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My Kind of Man: Jane Austen's Romantic Hero
Oh! What are men compared to rocks and mountains?
I'm sure that there is a large percentage of women in this world who have read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and upon closing the back cover, uttered the words : "I wish I had my own Mr. Darcy!" His dark and swarthy features captivate, his seductive - okay, maybe somewhat seductive... okay, 'seductive' is a poor choice of words. Though Jane Austen didn't entirely skirt around the idea that something goes on in the marriage bed, she did not greatly concern herself with that idea in regards to Dalizzie. Elarcy? Willibeth? Fitzzie? Darnet? Darnet. But back on topic - Darcy has a magnetic personality, and he apologizes to Elizabeth rather constantly.
I mean 'apology' in the mid-16th century idea: a formal defense against an accusation. Darcy never really tells Elizabeth that he is sorry for parting Jane and Bingley, but instead attempts to explain his actions. As the book carries on, Elizabeth begins to be a Darcy Apologetic, that is, a defender of his previous pride and actions. Once she knows the true nature of George Wickham's deceit, Elizabeth's whole view of Darcy shifts from utter contempt to bashful regret. And that's the thing about Jane Austen's heroes: they're not knights on white steeds, wielding swords (at least not that we really see), but rather fallible, human, and vulnerable. None of them are perfect, but Austen always allows them to apologize for their mistakes, and come to a mutual admiration if not love for the leading heroine.
The generally accepted definition of a hero
(or at least the Oxford Dictionary Widget) is a man "who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities." (For my analysis of the Austen heroine, see this classy link) Society lavishes heroic titles on men for being the first to touch the Moon's soil, for saving a baby from a burning building, for going to battle for their country, but we don't see many men of the modern era being lauded as a romantic hero. I don't really know why that is, but I can guess, and it's thanks to Jane Austen's observation in Persuasion. Anne sits with Captain Harville, discussing the constancy of women to the men they love. Harville says:
"But let me observe that all histories are against you -- all stories, prose and verse... I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman's inconstancy... But perhaps, you will say, these were all written by men."
Now, the sex of male authors does not discount their ability to write realistic, vulnerable, and romantic men. In fact, many authors disprove this entirely (Shakespeare for one), but Austen does have a point. Women want to read about their ideal man, one that reveals his true feelings and faults, while reading at the same time about strong women who rise from obscurity.
There is a human bias that we all possess,
a bias that men must be strong and women weak, men=stoic and women=emotional, men as breadwinners and women as caregivers... etc. I think this stems from the way the human species procreates (I promise, I won't get gross). Man supplies the seed, which woman gestates. It is that gestation period that makes the new child fit to live in the world, and no matter how much the father cares for the child post-birth, he will never have cared for the child in those first 9-ish months. In the way that the mother protects the child, the father then protects the family unit. That scientific and biological process has thusly dictated the way that societies operate.
Women of Jane Austen's time would've been just as aware of this balance (or imbalance, if you will) because of the way women were regarded in the Regency period. I think one of the least understood or considered points, however, is what was expected of men. We get so hung up on feminism throughout history and how it has grown and morphed, but the truth is, expectations for men of Austen's time were equally rigid. Men of high birth were expected to marry a woman that matched or exceeded their means; the first son would inherit his father's estate, and the latter sons would be expected to marry well and fill well-respected positions, like taking the cloth or becoming a lawyer. If a man married a woman with a small dowry, a woman of low birth, he risked social alienation, which would in turn limit business prospects and his ability to make a living for his family.
High society men were expected to father sons, to whom their estate would then be entailed, but if they failed to produce a male heir, the entire estate would pass to the next male heir in the family line, as is the case with the Bennet family in Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Bennet has fathered five daughters, only two of whom have good prospects, and thus his estate passes on to Mr. Collins. The second Mr. Bennet dies, Mr. Collins has the legal right to take over the Bennet house of Longbourn and cast out all the Bennet women, without any obligation to their well-being. This kind of danger might very well have pressed on a man like Darcy because the next heir to Pemberley could cast out his sister if Darcy didn't marry and produce sons.
A man of low birth was expected to marry poor, and never turn his eyes to a woman of higher birth. We see a glimpse of the societal stigma with this in Emma, when Emma dissuades her young friend Harriet from accepting the marriage proposal of a poor farmer, Robert Martin, because Emma believes Harriet to be above him. If Harriet were truly a lady by birth, she would find herself downcast by her friends for marrying a man as low as Robert Martin.
According to an online poll from PBS,
Fitzwilliam Darcy is the most popular man from Austen's oeuvre, followed by my personal favorite, Persuasion's Frederick Wentworth. When you look at the list (below), you have to wonder what drew each voter to their man of choice. The top five men are arguably Austen's most noble male characters, nobility that is steadfast and dignified. Each of these men rights the perceived wrongs laid against him through honest means, while still pursuing a love match with the heroine.
In terms of honorable, I'd say that Colonel Christopher Brandon (#5) is the most so. Sense and Sensibilty's quiet hero is an older man, whose life has consisted largely of service to those in need. At a young age, Brandon fell in love with a girl in his father's care, but was sent into the military to get away from her. When he is a man, he finds out that his childhood love has died and left an illegitimate daughter. Brandon takes the baby in as his ward. The little girl grows up troubled, and is seduced by John Willoughby, the man for whom Marianne would later fall. Once Willoughby leaves the girl pregnant, Brandon does everything he can to insure her health. Likewise, Brandon takes care of Marianne after Willoughby has left her for another woman, never pressuring her to marry or connect with him, but instead caring for her in the literal sense: when Marianne falls so ill that she will not awake, it is Brandon who fetches her mother from far away. He is a constant figure in the lives of the Dashwood women, without being troublesome like Willoughby. It can be debated whether or not Marianne falls in love with him, but I believe it can be agreed that he is a man worthy of great respect, so his position in the top 5 is deserved.
PBS' list becomes troublesome as we descend the list,
reaching Mr. William Collins at #8. Now, Collins is not inherently terrible; his intentions, though misplaced, are pure, but he is inexhaustibly annoying. From the beginning of his entailment to Longbourn, Mr. Collins is a niggling worry to the Bennet family, and that only increases upon his arrival. His psuedo-foppish mannerisms are crude and oblivious; every intended compliment comes out an insult. It is clear to all members of the Bennet family that Collins is repugnant and unendurable, perhaps aside from Mrs. Bennet (who just wants her daughters married and not turned out onto the street) and Mary Bennet (who seems to lack all semblance of introspection, just like Mr. Collins). His social graces are exposed in all their grotesque eloquence on more than one occasion, as he tries and fails to impress the people of Meryton with tales of the kindness of his absent employer, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. And yet, despite his multiple perversions about the world, William Collins is completely oblivious. His affections are as changeable as a pair of lady's gloves, pointed solely by the suggestions of others. He arrives at Longbourn to marry a Bennet daughter, at the suggestion of his patroness. He fixes on Elizabeth at the suggestion of Mrs. Bennet. He switches then to Charlotte Lucas, presumably on the hint from another person that Charlotte is on the outskirts of spinsterhood and has no reasons, aside from good taste, to turn him down. Charlotte herself acknowledges his repugnance in her own way, confiding to Lizzie once they are married that she has a room all to herself, in which Mr. Collins does not bother her.
There is no earthly reason for Mr. Collins to be attractive to a reader, and Jane Austen meant it that way. His only purpose (in terms of a romantic hero) is to save Charlotte Lucas from obscurity, which he does. But this far from legitimizes his position at #8 on the list; Frank Churchill and George Wickham deserve higher spots than Collins, at least in my humble opinion.
I guess I'm surprised that the bad boys didn't make it higher up on the list, but I think I've got that sorted too: Jane Austen never let her readers get seduced by the rebels longer than she needed them as foils for the heroes. George Wickham shows initial interest in Elizabeth, for which the reader cannot blame him; she is smart, pretty, accomplished, a divine dancer, and respected by the other ladies of Meryton. When he runs away with Elizabeth's younger sister Lydia, it's not because he loves her, but because he is deserting the militia and Lydia practically invites herself along. Wickham made mistakes in the past with Darcy's younger sister, Georgiana, but he gets what is coming to him in the end. He is forced to accept money from Darcy to pay off his debts, which he himself will likely never be able to pay back to Darcy, not to mention being forced to marry an insufferable girl who will only become less tolerable as she grows up. If Wickham had family jewels, William Darcy has them in a proverbial vice.
Frank Churchill is a hard man to peg, character-wise, because his deceptions are not intentionally malicious. He is secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax the entirety of Emma, but he knows that his aunt, who has control of his inheritance, will never approve of the match. Jane is an orphan, with no dowry or luxury of birth to recommend her. While his aunt lives, Frank must pretend to court a lady his aunt could approve of, a lady like Emma Woodhouse. I think that his ultimate "betrayal" would have been more biting if Emma had felt anything other than a crush for him, but she doesn't. Emma is in love with Mr. Knightly, probably from the moment he held her in his arms when she was a baby, even though she doesn't know it for most of the book, and that likely prevents her from latching onto Frank in any manner beyond friendship. I don't know why his shortcomings are seen as so deplorable; he values his friendship with Emma and his relationship with his father and new step-mother, but he also knows the society in which he operates. Arguably, Frank Churchill is one of the only characters Jane Austen wrote about that is calculating in his every move, without any of those moves being motivated by mischief. He sticks to his betrothal, still visits Jane in spite of the secret, and ultimately retains his honor.
The interesting thing about the filmic versions of Austen's books
is that they allow for the nuance of body language, which allows for men and women to show what they are feeling demurely. Colin Firth does an unparalleled job of showing how Darcy softens to Elizabeth early on, without betraying Austen's path for Darcy. It's the unspoken things, a slightly upturned mouth, and so on that really give us an idea what the Colin Firth edition of Darcy is feeling. But reading the book doesn't afford us that luxury, so Jane Austen allows Darcy to show how he feels for Elizabeth through his actions. He writes her the famous letter that outs George Wickham as a liar and cheat. He searches London for Wickham and Elizabeth's younger sister Lydia, pays off all of Wickham's debts, and helps him find a new job posting. All these actions speak to the strength of his character, without Jane Austen having to say, "It was at this point that Darcy smiled ever so slightly because Elizabeth amused him." Austen herself wrote the books largely to entertain her family, spending hours reading her hilarious and ironic stories aloud to great acclaim. It's as if Austen intended her novels to be more theatre than literature, which is why much of her ironic tone escapes a too-serious reader.
The men of Austen are so theatrical with their grandiose gestures of love; Darcy's anxious and pent-up declaration of love to Elizabeth, the letter outing George Wickham, his trip to London and ultimate stewardship over Wickham's affairs so he and Lydia might marry. Then there is Captain Wentworth's agonized letter to Anne Elliot in Persuasion, in which he has declared that he has loved her always, Henry Crawford's visit to Fanny in Mansfield Park at her impoverished family's home despite his high birth, Mr. Willoughby's drunken admittance of love for Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, despite the fact that he can never be with her, and the list goes on.
Jane Austen's men are theatrical figures, arguably as emotional and petty as they accuse the women of being, and yet they redeem themselves through selfless acts in favor of the heroine.
The brilliance lies not in what Jane Austen intended the audience to read, but what can be gathered by observing the lives of ordinary people. None of her characters are perfect, no matter how they appear on the surface, and she allows that humanity to color their actions. Austen was a voyeur into the goings-on of wealthy English society, and a literary empath for the vulnerabilities of women and men therein. Jane Austen's heroes are heroic because they prove themselves to be so, not because of false praise and idle worship. I wonder often if Jane Austen knew men better than they know themselves... but that would be presumptuous. And delicious.