Robert Southey – the Mr Darcy of Romanticism?
By marianveevers, Jun 22 2017 10:17AM
There's no doubt about it, William Wordsworth's friend, Robert Southey, was a handsome man. There is a print of him hanging in an upstairs room at Dove Cottage and when I introduce him to visitors, many – particularly the ladies in the company – are very favourably impressed by his looks. Some have even paid him the ultimate compliment of seeing in him their idea of the hero of Pride and Prejudice.
The fine features and the elegant Georgian outfit are certainly suggestive of a Darcy – though maybe he is rather slight and fragile looking for the master of Pemberley, whose height wins Mrs Bennet's admiration. But the comments I've heard have set me thinking…
Perhaps there is something in Mr Southey's air: a mixture of hauteur, self-assurance and reliability that brings Mr Darcy to mind: something that says here is a handsome fellow with inner strength and hidden depths. The sensual man that Coleridge's portraits reveal certainly looks more like the kind of character who might persuade a girl to elope to Gretna Green – and then take her no further than a bed in a sleazy area of London. And Wordsworth's hard, driven look… No, it's no good, my imagination fails me. I can't fit William Wordsworth into a Jane Austen novel.
But maybe there was just a touch of Darcy in Southey. Like Mr Darcy who intervenes so gallantly to save Lydia Bennet from ruin, Robert Southey also protected a lady's reputation when he sternly insisted the young and highly unreliable Coleridge should marry Sarah Fricker. The reputation in this case was not damaged by elopement, but partly by what Jane Austen would have termed Sarah's 'unguarded behaviour ', namely 'walking about Bristol with two such remarkable and well-known young men as Coleridge and Southey'; and partly as a result of a rumour that Coleridge and Southey's radical philosophy of Pantisocracy 'dispensed with the marriage tie'.
But even as a young man Robert Southey was not so radical he did not believe his friend should do his 'duty' and stand by the young lady.
'And they are really to be married!' cries Elizabeth Bennet when she hears of her sister's approaching wedding. 'And for this we are to be thankful. That they should marry, small as is their chance of happiness, and wretched as is his character, we are forced to rejoice! O Lydia!' In fact Sarah's friends might, with some justice, have made a similar lament. Samuel Taylor Coleridge had not quite a wretched character (I wrong him a little by turning him into a Wickham), but he was a confirmed opium addict and the union which Southey had promoted was to prove excruciatingly unhappy.
Robert Southey married Edith, Sarah's sister, and worked steadily towards success and respectability – eventually becoming Poet Laureate in 1813. That Darcyesque sense of responsibility remained strong and it was he who provided support for Sarah and her children as her relationship with Coleridge disintegrated.
In many ways it was a happy home that was shared in Keswick by the Southey and Coleridge families. Robert Southey certainly seems to have possessed those 'strong domestic habits' which Jane Austen admired in a man. 'A house,' he believed 'is never perfectly furnished for enjoyment unless there is a child in it rising three years old, and a kitten rising three weeks.'
We are never told Mr Darcy's opinion of poetry, children or kittens. (And, personally, I deeply regret the last omission. After all, what are £10,000 a year and extensive grounds if a man can't cuddle a kitten? I've always thought that a few cat hairs on the immaculately fitted waistcoat, a slightly chewed cravat, would be necessary to produce the ideal Regency gentleman.) But I think I'm justified in seeing a little hint of Fitzwilliam Darcy in Robert Southey.
However, I cannot believe that Mr Darcy – for whom Jane Austen herself must have had a deep affection – would have shared Mr Southey's opinion on one very important subject. 'Literature,' he told Charlotte Bronte when she sought his advice, 'cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be.'
No! Mr Darcy would never have said that…would he?