Literary mysteries: Who is the real Mr. Darcy?

A Pride and Prejudice ball
To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," fans of the novel threw a ball at Chatsworth House on June 22, 2013. Chatsworth House in Chatsworth, England is believed to be the inspiration for Pemberley, the residence of Mr. Darcy.
Christopher Furlong | Getty Images 2013

The question: Who is the real Mr. Darcy?

Fitzwilliam Darcy has been making readers swoon for over 200 years. So who's the man behind the much-loved character?

Dr. Susan Law spent five years hot on Darcy's historical trail, and in her new book, "Through the Keyhole: Sex, Scandal and the Secret Life of the Country House," she points the finger at John Parker. That would be John Parker, Earl of Morley — also known as Lord Boringdon.

The First Earl of Morley
John Parker, Earl of Morley, also known as Lord Boringdon
Creative Commons via Wikipedia

Law dug through diaries and letters to track him down, and while she admitted she can't be absolutely sure, she makes a firm case for the Earl. The Earl was married to Austen's good friend, Frances Talbot, and Austen was a frequent guest at their home while writing "Pride and Prejudice." (No word on whether Frances knew that her friend cast her husband as her love interest.)

Law told The Telegraph that the physical similarities between Darcy and the Earl are also "obvious." This is a trickier piece of evidence, considering Austen's descriptions of Darcy's looks are few and far between. She tells readers only that Darcy "drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien." Do you see the resemblance?

The Earl may actually have been the inspiration for more than one of Austen's novels. Law claims that before he married Frances, "the Earl was involved in a sordid sex scandal that led to divorce, which is thought to be behind a famous plot in another of Jane Austen's books, 'Mansfield Park.'"

Thomas Langlois Lefroy
Thomas Langlois Lefroy, a former suitor of Jane Austen.
Creative Commons via Wikipedia

But the Earl isn't the only suspected inspiration for Darcy out there. Previous scholars have made claims that the Irishman Thomas Lefroy was Austen's model. Austen and Lefroy did have a romantic relationship — or at least they exchanged some flirtatious letters — which overlapped with the period in which she wrote "Pride and Prejudice."

In "Becoming Jane Austen," Jon Spence twists this claim in an unexpected way: He theorizes that Lefroy actually inspired the character of Elizabeth and that Austen modeled Darcy after herself. (19th century girl power!) Regardless of who was who in their love story, they didn't get a happy ending.

"At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy," Austen wrote. "My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea."

Their affair ended when Lefroy wed a rich heiress. Austen died, unmarried, at age 41.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.