Jane Austen’s Heroes

I’d like to take up the question of why we like some Austen heroes better than others. I don’t think it’s just a matter of having nothing to

forgive them for, because some things are easier to forgive than others, and when we decide what we find easier to forgive, we are telling more

about our own morality vis-à-vis Austen’s than Austen’s own. Still, I’ll bite.

Type 1- Ashley Wilkes

The heroes who are often not liked, not favorites, are those who are deeply moral; let us call them the Ashley Wilkes (of Gone with the

Wind) types: sensitive, kind, loyal, impeccably behaved from the standpoint of true tact, gentility, and altruism, and very conventional in

their sense of what a gentleman is; Austen of course plays tricks on us, and adds to this weak soup characteristics like reserve, manly hauteur

in order to protect the self (how I see some of George Knightley’s behavior to Emma), and being more than a little gauche, very bad at gay

repartée — for which many of Austen’s readers cannot forgive Edmund Bertram, Edward Ferrars, Colonel Brandon, and George Knightley. As Rhett

Butler says, they’re gentlemen caught in a world which worships handsomeness, suavity, the man who can master others. Edward Ferrars and Colonel

Brandon are weak in that battle of domination between people that is perhaps the essence of life, as in “life is a war of nerves”, “a battle”.

These types are “dolts”, “dull”, “prigs”, “starchy”, common epithets thrown at Austen heroes of a certain type, no? But Austen thinks

these are men who, when also intelligent and loving and constant — and with that competent income — make women happy, especially when the

natures and tastes of the two are alike — witness Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars, Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram. I’d say Knightley does

not really fall in here, because he’s not weak in that battle of mastery; he just shares some of the qualities of Edward Ferrars, Edmund

Bertram, and Colonel Brandon, for which some readers have had a hard time forgiving him. Well, I am fond of Edward Ferrars and Edmund Bertram,

though I wouldn’t want to marry them; they’d bore me to tears; and to be truthful, I don’t really believe in Colonel Brandon. He’s an escapee

from a Gothic fiction, great, theatrical, effective, but not persuasive ultimately; even the flannel waistcoat does not disguise the origin.

Type 2: Rhett Butler

Now the heroes who are also villains, we may call the Rhett Butler type; though to be less anachronistic, and get closer to the

fundamental archetype, we have our softened Lovelaces: Willoughby, Wickham, Henry Crawford, Frank Churchill, perhaps William Walter Elliot

(though he’s not rounded out, as Persuasion is truncated and unfinished — I hold to my theory, argued this past summer, that the novel was

meant to have a third volume). These are alluring males, alluring precisely because they are dangerous, fun to be with, amusing, handsome

(though Mr. Elliot is, to be sure, as Sir Walter says, a bit “underhung,” but then everyone’s ravaged by time in Persuasion). What do we have to

forgive here? Disloyalty, having sex with another woman, insouciance, a certain callous indifference in order to make a joke, selfishness, the

ability to be endlessly idle, and, more important, the inability to look into themselves and see they’re wrong and ought to change, because they

cannot feel the kind of joy intense love, and all that comes with it, can bring. Love here includes love of people other than the individual

with whom one is sexually involved.

That Austen seems to suggest that as a group these men are very shallow in their emotions is interesting, because the Lovelaces and Rhett

Butlers of novels are given an intensity of emotion that is overpowering. Austen won’t allow that; that’s the delicious poison we drink down to

our own destruction. I’d say a lot of people don’t have all that much trouble forgiving the above faults, but Austen thinks such men are, you

should excuse the expression, bad husband material; and I suggest that the one quality she can’t forgive is the unfeelingness and inconstancy of

these men. But what fun such people are, never a dull moment with Willoughby — though if read carefully, I think he may be seen to be

ultimately shallow and selfish. He’s the boy who’s not sorry he’s had a good time, but terribly sorry he’s not to have his candy after all. And

Henry Crawford is given possibilities; we are led to feel that maybe he could have become the third type, though I doubt it — he’d have been

bored to tears with poor Fanny (and indeed, it would have been poor Fanny had she married him).

Type 3: Frederick Wentworth

So that leaves my third type, into which I’d suggest Henry Tilney somewhat falls — what shall we call them? In a way, Austen is one of

the novelists who invented this type; I can’t think of such a male character before her works, though I’ve got lots to cite afterwards,

especially from the Victorian novelists influenced by her, as Trollope and George Eliot. (Though Charlotte Brontë would not like it, I’d say her

Rochester falls into this group.) I shall call them the Frederick Wentworth type (giving the game away).

What we have to forgive them for is what we might have to forgive any human being who’s fundamentally decent and loving and intelligent and also capable of interesting conversation — time and circumstances have not been altogether on their side. That is so for Darcy, although he has been called a millionaire playboy. If he’s that, he’s not having much fun sitting next to Miss Bingley. Darcy has been the object of continual sycophancy, overindulgence, and the utterly cold heartless materialistic proud values of the Lady Catherine de Bourghs of the world. He must look into his heart and change. He does. We must forgive him snubbing someone, arrogance, saturnine dour dark pessimism about human nature, a veneer of coldness (this hauteur we find also in Type 1, as outlined above, and is a part of Knightley who is very careful, very wary, very cautious about whatever he does). I have the hardest time forgiving Darcy’s first two faults; but he gives them up. This group includes Wentworth, maybe my ultimate favorite of all the heroes; yes his letter “you pierce my soul” sends a thrill into mine, even if overwritten. When he lifts Anne into the carriage, pulls the boy off her back, drops his pen, I am a goner. (Though I grant you, in his give-and-take conversations with Elizabeth, it’s more than hinted that Darcy may be more fun you-know-where).

Some later Type 3 heroes who seem to hark back to Frederick Wentworth in some ways: Tertius Lydgate in Middlemarch; Phineas Finn in Trollope’s two books of that name; the hero of New Grub Street; and many of the attractive and strong but vulnerable males of the 19th century novel. This type moves into the early 20th century in the novels of E.M. Forster and others.

Henry Tilney also has not had all things on his side — as witness his tyrannical father; but his mother was apparently very good (as was Anne Elliot’s mother), and the boy has the happiness of that independent income which frees (as Oscar Wilde said, “It is better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating”). In truth, though, there’s nothing to forgive; however, we don’t have a hard time forgiving him this deplorable lack of faults, perhaps because he is so young and gay and so human — and so I place him in Type 3, the new type Austen invented, the gentleman who has it all, all the things that charm woman and is good husband material into the bargain.

Let me end on George Knightley, because Knightley suffers from the flaw I perceive in Tilney — there’s nothing to forgive — but in his case, alas poor man, we can’t forgive him his perfection, for unlike the others of Type 1 he’s not weak, not a dolt, not gauche (though, as he says, he can’t talk love-talk very well). But, let us recall, we are seeing him through Emma’s eyes, and this may be why he seems so self-righteous (after all who does he think he is anyway to be preaching to Emma, whom we all identify with in this novel). But I love Knightley; I do; I love his tact, his courtesy, his chivalry, his right-thinking, I don’t mind his strong moral uprightness one little bit. I’ve an idea it might not be boring. There is just that element of play and strength in his dialogues with Emma which entrances.

Austen’s heroes and Sir Charles Grandison
We can set up continuums between Austen’s types of heroes and those of others, sometimes before her but mostly after. Both Lovelace from Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison from his novel of the same name, play an important role as background and influences on Austen’s fiction. It seems to me beyond doubt that Richardson’s exemplary hero Sir Charles Grandison played a role in Austen’s formulation of her heroes; someone has pointed out the close resemblances in various ways between Austen’s George Knightley and Richardson’s Sir Charles; the difference between them is sometimes not simply a matter of insight into what is really humane, but plain old tact. Richardson is tactless because his main aim is didactic, and what he pushes as good is sometimes just authoritarian, “let’s obey the establishment, whatever it tells us to do, because it’s always right”. Austen says, well, it’s prudent anyway. Richardson’s presentation of Sir Charles also plays a role in the characterization of Darcy; Darcy resembles Sir Charles more than is often noticed. The austerity, the dark pessmism (Sir Charles is not an optimist), the curious hardness and insistence on strength as an important quality in a man, the lack of sentimentality that we find in Austen’s Darcy, has a similar kind of formulation in Richardson’s making of his Sir Charles.

This is not, however to say that either my Type 1 or Type 3 are Sir Charles. Edward Ferrars and Edmund Bertram are just too soft, too awkward, too what the 19th century novelist might have called “unmanly”. I can’t imagine either of them going off for a duel. Sir Charles is, when sufficiently bothered, willing to duel out of his passion; that he does not is just another way in which he is so very exemplary, but he’s violent when need be. And Frederick Wentworth is just too vulnerable; Sir Charles is never vulnerable, never the victim of circumstance or luck. In fact, Sir Charles is never a victim; Richardson couldn’t see his way to finding out that such a character is truly admirable; they are always slightly scorned in his fictions (as in the case of Charles Hickman from Clarissa, or Charlotte Grandison’s long-suffering husband). In a way, I’ll say Austen’s Type 1 is as original her with as what I called Type 3.

She is daring for presenting men who are not violent, not masterly, not having all those alluring Rhett Butler or Lovelace qualities, and still insisting we should find in them true heroes.


Ellen Moody, a Lecturer in English at George Mason University, has compiled the most accurate calendars for Jane Austen’s work, to date. She has created timelines for each of the six novels and the three unfinished novel fragments. She is currently working on a book, The Austen Movies. Visit her website for further Austen related articles.

This piece was oringally posted on Austen-L, and is used by permission.

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