can’t think of another at once so faithful to the work it was based on, yet so brilliantly its own thing, successfully exploiting the possibilities that film affords. It takes Austen out of the drawing room, finding ingenious ways to render the smoldering sexual attraction between Darcy and Elizabeth that is an essential part of the original work, yet properly discreet — as any 1813 novel written by “A Lady” would need to be.
The relationship between novels and movies based on novels is complicated. Each is telling a story, but the tools at hand are so different, it is only to be expected that the story often ends up being quite different too. I tend to like novels better, because they make one’s own imagination do more of the work, but I recognize that as my own preference, not the sign of intellectual superiority I once took it for. I don’t want to read Pride and Prejudice and imagine Colin Firth — I don’t want Andrew Davies colonizing my imagination.
I’m always surprised when people, hearing the plot of the novel I was working on for so long, or maybe after reading it, have encouraged me with remarks like, “That would make a good movie!” or, “Maybe it will be made into a Netflix mini-series!” As if the highest aspiration for a novel is to become something else. Yet I’ve had that same sensation reading certain books, like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or The Golem and the Jinni. Sometimes our minds to turn to film quite naturally; our own imaginations became auteurs.
I dream of an adaptation mostly because it would be a giant advertisement for the book. Not to mention, chance to splash across some later edition, “Now a major motion picture” (is there ever a minor one?) and the fact that I suppose money would change hands.
Which reminds me of the saddest of the many ironies that surround Jane Austen. She would have been richer than any of her fictional creations, had she seen even a small part of the profits her works have raked in over the years in movies and more. I like to think she would have been amused.