How Did Austen’s Mr. Darcy Turn Into a Sexy Heartthrob?


By Devoney LooserArizona State University

The most successful adaptation of Jane Austen to be brought to the 20th century stage was the 1935 Pride and Prejudice by Helen Jerome, which became a Broadway and then a West End hit. This now little-known version was once its era’s own blockbuster. It was a play seen by perhaps as many as a million theatergoers worldwide in the 1930s as it traveled from New York to London and beyond.

A theater stage and audience seat
It was safer for a play about a man’s explicit sexual desires to have a female author. (Image: Fer Gregory/Shutterstock)

Jerome’s Pride and Prejudice

Helen Jerome’s Pride and Prejudice: A Sentimental Comedy in Three Acts took the theatre world by storm in the years before the Second World War. It was the first Austen adaptation with a big budget, serious set designs, props, and costumes. 

Jerome’s play was remarkable for turning Elizabeth into a weeping, weaker heroine than she was in Austen’s original. Jerome eliminated some of Elizabeth’s caustic wit. The plot did more to shame her, Taming-of-the-Shrew style. Jerome’s play also lowered the number of Bennet sisters from five to three, dispensing with Kitty and Mary. This was not a play that moved the dial forward on its era’s attitudes toward equitable gender roles. If anything, it served to roll them back.

One reviewer in 1935 suggested that the play would be found a joy by those who wished for the “good old days” when “men had manners and woman’s place was in the home”. This was said as a compliment. The play kept in Austen’s witty repartee, but it spread out the one-liners among more of its characters. Even Charlotte Lucas’s mother gets a snarky quip!

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane AustenWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Jerome’s Vision of Mr. Darcy

The play also de-emphasized Austen’s explorations of female independence. This may have been done to make room for the character the play put a great spotlight on Mr. Darcy. Helen Jerome’s innovation gives the character far more center-stage time and narrative space than the original novel did. 

Image of Tallulah Bankhead
Tallulah Bankhead was cast as Elizabeth in Jerome’s stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. (Image: Talbot/Public domain)

Cast as Darcy in Jerome’s play was an English actor named Colin Keith-Johnston. He was a respected British actor known for playing Hamlet as a snarling, violent smoker. Off stage, Keith-Johnston had been the much-younger paramour of Tallulah Bankhead. Casting him as Darcy was casting a cad who loved tussling with strong women. 

Jerome’s script and Keith-Johnston’s performance demonstrate that the history of transforming Austen’s Darcy into a sexy heartthrob dates back to 1935. Perhaps it was considered safer and more palatable to use a female-authored story to deliver scenes depicting men’s explicit but admirable sexual desires.

Jerome’s play completely transformed the previous treatments of Mr. Darcy in Austen’s stage adaptation. Her play made him into desirable eye candy for the audience and made his desire for Elizabeth more visible and sympathetic right from the start.

Darcy’s Attraction

Illustration of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth
In Jerome’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, the audience knows about Mr. Darcy’s attraction to Elizabeth before she does. (Image: C. E. Brock/Public domain)

In the original novel and the early stagings of the novel, Darcy’s attraction to Elizabeth isn’t revealed until fairly late in the story. But in Jerome’s 1935 play, the audience is aware of Darcy’s passion for Elizabeth long before the heroine understands it. The effect of this shift is to downplay the story as an exploration of women’s independence amidst family conflict and social criticism. 

The effect is instead to watch Elizabeth being won over by a worthy Darcy rather than for the audience to discover him along with her as a worthy man. This distances the audience from Elizabeth’s thoughts and from sympathizing with her to encourage a sympathy instead with him.

Mr. Darcy, a Worthy Man

The end of Jerome’s play makes this clear. It gives the last word, and the emotional expression and power, to Darcy. He bestows a passionate kiss on Elizabeth. He delivers the last line before the curtain. He says, “My cruel . . .my kind . . . oh, my lovely Elizabeth!” It turns the play into a melodrama. Although Jerome’s version of a weak Elizabeth didn’t turn out to be quite so influential to future interpretations of the character, her expanded focus on Darcy continues to this day.

The New Yorker published a caricature of Colin Keith-Johnston as Darcy, striking his signature pose in the play. That caricature, and the production stills, suggest that his Darcy performance relied on a knee-jutting, hip-thrusting stance. Perhaps it ought to go down in pop-culture history as a precursor to Elvis’s iconic hip-injected performances.

Common Questions about How Austen’s Mr. Darcy Turned Into a Sexy Heartthrob

Q: What was Helen Jerome’s version of Elizabeth in the stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice?

Compared to the original Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth was less witty and weaker in Jerome’s stage adaptation. Many of the witty comments that were included in the play were spread between characters other than Elizabeth.

Q: What characteristics of Jerome’s version of Mr. Darcy influenced later adaptations?

Helen Jerome’s stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice included Mr. Darcy as a much more central character in the plot. He has more stage time and narrative space. The choice of the actor also shows that this version of Mr. Darcy was to become a sexy heartthrob. These choices influenced later renditions of the character.

Q: What are some of the differences in themes between the original Pride and Prejudice and Jerome’s adaptation?

The fact that Mr. Darcy is attracted to Elizabeth is revealed far sooner in the play than in the novel. The audience knowing this downplays the exploration of women’s independence such that the novel included. Jerome’s version of Pride and Prejudice turned the story into a melodrama.

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