To begin with, here’s the excerpt from my prizewinning new release, Darcy: A Pride and Prejudice Variation, which was what first got me thinking about it.
(Note: most of the book is from Mr Darcy’s diaries, but I allowed myself the variety of Mary’s notes to self at certain points. Here, she is musing on this very question…)
In other words, thought Mary gloomily, men care for nothing beyond looks. Really, as a species, men were quite hopeless. She picked up her pen and continued.
For proof, one need look no farther than upon the last Meryton assembly. There, I assure you, were gathered gentlemen of all types and of every station, from the disdainful Mr Darcy – related by blood to Dukes and Earls though no nobleman himself – down to poor Mr Hartley, who is never truly at ease in society.
Yet every person of the masculine persuasion appeared equally smitten by my eldest sister, Jane. And what is there in Jane, to so smite them? Does she display unusual brilliance in conversation, or dance more prettily than the rest of us? Is she capable of deep observation? Or does she, perchance, convulse the company with the brilliance of her repartee?
She does not. Yet despite this it was – and on every side – ‘Miss Bennet’s complexion… Miss Bennet’s air… A goddess! She is all perfection!’ – even though the simplest book fatigues her and she has not a tithe of such information as even Lizzy possesses. Yet even Mr Darcy described her as ‘the only handsome woman in the room’ – meaning, the only creature in the room handsome enough to dance with.
But – and this is the point I must stress – after hearing this opinion, Mr Bingley should have rebuked him, saying, ‘But, in terms of worth, my friend, you should consider such solider assets as accomplishments, intelligent action and good works.’ Instead, Mr Bingley abused his friend’s taste and recommended Lizzy, as being both ‘quite handsome and probably agreeable.’ (Please note! Not well-principled or well-read! Note – too – that Lizzy’s ‘handsomeness’ was stressed, even above her character.)
Thousands of young ladies would never have noticed this but, as my father once said, ‘Mary is deep. She is so deep she may sink altogether, one of these days.’
In Austen’s novels, it seems as if every young female character not only carries an invisible number on her back (the number of thousands their husband expects to receive, upon marrying her) but is also graded, in terms of looks. As careers for women were not exactly a “thing”, their life chances really did come down to luck – or even to mathematics.
how rich and powerful your family happens to be
your level of beauty
how likely you are to marry well and to have a comfortable life.
In Austen’s books, it’s never quite so simple, of course.
Lady Bertram, the languid mistress of Mansfield Park, when a youthful beauty, was reckoned by her own uncle as “three thousand pounds short” of any claim to marry Sir Thomas. (In this instance…beauty rules!)
But beauty doesn’t always rule. Mary Crawford was “long in finding among the dashing representatives, or idle heir-apparents, who were at the command of her beauty and her £20,000” anyone to interest her.
Equally, Elizabeth Elliot in Persuasion– a baronet’s daughter – still handsome but pushing thirty and frankly beginning to panic – would “have rejoiced to be certain of being sought by baronet-blood in the next twelvemonth or two.”
For these two, even beauty plus breeding was not enough to secure what they wished for.
As for Elizabeth Bennet, well, she hit the jackpot … Of mediocre birth and tiny fortune, and – though good-looking – not a beauty in her sister’s class, her wit, charm and depth of feeling still led her to the fairytale ending.
In other words, in Austen’s novels – the mathematics of marriage can be overturned.
Despite this, I’ve always found it fascinating how much emphasis Austen put on looks – not only in her novels, but in her letters, too. She rarely mentions a character for the first time without not only describing their looks but also rating, and even ranking, them in comparison to others. My favourite Austen description of looks is from Sense and Sensibility: “Marianne was still handsomer. Her form, though not so correct as her sister’s, in having the advantage of height, was more striking; and her face was so lovely, that when in the common cant of praise, she was called a beautiful girl, truth was less violently outraged than usually happens.”
A mere flip through Austen’s letters – I mean, ten minutes, max. – found all these:
“Ben and Anna walked here last Sunday and she looked so pretty, it was quite a pleasure to see her”… “Fanny is a fine stout girl”… “Lady B. was much what I expected, I could not determine whether she was rather handsome or very plain”… “I do not think Fanny quite so pretty as she was”… “Mary was disappointed in her beauty and thought him very disagreeable”… “I hope she returned as much pleased with Mrs Knight’s beauty and Miss Mills’ judicious remarks as those ladies were with hers”… “She is now seven or eight and twenty and, though still handsome, less handsome than she has been.”
This reinforces the Regency “looks + money = marriageability” formula that we started with. However, Austen emphasises her characters’ – and even her own acquaintances’ – looks not because she was obsessed by appearances – she clearly wasn’t – but because appearance altered the mathematics of a woman’s life-chances. Of course, it’s luckily different today, where in most countries most women have a strong say in their own destinies, whether single or not.
Finally, is there any truth in Fordyce’s opinion that men generally overrate beauty? Or that beauty really can trump everything but money?
My husband and close male friends all denied it (but they would, right?) And so, not being a man, I decided to run a straw poll of young men I know. While almost all admitted that looks comprise a large part of their initial attraction to a woman, they all disagreed that either beauty or prospects counted much when considering a relationship with her. The most interesting responses:
“No question, in a pub or concert hall, you notice the prettiest women first (which might not the be same women that your brother notices, by the way. As a 27-year-old guy, which I am, you’re more interested in meeting the attractive ones… and, if you do, you maybe put more effort into finding out something about them. But the number of disappointments!… It’s as if the gorgeous ones get spoiled, somehow!”
“I agree about the attraction – I think I always know, almost instantly, if she’s the kind of woman I could fancy. But does that mean I’d rush to ask her out? No way. I have a list in my head that list goes (1) Am I attracted? (2) Is she likeable? (3) Is she well-educated? (4) Does she seem sensible as well as smart and good-looking? If all these are yesses, then I might ask her out. At least, I’d think hard about it. And yeah, I’ve been called fussy before!”
“Looks, hmm. My own feeling is that looks don’t last. The stuff that lasts is what’s in the heart and soul, like my Mum, for instance. This Fordyce you mention – I haven’t read Austen for years – He’s got it right that men will always notice looks. Always. It’s an instinct. But to get involved with someone just because they’re great-looking – for the great looks to be everything – now that’s mad.”
“For me, at 35, it’s almost the opposite. I meet some fantastic-looking woman and I’m thinking, ‘She’d never look at me’ and even, on some level, ‘Somebody’d just steal her from me, if we got together.’ For me, looks that good are like a ‘no-go’ area. This ‘Jane’ in your excerpt – the stunner that everyone admires – she’d terrify me! – If I’d spotted her across a crowded ballroom, I’d pick the ugly sister to dance with instead!”
“Your question is unfair, in my opinion, because women are just as bad! And it’s probably not your faults, or ours either, but the fault of biology. We are biologically programmed to judge on appearances, at least at first. And anyway, it’s not really about the attraction, is it? – It’s about what, if anything, you choose to do about it. It’s about the second thoughts, and even the third.”
In biological/evolutionary terms, the two hundred years from Austen’s time to ours is a mere fleabite, so it’s possible that these very answers might have been echoed – if in rather posher language – by Knightley, Darcy, Bingley, Edmund Bertram etc. in the 1800s, had they been asked.
Captain Wentworth famously joked, “A little beauty, and a few smiles, and a few compliments to the navy, and I am a lost man!” But later he told his sister – far more seriously – that what he was truly looking for in a woman was “a strong mind, with sweetness of manner”.
If you’d like to, share YOUR opinion on how much – or little – Austen’s heroes thought about looks in the comments!
Published on June 30th, Darcy: A Pride and Prejudice Variation is the third in McVeigh’s prizewinning series of Austenesque standalones. It has already won the Gold Medal in the Pencraft Best Books (summer, 2203) and is a starred “Editor’s Pick” on Publishers Weekly.
It is available at:
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