Trawling through the books for physical descriptions of the characters, and they’re few and far between.

You know how Darcy is tall, dark and handsome? Well, the “dark” part isn’t anywhere in the text that I can find. It certainly says he’s tall and handsome, but otherwise I think we’ve been duped by Lawrence Olivier, Colin Firth and Matthew McFadyen again. (If you know of the reference where it says more about Darcy’s looks, let me know.)

Elizabeth has dark eyes; so do Marianne and Mary Crawford. Fanny is decidedly fair with light eyes; so are her cousins Maria and Julia, which is demonstrated by the fact that they like Mary Crawford for being small and dark (so she is no competition to them). The same goes for Emma, who is probably dark, because it says she particularly admires Harriet’s fair, plump prettiness and soft blue eyes – although it’s also possible that Emma, as enamoured as she is with herself, is also fair and plump, but I wouldn’t think it likely. I don’t think there is any description of Anne, other than that she’s pretty with a “fine bloom”; her sister is also “very handsome” but with no particulars. Catherine is also just non-specifically pretty.

Marianne is taller and more curvy than Elinor; Lydia is the tallest of the Bennet girls. Fanny is small, her cousins tall. Henry Crawford is short – no more than 5’8″, says Mr Rushworth sneeringly – and very dark (black, the Bertram girls call him at first). Mr Bingley is tall. So’s Mr Collins, who is also heavy-looking – but one of the articles I read recently says that “heavy-looking” doesn’t mean he’s fat, as I always assumed, but more like slow, literally “a bit thick” or “dense”. I’ll have to see if I can find that article again.

In fact, there’s no consistency between Austen’s characters. None of them are like any of the others, and whether they’re handsome or not has very little to say to who or what they are. Correction: with the men, that’s the case. The women, if you’re plain you’re out of luck (e.g. Mary Bennet and Charlotte Collins). But for the guys, about the only thing that can be said is that the really wicked charmers, Wickham and Willoughby, are excessively handsome, with “manly beauty” even – sort of necessary for charmerdom, I suppose. But otherwise, the heroes and anti-heroes are a really mixed bag, from very handsome (Darcy, Elton, Frank Churchill, Edmund) to downright plain (Edward, Thorpe). And several of them are initially described as “not handsome”, but then speedily grow on the women who look at them – the most notable instance of course being Henry Crawford, who starts out “very plain” and then has the Bertram girls falling all over him soon.

Austen never wrote the same character twice, not even in her minor side personalities. None of them act the same, have the same motivations, the same habits or, indeed, the same looks. Definitely no formula fiction here.


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