Colin Firth's Shirt: Jane Austen and the Rise of the Female Gaze

She died 200 years ago. But her writing fits perfectly into the culture of the current moment.

PeJo / Shutterstock / C. E. Brock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Early last fall, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., hosted an exhibition: Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity. The show, meant to examine the “literary afterlives” of the iconic authors, featured a series of objects that had been transformed, through the physics of fame, into bookish relics: There was a framed lock of Austen’s hair. And a tin of cheekily Jane-themed bandages. And a bundle of sticks—yes, sticks—that were, the curators noted, “presumed to be from a chair and other objects” that had been gathered from Shakespeare’s birthplace. There were many, many more. The most popular of all the items, however—judging, at least, by the Instagrams that arose from the exhibition—was a large tunic, ruffled of collar and wrinkled of texture, fleshed out via a mannequined torso and displayed within a brightly lit, glass-enclosed case. Above it hung a placard that explained both extremely little and also everything important about the garment in question. The case contained, the sign announced, in all caps, “THE SHIRT.”

If you are a Jane Austen fan of relatively recent vintage, there’s a good chance that you’ll need no more detail than that. The voluminous tunic was, after all, the one Colin Firth had worn during the scene—yep, that scene—in the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, the iconic miniseries that, along with English teachers and Amy Heckerling and the author’s own genius, helped to inspire the latest generation of Austen acolytes to have come in the nearly 200 years since her death. In the scene, Firth, as Fitzwilliam Darcy, returns to Pemberley, hot and sweaty from the long horseback ride home. He pauses at a lake on his estate’s sprawling property. He strips away his overcoat. He contemplates the water before him, passionate, preoccupied. And then, with music crescendoing, he dives in—clad in nothing, at this point, but his breeches and THE SHIRT.

The scene, as a piece of filmic fanfic, has over the years drawn the ire of many an Austen scholar. Not just for the pesky detail that it didn’t take place in the book, and in that sense violates the crystalline precision that defines so much of Austen’s storytelling, but also—and more so—because of its wet-T-shirt aesthetic: Diving Darcy, the criticism goes, celebrates Pride and Prejudice less for its adjacency to Romanticism, the period, and more for its adjacency to romance, the genre. Here was one of the greatest novels ever written in English, implicatively categorized with the gaudy trade paperbacks on sale at your local ShopRite. With one scene, per the objections, Austen was removed from the company of Byron and Keats and Fielding and the other (male) giants of her era and tethered, instead, to a genre that is, in stereotype if not in practice, quintessentially feminine. Here was one of her fecund mind’s most enduring creations, Fitzwilliam Darcy, proud and prejudiced and Fabio-ed.

But that’s the pessimistic reading. A more optimistic one—and, indeed, perhaps, a more realistic one—is that the added scene is in fact a perfectly fitting tribute to Pride and Prejudice and its author. Firth’s broody dive and pec-clinging shirt, after all, evoke explicitly what the book, with its many references to flushed faces and flirty dancing and wantonly muddied skirts, could only imply. The screen adaptation took a novel that suggests sex in only the most allusive and elusive of ways and put that erotic energy on unapologetic display. It presented Darcy not just as a man of wealth (Ten thousand a year! Oh, Lord!) and thus as a figure with a dully practical value to the single women in his path, but also as something both simpler and more radical: a sex object. It transformed Darcy, master of Pemberley, into a pond-soaked pheromone. And, even more importantly: It framed Elizabeth Bennet, bright of eye and flushed of face, as the witness to the transformation.

The female gaze, as it were, remains, after all this time, fairly innovative as a concept in literary culture. Cultural products of the current moment—Broad City, Trainwreck, Bridesmaids, the Mikes both Magic and Magic XXL, Fleabag, Insecure, I Love Dick, so many more—are still, 200 years after Austen put her sharp quill to its paper, experimenting with it and feeling it out. But while Austen may be, today, most readily associated with drawing rooms and dainty dances, she was also an impressively early champion of that quintessentially feminist perspective. She looked at men, and saw not just marriage and family and financial security, but also, simply, sex.

The BBC series, as my colleague Sophie Gilbert has pointed out, understood that. (Its director, Andrew Davies: “This isn’t just a social comedy—it’s about desire and young people and their hormones.”) By turning Darcy into a sex object, the series not only captured something essential about Pride and Prejudice, as literature; it also highlighted the extent to which the novel, written in the late 18th century and published in the early 19th, anticipated the pop culture of the 21st. It placed women—their perspectives, their concerns, their humor, their desires, their rich inner lives—at the center of the story. It took for granted a kind of radical mutuality: It assumed a world in which women are meant not merely to be looked upon, but also to do the looking.

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Pride and Prejudice, in particular, is a novel of surveillance. In it, characters—through windows, across the tiny chasm of an open door, through letters and gossip and gradual revelations—watch each other, reflexively and constantly. But Hertfordshire is no Panopticon: It is the women, here, who do the bulk of the watching. And it is the men, here, who are generally the objects of their lookings: They are mysteries to be solved, puzzles whose pictures reveal themselves, with patience and time, piece by piece. Darcy is rich, and Darcy is handsome, and Darcy is terrible, and Darcy perhaps is more complicated than he first seemed, and Darcy is kind, and Darcy is a savior, and Darcy is whoa omg kind of amazing, and the plot moves to reveal each tantalizingly curved and occasionally interlocking piece until Lizzy, and thus the reader, is finally able to create a satisfying picture.

The book’s narrator may be third-person, and omniscient, in the way of so many novels that preceded and followed Austen’s. And yet—this was, of course, Austen’s ultimate genius—the perspective of the book is, for the most part, Lizzy’s. She is the one, through most of the novel’s free indirect discourse, whose perspective is most thoroughly summoned and celebrated. She is the mystery-solver. The story is hers. The upshot of Pride and Prejudice is what kind of life, through the choices she makes, Lizzy will have—financial, romantic, social, sexual. She is the subject; Darcy is the object. And when he does assert himself, as the scholar Robert P. Irvine observed, the master of Pemberley displays above all theabsolute and unconditioned male need for a woman.”

That female-first dynamic is evident, in varying degrees, across Austen’s novels. In Sense and Sensibility, John Willoughby (d)evolves from a romantic hero to a cypher to, finally, a man who, in circumstance, very much resembles a woman: He is forced to marry not for love, but for financial security. Colonel Brandon, though older and wealthier than Marianne Dashwood, wins her over by slowly subjecting himself to her whims, making himself passively available until she decides that she prefers him. While men adorn the novel’s peripheries, Emma announces the narrative centrality of its protagonist right in its title.

And: When men violate that cosmic arrangement—when they try to insert their own perspectives into Austen’s narratives—they are generally belittled for it. Darcy’s initial, and visual, impression of Elizabeth, after all—his durably cutting assessment that she is not handsome enough to tempt me—is the error that the “pride” and the “prejudice” most explicitly refer to. (Austen’s second published novel was, after all, initially titled First Impressions.) In Persuasion, Sir Walter Elliot makes a similarly superficial assessment of women:

The worst of Bath was the number of its plain women. He did not mean to say that there were no pretty women, but the number of the plain was out of all proportion. He had frequently observed, as he walked, that one handsome face would be followed by thirty, or five-and-thirty frights; and once, as he had stood in a shop on Bond Street, he had counted eighty-seven women go by, one after another, without there being a tolerable face among them.

Here, in other words, is a nearly textbook example of the male gaze, presented two centuries before that term would have a name—and here, too, is that perspective thoroughly mocked. And here is Austen using her sharpest weapon, the irony honed by her free indirect style, to ensure that the mocking of Sir Walter will be enacted by Sir Walter himself.

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Austen, as a person as well as a writer, seems to have entertained little patience with the Elliotesque of her world: with men who looked at women but refused, fully, to see them. The author’s letters (those, at least, that survive today) suggest that she was, in the manner of Lizzy Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, Marianne Dashwood, Catherine Morland, and so many of her heroines, a romantic. (Austen had her own Willoughby, it seems—Thomas Lefroy, an Irish politician, whose family disapproved of the match—and also, perhaps, her own Collins: Harris Bigg-Wither, a man of wealth and education whose proposal of marriage she accepted in December of 1802 and then, the next day, refused.) The scholar Douglas Bush has argued that Austen “had a very high ideal of the love that should unite a husband and wife,” and she gives him good evidence for the assertion: “Anything is to be preferred or endured,” the author put it in a letter to a niece, “rather than marrying without Affection.”

The advice was in its own way a progressive stance. Marriage for love, after all, the historian Stephanie Coontz argues, did not become widespread as a concept in Western Europe until the 16th and 17th centuries—which is to say, just before Austen was born. “In early modern Europe,” Coontz writes, “most people believed that love developed after marriage. Moralists of the 16th and 17th centuries argued that if a husband and wife each had a good character, they would probably come to love each other.”

Austen was a moralist, certainly, but of a different strain. She believed, it seems, in romantic love as a matter of micropolitics: an assurance not necessarily of full equality between men and women, within the heteronormative marriages that were the only arrangement available at the time, but as a promise of independence even within marriage’s confines. In her novels, Affection is a proxy for freedom—and, thus, as something that should present itself, in the modern way, long before the vicar has been summoned and the vows have been made.

Austen seems to have respectfully disagreed, in other words, with Charlotte Lucas, who tells Lizzy in Pride and Prejudice, “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.” Charlotte, as a character, perfectly channels Coontz’s old-school moralists: “It is better,” she figures, “to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.” Charlotte, we assume—we hope—is content with the choices she makes in the book: Mr. Collins, Rosings Park, financial security. And yet, filtered through the moral judgment of Miss Elizabeth Bennet and, indeed, Miss Jane Austen, her practical observations produce some of the most cutting lines in a novel full of them. What Charlotte has sacrificed, after all, in Pride and Prejudice’s vision, is the freedom that love marriage, at its best, affords: mutual respect. The assurance that a wife will be not only looked upon—Mr. Collins is a consummate looker—but, also, seen. Charlotte has married, and this is the tragedy of it, without Affection.

And while, as a word, “Affection” today tends to suggest a kind of Love-Lite—evoking the sort of warm feeling that fails to merit the more urgent language of passion or romance—in Austen’s time, it was, as a concept, much more powerful. In a medical textbook published in 1815, right after Austen had published Pride and Prejudice, the German physician Johann Spurzheim noted that “different degrees of the agreeable affections are called pleasure, joy, and ecstasy.”

So “Affection,” as Austen applies it to marriage, suggests the things many of our current notions of romance do: the push and pull between two people, a situation in which both have a say, a relationship in which power is distributed (relatively) equally. Coontz’s early modern model of marriage may have appreciated that kind of mutuality—a couple would probably come to love each other—but it also, on the whole, minimized it. It beheld marriage primarily as an economic and social social institution. It posited unions of breadwinning and helpmeeting. It cared very little, in the end, about Affection.

That Austen cared, on the contrary, so very much about it is in part what made her so radical—and what, today, helps to keep her so relevant. It is on the one hand what gives Austen’s novels their core, unifying tension—marriage as passion, marriage as pragmatism—and it’s why so many of her heroines weigh, as Marianne Dashwood frames it in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, the demands of the pocketbook against the demands of the heart.

It is also, however, what links Pride and Prejudice to Bridesmaids, and Emma to I Love Dick. In Austen’s work, romantic union is seen not as the pragmatic abnegation of the self, but rather as the hopeful realization of it. Again and again, after all, in her stories, women gaze upon men and decide for themselves whether or not the men are worth having. In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor Dashwood finally puts the puzzle of Willoughby together—and, as the picture comes into focus, realizes that “the worst and most irremediable of all evils” is “a connection, for life, with an unprincipled man.” In Pride and Prejudice, after Darcy proposes, clearly anticipating swoonful gratitude on the part of his proposee, Elizabeth retorts:

From the very beginning—from the first moment I may almost say—of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form that groundwork of disapprobation. … I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.

The nouns are harsh; it’s the verb, though—be prevailed on—that’s key. Even in its superficial passivity, it understands that Lizzy, at least at this moment, is the one with the power. Charlotte Bronte once scoffed of Austen that “the Passions are perfectly unknown to her”; this was, it seems, a misreading. Austen was acutely aware not merely of such Passions, but also, indeed, of the freedoms they could offer. Within books that are sometimes dismissed as a mere comedies of manners, women, via the mechanics of those Passions, exercise soft, yet in many ways complete, power. In 1894, the celebrated artist Hugh Thomson released his newly illustrated edition of Pride and Prejudice; the ornate book’s cover featured, in place of its human characters, a single peacock—preening on a pedestal and showered, revealingly, in his own flowery feathers.

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That sense of peacocking—the notion of men performing for and fighting for the women—has come to permeate the latest adaptations of Austen’s work. In Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman’s 2016 adaptation of Lady Susan, Lord Manwaring, whose flirtation with Susan got her expelled from his estate, is cheekily glossed as “a divinely attractive man.” Susan refers to James Martin, a suitor who rivals Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Collins in his simpering insipidity, as “vastly rich, rather simple”; her friend Alicia wryly replies that such a combination is “ideal.” Susan jokes to Alicia about having threatened to whip a man who has had the audacity to approach her uninvited. But she knows the man, she hastens to add, very well: “I would never speak to a stranger like that.” And then Susan, that timeless anti-heroine, utters a line that is tantalizingly tangled with Austen’s trademark irony: “Isn’t it rather clear,” she asks, “that it is we, women of decision, who hold the trumps?”

It is not, of course. It is not now; it was not, certainly, when Austen was doing her writing. Austen’s novels, though most scholars classify them—and celebrate them—as early examples of literary realism, are also, in the most immediate sense, works of fantasy. They imagine a social cosmology in which women have some level of power in their relationships and, thus, in their lives. They don’t dare imagine a world in which women are equal to men—Austen was a genius, but one caught, like everyone else, within her time—and yet they do assume a situation in which relationships themselves are, at their best, built on foundations of mutual respect, and mutual participation, and mutual love. Their radicalism about romance is by turns unassuming and insistent: It takes for granted the notion that, to the extent that a marriage is a microcosm of a society at large, some kind of parity is possible. With that, Austen gives her women the tiniest of gifts, and yet one of the grandest there is: She allows them to see. She allows them to decide. She allows them to be the stars of their own stories.

Little surprise, then, that, 200 years later, Austen has only expanded in relevance and love. And little surprise, too, that her great influence has widened far beyond the literary, fit for a moment that is newly celebrating the political power of the gaze. As Gilbert noted, the BBC’s (subtly) sexed-up take on Pride and Prejudice, that early 19th-century rom-com, launched a relatively new cottage industry: Jane Austen erotica. And, with it, Austen-themed lady-looking. The internet now hosts sites like And stories like “A Definitive Ranking of Jane Austen’s Male Hotties” and “The Official Ranking of Jane Austen’s 14 Leading Men, From Darcy to Mr. Collins.” There’s the fan fiction and the board games and Jane Austen’s Guide to Dating. And there was also, in 2013, the fiberglass sculpture of Fitzwilliam Darcy that found its home in a lake in the middle of London’s Hyde Park. For several glorious months, the 12-foot-tall torso of Austen’s romantic hero burst out of the water, clenched of fist and Firthian of face, with an expression frozen in permanent longing. He was thinking of Lizzy, probably. And he was definitely clad in THE SHIRT.