Jane Austen’s Real-Life Mr. Darcy?

Jane Austen wrote wonderfully of love and romance, yet never married herself. We know that she had romances, probably at least one of them serious, but since her sister Cassandra burned much of the correspondence between her and Jane, we can really only speculate about much of Jane’s life.

Some think law student Tom Lefroy inspired Jane to create Mr. Darcy, a notion fueled by the popular chick flick “Becoming Jane.” But in the recently published book Jane Austen: An Unrequited Love, literary historian Andrew Norman believes that the real-life “Darcy” was most likely John Blackall, a theology student who first met Jane in the summer of 1798 while staying with the Lefroys, then met her again in Devon in 1802, where they fell in love. For whatever reason, the summer romance didn’t last, and may have caused a rift between the Austen sisters.

“No-one knows precisely what happened that summer or straight afterwards, because the letters [between the sisters] dry up,” said Norman in an interview with the Daily Telegraph.

He believes Jane’s dispute with Cassandra helped inspire the tale of sisterly betrayal in Jane’s unfinished 1804 novel The Watsons.

I’ve ordered Norman’s book and look forward to seeing what he puts forward as evidence. Look for a “book report” soon.

What About Mr. Almost Right?

Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman) woos Marianne Dashwood (Kate WInslet) in "Sense and Sensibility."

Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman) woos Marianne Dashwood (Kate Winslet) in “Sense and Sensibility.”

It’s the sort of dilemma Jane Austen would have appreciated. A 38-year-woman writes in the Daily Mail in the UK that she is contemplating Settling for Mr. Not Quite Right rather than being alone, and wonders if she is doing the right thing.

“The vast majority of us have been conditioned to crave the dream of falling in love, marrying The One and living happily ever after,” writes Lucy Taylor. “It has taken me 38 years to wake up to the fact that this is just a dream.”

Perhaps, she muses, the practical view of marriage taken in “The Dark Ages” (including Jane Austen’s era) wasn’t that far off the mark. People married to better their position in society, support themselves and their families, and give a home to the children they hoped to have. Many marriages were arranged by the families, as they still are today in many cultures.

It’s a thought-provoking piece (I do wonder if her boyfriend read it, and how he feels about it). Despite having been in love three or four times and married twice (#2 is going on 24 years), I wouldn’t dream of advising someone like Ms. Taylor. Every woman has to figure out these things for herself.

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Mr. Darcy as Prince Charming? Not Exactly

There’s this notion floating around that Fitzwilliam Darcy is a fantasy, a real Prince Charming. I find that interesting.

Like many a woman, I love Mr. Darcy dearly. He is one of my all-time favorite fictional guys, and I don’t blame Lizzy for falling for him. He’s intelligent, honorable, loyal and has a sense of humor, even if he often hides it. And he loves Elizabeth Bennet with every ounce of his being.

But much of Mr. Darcy’s appeal for me lies largely in the fact that he is not a fantasy. Yes, he’s tall, handsome and worth a fortune, but that is not why Lizzy falls in love with him. In demeanor, personality and social skills (or more accurately, lack of social skills), he’s a very real guy with plenty of flaws. You just know that Jane Austen knew more than a couple of men like that. We all know guys like that: good, loyal men who bottle up their emotions and who couldn’t make small talk if their lives depended on it.

Mr. Darcy is aloof, arrogant and exceptionally rude the first time Elizabeth meets him. He represses his emotions to the point that Lizzy is shocked to hear that he is in love with her. His idea of a marriage proposal is to belittle his would-be fiancee’s family, explain just how low he’s stooping in marrying her, and then act surprised that she feels insulted by his honesty. Way to go, Darcy.

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Tweet, Tweet! Jane Austen in a Sentence

Stubborn woman meets proud rich man, hates him, loves him, they finally get married.

The Jane Austen Today blog posted a really fun exercise last week: Sum up a Jane Austen novel in a Tweet.

For those of you unfamiliar with Twitter, a Tweet is a sentence or two that you post to Twitter to tell the world what you’re doing, what you like or don’t like, what you’ve posted on your blog—you name it. The catch is that it cannot exceed 140 characters.

I contributed a comment for Emma: “Spoiled rich girl too busy playing matchmaker to realize guy friend is her own true love, but happily he’s smarter than she is and proposes.”

Ah, the possibilities are endless.

The Austen vs. Bronte Smackdown

The Bronte sisters

The Bronte sisters

Two names pretty much sum up 19th century “chick lit”: Austen and Brontë. Austen is Jane Austen, of course, who is often credited with inventing the genre. Brontë is the surname of sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne, who wrote gothic tales of romance.

People sometimes get them  mixed up. “Jane Austen…didn’t she write Jane Eyre?” someone asked me recently. It’s amusing, really, since Austen and the Brontës wrote in radically different styles. Charlotte Brontë, author of Jane Eyre, wrote disdainfully of Austen:

“She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well. There is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy, in the painting. She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him with nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood…”

Austen couldn’t return the compliment because she was dead by the time the Brontës were setting pen to paper, but Northanger Abbey nicely parodies the sort of hyper-imaginative tales the trio of sisters excelled at.

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Pride Gone with the Wind

The budget was tight (there was  a war on, after all) and legend has it that many of the costumes were borrowed from the previous year’s “Gone with the Wind.” The studio favored Clark Gable for the male lead, and Vivien Leigh was in the running, at least briefly, to play Elizabeth Bennet, though Greer Garson got the role.

Yes, it’s Longbourn meets Tara, better known as the 1940 version of “Pride and Prejudice.” Fortunately, Rhett Butler does not re-materialize as Mr. Darcy—the role went to Laurence Olivier—though Vivien “Miz Scarlett!” Leigh might well have made quite a feisty and lively Lizzy.

Somehow I had escaped seeing the 1940 movie of Jane Austen’s most beloved novel until recently. My first inclination was to laugh at the costumes. At any moment, I expected Lizzy Bennet to tear down the draperies to make a dress. My second inclination was to cringe at what MGM had done to Austen’s marvelous love story. While they kept much of her dialogue, they threw out some of the best lines, and dulled her sharp, sometimes caustic wit with a typically syrupy Hollywood story.

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George Knightley, Mr. Nice Guy

Mr. Knightley, as portrayed by Jeremy Northam

Mr. Knightley, as portrayed by Jeremy Northam

Mr. Darcy may steal more women’s hearts, but Mr. Knightley, the romantic hero of Emma, surely ranks as one of the most appealing of Jane Austen’s male characters. Austen describes him as “sensible,” “cheerful,” and a man who has “nothing of ceremony about him.” He’s a bit of a tease. He smiles a lot. He’s sociable, although he enjoys living alone at Donwell Abbey. He can be a bit peevish at times, especially when he’s suffering from jealousy, but that just proves he’s human.

Mr. Knightley is honest. He never hesitates to tell Emma the truth, especially about her misguided attempts to meddle in others’ affairs: “He was one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them.” At one point late in the novel, Emma assures him that his guidance has benefited her.
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How Rich Is Mr. Darcy?

Just how wealthy is Mr. Darcy?

He was earning £10,000 in, let’s say, 1811-1812, the time when Pride and Prejudice is set. The relative worth of yesterday’s money to today’s currency varies greatly depending on how you measure it, but if you use average earnings (that is, how much he made compared with average incomes of his time), a gent earning £10,000 in 1830, the farthest back the index goes, would be earning nearly £8 million (about $11 million U.S.) annually.

But there was a much wider gap between rich and poor and not much of a middle class back then, so retail price index (that is, the purchasing power of his income) is probably a better indicator. By that standard, Mr. Darcy would be earning about £534,000 pounds ($790,000 U.S.) annually (according to Measuring Worth). Well, probably less than that at the moment, with the world’s economy in dire straits.
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‘Lost in Austen’ DVD Finally Arrives

Lost in Austen's Mr. Darcy, portrayed by Eliot Cowan

Lost in Austen’s Mr. Darcy, portrayed by Elliot Cowan

A couple of weeks ago, “Lost in Austen” finally came out on DVD in the United States. Those of us who delight in this marvelously twisted take on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice couldn’t be happier.

This sharply written four-part series, which originally aired on British TV, then on the Oxygen channel (and PBS) here, revolves around what happens when a modern woman, Amanda Price (excellently portrayed by Jemima Rooper), finds herself transported into fictional Georgian England, right into the heart of Jane Austen’s most famous novel. As Amanda tries to negotiate the intricacies of early 19th century dancing, dining and etiquette, Lizzy Bennet, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, is living it up in 21st century London and shows no signs of wanting to come back.

Like many women, Amanda loves Pride and Prejudice for its timeless love story between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. Then she meets the famous Fitzwilliam Darcy, who bitterly disappoints her by being a “relentlessly unpleasant,” overly arrogant aristocrat. Ah, but we knew that, didn’t we? Elliot Cowan excels as Darcy. He’s proud and overbearing, then contrite, and finally passionate. And he looks really, really good in a wet shirt. (Yes, “Lost in Austen” pays tribute to that famous jump-in-the-lake scene in the 1995 version of P&P, which cemented Colin Firth’s reputation as the Mr. Darcy for all time.)

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Jane Austen Movie Men Stand Tall

Want to play one of Jane Austen’s male romantic heroes in the movies? Don’t bother to audition unless you’re at least 6 feet tall. (Well, maybe you can squeak by at just a shade under.) Consider the evidence:

  • Colin Firth (Mr. Darcy, “Pride and Prejudice”), 6’1”
  • Jeremy Northam (Mr. Knightley, “Emma”), 6’2”
  • JJ Feild (Mr. Tilney, “Northanger Abbey”), 6’1”
  • Matthew McFadyen (Mr. Darcy, “Pride and Prejudice”), 6’3”
  • Mark Strong (Mr. Knightley, “Emma”), 6’2”
  • Ciaran Hinds (Captain Wentworth, “Persuasion”), 6’1”
  • Rupert Penry-Jones (Captain Wentworth, “Persuasion”), 6’2”
  • Alan Rickman (Col. Brandon, “Sense and Sensibility”), 6’1”
  • David Rintoul (Mr. Darcy, “Pride and Prejudice”), height unknown but it’s obvious that he’s pretty tall
  • Elliot Cowan (Mr. Darcy, “Lost in Austen”), 6’2″

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