I’ve been reading a lot of Jane Austen this week. I’ve read all seven of her books before, and read The Big 3, (Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Emma) more times than I can count. This week I read Emma, S & S, and P & P (in that order). As an English Major with a concentration in Women’s Studies, I’ve spent more time reading, thinking about, discussing and writing about Austen’s work than most people, though not more than people I was friends with in college. My English Major Dorky Girl Friends and I once watched the entire BBC Pride and Prejudice mini series starring Colin Firth (a six hour long endeavor), on a Friday night, just for fun. We laughed, we cried, we drank an entire jug of Carlo Rossi Chardonnay. (We were 20, this was fancy.)
We often argued about which of the tall, dark, handsome, wealthy, intelligent, sensitive men Austen created we would prefer. (George Knightly, with a bullet, every time for me.)
Obviously, Austen’s books have patterns, like just about any writer, she had her tropes, but each book has it’s own distinctions that make it wonderful. My favorite of Austen’s tropes though is simple, “The Rogue.
The Rogue is a young man of Austen’s heroine’s acquaintance. He is as handsome as her tall, dark, wealthy hero, to be sure, but in a different way. He’s usually terribly social, charming, and generally well liked. He usually has some tragic or unfortunate circumstance and by three quarters through the book, it’s revealed that he’s a massive dick.
Emma gets the most harmless of the three, in Frank Churchill. Frank is the step-son of Emma Woodhouse’s ex governess and best friend Mrs. Weston. He was adopted at a young age by his rich aunt and uncle, who disapproved of his father, but took pity on their nephew when his mother died (unfortunate circumstance). Frank and Emma flirt, a lot, and publicly, it’s actually some of the most shocking behavior you’ll see in Austen. Most of the characters believe that the two are in love with each other. Mr. Knightly, Emma’s tall dark handsome wealthy hero, is most disturbed by this, because he senses early on that Frank Churchill is a dick and also, he’s in love with Emma. But it turns out that all along Frank Churchill has been secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax, and was flirting with Emma in order to distract everybody so they wouldn’t guess. This maturity (hah!) is rewarded by every character saying the Austen equivalent of, “Wow, that was a dick move,” and then Frank and Jane presumably living happily ever after. This is nice, because Jane is kind of awesome, in that quiet stoic strong way, you know like Melanie Wilkes in Gone With The Wind, if instead of having lots of miscarriages and dying she played the piano and married a hot rich guy who liked to dance a lot. So it’s nice that she gets what she wants. Frank is still sort of a dick though.
Pride and Prejudice gives us John Whickham, who is completely reprehensible, and slightly more interesting than Frank. We first meet Whickham when he has joined the militia as an officer and quickly becomes a friend of the Bennett girls, and the object of affection for heroine Elizabeth. He regales her with his sad story, how his father had been the vicar in the Parish managed by the Darcy family, and Old Mr. Darcy (not Colin), had been his godfather. When the old man died, the son (supposedly) denied young Whickham the living promised him. Lizzie is of course scandalized and this further cements her hate for Mr. Darcy. We later learn that Whickham had demanded the money from being the clergyman of the parish with no intention of taking the post. Then he decided to take his revenge by seducing and trying to marry Georgiana Darcy, who at age 16 had a comfy little dowry for him, and no life experience to understand what a shit he was. Her brother foils his plan, mostly because Georgiana tattles on him, and that doesn’t happen. Later, he bones Lydia Bennett and then is forced to marry her by Mr. Darcy. Whickham is terrible, but at least is curbed by matrimony, he always intended to marry Georgiana and married Lydia in the end. Which is why the winner of the worst rogue in all of Austendom is not him.
No, that winner is Willoughby from Sense and Sensibility. Willoughby’s actions are so terrible, that everyone in the whole book pretty much hates and pities him by the end. Like Frank Churchill, he seems simply like a genteel fop, a little frivolous maybe, but harmless, and actually a really good match for secondary leading lady Marianne Dashwood.
But ooh boy, does she get this one wrong. It is later revealed that Willoughby slept with and impregnated the poor Eliza Williams, who is the ward of Colonel Brandon, who is also in love with Marianne. Eliza is the daughter of the love of Brandon’s young life, who before she was forced to marry his older brother, who abused her, and then died, Marianne reminds him of, with the dude who abandoned her. As if this wasn’t bad enough, when Willoughby’s wealthy cousin who was going to leave all of her money to him disinherits him for the action of knocking up this girl and not marrying her, (because he’s in love with Marianne), he spurns Marianne and is refuses to speak to her, and marries a rich girl who he hates. Marianne then stops eating and runs around in the rain and almost dies.
In the end, Willoughby gets drunk, tells Marianne’s sister Elinor everything, and Marianne married Colonel Brandon. (Played by Alan Rickman in the movie. So you know, win!) Willoughby is the worst. He’s just awful.
The point is, there was a time when being the quiet cool upstanding patient guy got you the girl in fiction. Now it just turns you in to Ted Mosby.
Yes, Ted Mosby languishes, not yet meeting the love of his life seven seasons later, while the rogues of modern popular fiction, the Chuck Basses, shall we say, get to be with their girl on and off since season one.