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 — about 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.” 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, of knowing how to move gracefully, and of having a well-turned leg. None of this was news to me, so I personally can’t be too surprised to learn that the first readers of Pride and Prejudice probably did not imagine him as looking like a certain late 20th-century English actor.
What surprises me, instead, is that seems to be 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 Darcy, testament to the degree to which that film version of Austen’s best-known work has superseded the novel in the popular imagination.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 that is at once so faithful to the work it was based on yet so brilliantly its own original thing, successfully exploiting the possibilities that film affords. It takes Austen out of the drawing room, finding ingenious ways to make clear 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 always 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 now recognize that as my own preference, not some sign of intellectual superiority, as 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’ve been surprised by the number of people who, learning that I finally managed to sell the novel I was working on for so long, or maybe reading an early incarnation of it, have said some version of, “That would make a fantastic 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 take it for a compliment; I think it is intended to be. I’ve had that same sensation reading certain books, like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or The Golem and the Jinni — when a setting is sufficiently exotic, and a story dramatic enough, our minds seem to turn to film quite naturally; our own imaginations became auteurs.
Not to mention, giant advertisement for the book! Not to mention, chance to splash across the cover, “Now a major motion picture!” (is there ever a minor one?) Not to mention, money — which is the saddest of the many ironies that surround Jane Austen. She would have been richer than any of her fictional creations, if she’d seen even a small part of the profits her works have raked in over the years. I like to think she would have been amused.