LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
We all know Mr. Darcy, whether it's from the 2005 movie version of Jane Austen's "Pride And Prejudice," where he's played by Matthew MacFadyen - tall, dark and handsome...
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PRIDE & PREJUDICE")
MATTHEW MACFADYEN: (As Mr. Darcy) I believe you spoke with my aunt last night. And it has taught me to hope as I'd scarcely allowed myself before.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Or a smoldering Colin Firth from the famous BBC adaptation...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PRIDE AND PREJUDICE")
COLIN FIRTH: (As Mr. Darcy) My affections and wishes are unchanged. But one word from you will silence me on this subject forever.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Or my personal favorite...
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PRIDE AND PREJUDICE")
LAURENCE OLIVIER: (As Mr. Darcy) Elizabeth, dare I ask you again?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Laurence Olivier.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PRIDE AND PREJUDICE")
OLIVIER: (As Mr. Darcy) Elizabeth, dear, beautiful Lizzy...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sad news - Jane Austen's Darcy probably didn't look like any of those gentlemen. John Sutherland is a professor emeritus of modern English literature. And he was commissioned by the Drama Channel to come up with a historically accurate portrait of Mr. Darcy. Jane Austen, he says, was such a genius of character development that you really didn't need to give us physical clues.
JOHN SUTHERLAND: You really have to actually do the work yourself. I mean, the one thing I can think of in "Emma," for instance, is that we're told that Emma has hazel eyes. But then what else does she look like? And what's the color of her hair? How tall does she stand? There are some novelists who would give you those facts. In fact, they might overload their text with descriptions of characters' body, carriage, various other things.
She doesn't. She sets up these beautiful, almost geometric situations. And there's no flesh on them or very little flesh. We don't know what characters are wearing very often. We have to fill that in ourselves. And that, of course, requires us knowing something about the historical period.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Guardian newspaper describes what Mr. Darcy would've looked like, what you uncovered this way - pale, slope-shouldered, weedy character, thin of mouth and chin with his hair powdered white. That does not sound like a very attractive prospect. I wouldn't cross a ballroom for that, I think.
SUTHERLAND: (Laughter) Well, yes. Is that how you see him?
SUTHERLAND: Perhaps not. Perhaps you see Laurence Olivier. I did this with a very distinguished social historian, Amanda Vickery. She pointed out that Darcy was conceived in the 1790s, when England was at war. They were terrified by what they'd seen of the French Revolution.
And she said a hero of the period would've had a Brutus cut. You know, he would've been military. He would've suggested a manliness that defended England. But the novel itself was held back until 1813. We're then in the Regency, post-Byron. Byron woke up in 1812 and found himself famous. But he also made famous a certain kind of beau ideal of English manhood, flowing hair, soft, lustrous, tempting eyes, perhaps full lips. That, perhaps, is the authentic Darcy.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Which adaptation on the screen do you think most closely hews to what you imagine Mr. Darcy to look like? Did anyone get it right?
SUTHERLAND: Of course, the thing is that we all imagine our own Darcy, just as we all imagine the person that we first fell in love with. So when you ask which is my - you know, being my age, which is Methuselian (ph), I think of the first version of "Pride And Prejudice" I saw, which was the Laurence Olivier version. And he's very haughty and very proud but Heathcliff-ian (ph), too.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: John Sutherland is a professor emeritus of modern English literature. And he joined us from the BBC in London.
SUTHERLAND: Thank you very much for letting me chunter.
(SOUNDBITE OF JEAN-YVES THIBAUDET'S "END CREDITS")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.