Jane Austen was in the news again last week—I know this, because when I log onto Google News, it offers tailored entries based on my previous web searches and sticks them right at the top of the feed. I honestly don’t know whether to be delighted or terribly disturbed by this fact. But artificial intelligence issues aside, I found this most recent bout of Austenmania to be quite a curious one.
It’s not a rare occasion these days that Miss Jane appears in the news, especially during this decade that celebrates “200 years since…” each of her famous tomes, published during the 1810s. Austen’s popularity endures: in 2013, Britain announced it will finally commemorate her in currency (Austen will appear on the 10-pound note, beginning in 2017) and last month she even got a musical in Chicago.
The most recent news cycle that got my attention (to be fair, it was hardly a sidebar item) highlights a new book that claims to make a striking and long sought-after discovery: the “true” identity of the real-life Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy—and (sadly) it’s not Colin Firth.
Before reading more about this speculative malarkey, I first began to wonder…
How much does it matter whether we “know” who the “real” person is behind a text or a character? How much do biographical details influence our scholarly consciousness, and how much should they? Do our critical lenses—does our reading, perhaps—depend upon knowing (or not knowing) these identities?
Independent historian Susan C. Law hopes that these identities do matter a great deal. Her forthcoming book, Through the Keyhole: Sex, Scandal and the Secret Life of the Country House (July 2015), promises to piece together the puzzle behind the ever-popular and ever-mysterious Mr. Darcy. And the book’s public marketing campaign seems to hinge upon this steamy nugget.
“Dr. Law believes the fictional aristocrat was based on the first Earl of Morley, John Parker, who was married to a friend of Austen and said to be ‘intense.’ She now claims to have built a ‘convincing argument’ for pinning down the real Fitzwilliam Darcy, admitting she cannot be ‘100 per cent’ sure.”
According to Law’s five years of research, Austen resided for a time at the Earl of Morley’s home, and her acquaintance, his wife Frances, was thought at the time to have been the author of Austen’s anonymously published novel. While Law admits to having no “concrete evidence” for her Darcy=Morley claim, she seems quite ready to propound her theories publicly.
Law’s accumulated “facts” seem to be as follows:
- Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice in the early 1800s. Sometime during this time, Austen paid a visit to Saltram House in Plymouth, Devon, the country home of the Earl of Morley.
- Letters show that Jane had befriended Frances Talbot, the second wife of John Parker, the 1st Earl of Morley.
- Austen’s brother Henry knew John Parker at university.
- John Parker was involved in several sex scandals that produced illegitimate children, leading to a divorce from his first wife in 1809.
And my favorite pieces of evidence:
- In his portrait from 1805, John Parker looks to be “very intense.”
- Darcy is “tall, dark, and brooding.” The Earl of Morley was “tall, dark, and brooding.” (If I may…Colin Firth is tall, dark, and brooding.)
Well, there you have it, folks—mystery solved!
So what, after all, is the usefulness of trying to uncover such, as it were, source materials for literary characters? If I were to tell a group of undergraduate students, for instance, that the prideful, snobbish Mr. Darcy was in fact based upon a real person whom Austen knew, I can only imagine that this fact would reduce their ability to appreciate and understand Austen’s text. Suddenly, a fictionalized character would lose the veil of mystery that Austen’s narrator casts upon him so wonderfully, and he would become instead simply “some guy” whom we understand only as a reflection of the “real” person who was frustratingly standoffish, and that’s the mere reason Austen portrays him to be so. An assumption of stark realism would, for such readers, replace Austen’s imaginative literary portraits.
Despite such pedagogical concerns, our scholarship (my own included) still remains invested in such discoveries, and other sources have also explored the role of the Morleys in Austen’s life.
According to an article published in Persuasions in 1992 by Chris Viveash, Lord and Lady Morley did have associations with the Austens, at least in that Jane knew about their scandalous history, and that her brother Henry claimed an acquaintance with them.
John Parker was originally entitled Lord Boringdon, an inheritance he garnered at the age of 16. Lord Boringdon engaged in several scandalous love affairs that resulted in three illegitimate children prior to getting married; he then continued his adulterous ways and produced bastards after marriage as well. His marriage to Lady Augusta Fane (1804-1809) broke off when Lord Boringdon’s scandalous behavior became known in Society, an event that justified the Lady to leave him for her own lover in turn, whom she married after the Boringdons’ divorce.
As it so happens, Princess Charlotte believed that this first wife, Lady Augusta, was the authoress of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.
This scandal transpired before Boringdon married his second wife, Frances Talbot, in 1809. Frances seems to have straightened him out: the Boringdons returned in good form to society and Frances helped to raise the many children whom her husband had produced over the years. Lord Boringdon was given the title Earl of Morley in 1815 for services rendered to the crown. As Viveash explains, both of Austen’s first publications were credited to the Boringdon household:
“Since Sense and Sensibility, together with Pride and Prejudice, had also been attributed to Frances, Lady Morley, Lord Morley will be remembered as the only man to have had two wives, each of whom is credited with having written one or more of Jane Austen’s novels.”
In 1815, Jane Austen asked her publisher John Murray to deliver a copy of Emma to Lady Morley. We do not know the reasons behind her request, but the two women had a brief exchange of letters afterwards.
In Viveash’s assessment, the association seems to end there. But critic Clive Caplan suggests that a “quite close” relationship indeed formed between the Austens and the Boringdons, through Jane’s brother Henry.
In the first decade of the 1800s, Henry established several army agencies, by which he acted as a middleman between the paymaster general and the paymaster of a regiment—a frowned-upon occupation due to the many illicit transactions that often exchanged hands through such outlets.
In 1808, Henry established one of his agencies for the North Devon Militia, for which John Parker, Lord Boringdon, served as its Colonel. According to Caplan, the families became intimate:
“Henry gave drawing lessons to Boringdon’s sister; the Boringdons both read Pride and Prejudice in 1813; and the peer was suspected of being Mr. Darcy.”
Suspected by whom, however, we do not find out; Caplan glosses over this brief allusion without any further note.
Few critics seem to have taken up the mantle of this allusion, until now. Quite frankly, what Dr. Law’s new book will offer us when it is released this summer will probably do little to advance Austen scholarship, but it may do much to reignite a hunger that Janeites have long expressed. Law’s search for the “true” identity of both an author and her characters reveals a desire we all seem to have, at least to some degree, but one for which we should exhibit at least some measure of caution. We have to show our students, after all, that not everything can be correlated to reality television.
Maybe one day that ideal letter–the “concrete evidence” that Dr. Law hopes for–will eventually turn up to tell us who the real Mr. Darcy was. But to be honest: I hope it never does.