Austen’s Willoughby: Truly a Byronic Hero, or Libertine? Part One

Image of Charity Wakefield and Dominic Cooper, Sense and Sensibility, (2008)

“You are mistaken, Elinor,” said she warmly, “in supposing I know very little of Willoughby. I have not known him long indeed, but I am much better acquainted with him, than I am with any other creature in the world, except yourself and mama. It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy: — it is disposition alone. Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others.” Marianne Dashwood,

Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 12

What would Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility be without the character of John Willoughby? Not much! Take him out of the picture, and the story sinks from diverting to dull in a heart-beat. (some spoilers ahead)

Image of the cover of Sense and SensibilityThe final out-come would be entirely different also. Marianne would not marry Colonel Brandon having not evolved past her un-realistic romantic expectations of a man. Elinor and Edward would have been doomed too. He would be destitute after his dis-inheritance; – a gentleman without an income, and no profession, since Brandon would not be motivated to give him a living of the curacy at Delaford without the possibility of pleasing Marianne, who in turn does not give Brandon one romantic thought, thinking him too old, infirmed and boring! A vicious cycle to be sure.

Image of Lord ByronHappily, a dashing hero like Willoughby does exist in Sense and Sensibility to fulfill Marianne’s fantasy infused notions of the perfect man, allowing the reader to understand the extreme range of her emotional sensibilities, and fuel the plot! Willoughby exhibits all of the heroic qualities of the stereotype; handsome, intelligent, chivalrous, charming, passionate and mysterious. He is the embodiment of a Byronic hero introduced in the semi-autobiographical epic poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, by Lord Byron.

Byron’s idealized, but flawed romantic hero influenced authors and artists of the Romantic Movement which can be seen in many of the early 19th century Gothic novels such as The Vampyre, and later in Emily Bronte’s character Heathcliffe of Wuthering Heights and her sister Charlotte Bronte’s Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre. Since Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811, one year prior to Lord Byron’s Pilgrimage, it is interesting to consider if Byron was influenced by Austen’s hero Willoughby when he created his own widely popular hero, Childe Harold, or other influences of Romantic Movement were his inspiration.

Image of Charity Wakefield and Dominic Cooper, Sense and Sensibility, (2008)

It is easy to understand why Marianne is attracted to Willoughby. He arrives in the neighborhood (on a white horse no less) quite dramatically, rescuing her in the pouring rain from a tumble down a hill and a sprained ankle, restoring her to her family and comfort of her home. The heroic image of him carrying her to safety is a strong icon to illustrators of this novel. I have found it depicted in almost every illustrated edition that I have encountered, and included in the three film versions of 1981, 1995, and 2008.

Image of Kate Winslet and Greg Wise, Sense and Sensibility, (1995)

Willoughby is an effective lover. He woos her with flowers, carriage rides and gift horses. He spouts poetry, and the same unguarded sensibility that Marianne exhibits. They are two peas in a pod, until he departs as abruptly as he arrived, under mysterious circumstances no less. One wonders if he was as deeply affected by their separation as Marianne was, or was he a libertine ready to move on to another conquest. Austen leaves us in no doubt of Marianne’s misery.

Illustration by Joan Hasall of Marianne Dashwood recused by Willoughby, Sense and Sensibility, (1958)

Marianne would have thought herself very inexcusable had she been able to sleep at all the first night after parting from Willoughby. She would have been ashamed to look her family in the face the next morning, had she not risen from her bed in more need of repose than when she lay down in it. But the feelings which made such composure a disgrace, left her in no danger of incurring it. She was awake the whole night, and she wept the greatest part of it. She got up with an headache, was unable to talk, and unwilling to take any nourishment; giving pain every moment to her mother and sisters, and forbidding all attempt at consolation from either. Her sensibility was potent enough!

Illustration by HM Brock of Willoughby rescuing Marianne, 1898

When breakfast was over, she walked out by herself, and wandered about the village of Allenham, indulging the recollection of past enjoyment and crying over the present reverse for the chief of the morning.

The evening passed off in the equal indulgence of feeling. She played over every favourite song that she had been used to play to Willoughby, every air in which their voices had been oftenest joined, and sat at the instrument gazing on every line of music that he had written out for her, till her heart was so heavy that no farther sadness could be gained; and this nourishment of grief was every day applied. She spent whole hours at the pianoforte alternately singing and crying; her voice often totally suspended by her tears. In books, too, as well as in music, she courted the misery which a contrast between the past and present was certain of giving. She read nothing but what they had been used to read together.

Illustration by HM Brock of Willoughby rescuing Marianne, (1898)

Such violence of affliction indeed could not be supported for ever; it sunk within a few days into a calmer melancholy; but these employments, to which she daily recurred, her solitary walks and silent meditations, still produced occasional effusions of sorrow as lively as ever. Marianne Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 16

For those who are watching the Masterpiece Classic presentation of Sense and Sensibility, I will not spoil the story, and will wait to finish the second half of this post until after the conclusion on Sunday, April 6th. We shall see if Willoughby is the romantic hero that Marianne craves, or the libertine that others fear him to be.

Sense and Sensibility 2008: Cast Preview

Image of the Dashwood ladies, Sense and Sensibility, (2008)

“I am afraid,” replied Elinor, “that the pleasantness of an employment does not always evince its propriety.” 

“On the contrary, nothing can be a stronger proof of it, Elinor; for if there had been any real impropriety in what I did, I should have been sensible of it at the time, for we always know when we are acting wrong, and with such a conviction I could have had no pleasure.” Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 13

Some say that Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility is her darkest, dealing with the struggle of the principles of common sense against free sensibility, the English inheritance laws of stifling primogeniture and it’s crushing affect on the female line, and the ever-present question of marrying for love, or money?

All of these critical issues are addressed in the new BBC adaptation of Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility which will be presented on Masterpiece Classic on Sunday, March 30th and April 6th at 9:00 pm on PBS. You can read the plot synopsis here.

Adapted by Andrew Davies, of Pride and Prejudice fame, it aired in the UK in January to mixed reviews that were mostly favorable. Never one to miss an opportunity to stir the pot, Davies continues on his theory that Jane Austen is all about sex by adding some provocative scenes and enhancements to the story to suit his purpose; in order to make the story accessible and interesting to the modern audience by sexing up relationships and showing what Jane Austen implied, but did not write!

Never one to shun a good story, I have mixed feelings about this approach that I will discuss further in my review of episode one on Monday. In the meantime, I hope that you find this cast preview helpful. Sense and Sensibility has a very large list of characters in the novel, each of which adds to the progress of the plot, and reminds us of Jane Austen’s talent as a keen observer of human nature, foibles and all.

Cast Preview

Image of Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility, (2008)Miss Elinor Dashwood (Hattie Morahan). Heroine age 19. Unmarried, eldest daughter of the late Henry Dashwood of Norland Park, Sussex and Mrs. Dashwood, recently of Barton Cottage, Devonshire. Dowry of 1000 pounds. Sensible, responsible and reserved. Some-what saintly in her abilities to place the welfare of her friends and family above her own concerns. Elinor’s strong good ‘sense’ and her stoic composure can be a comfort to her family, but stifles her emotions and can be interpreted as coldness by others.

Image of Charity Wakefield as Marianne Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility, (2008)Miss Marianne Dashwood (Charity Wakefield). Heroine age 16. Unmarried, second daughter of the late Henry Dashwood of Norland Park, Sussex and Mrs. Dashwood, recently of Barton Cottage, Devonshire. Dowry of 1000 pounds. Romantic, spontaneous and unguarded, she frequently thinks with her heart over her head, and often lacks proper propriety. Quick to judge, and often intolerant of different temperaments than her own, her ‘sensibility’ causes concern to her sister Elinor, and places her outside of societies dictum.

Image of Janet McTeer as Mrs. Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility, (2008)Mrs. Dashwood (Janet McTeer). Widow, age 40. Second wife of Henry Dashwood (recently deceased) of Norland Park, Sussex. Now of Barton Cottage, Devonshire owned by her cousin Sir John Middleton. Mother of Elinor, Marianne and Margaret. Step-mother to John Dashwood. Unprepared for widowhood and the responsibities of their new diminished financial situation. She and her daughter Marianne share an emotional and impulsive temperament, often making decisions based on feelings rather than reason.

Image of Lucy Boynton as Margaret Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility, (2008)Miss Margaret Dashwood (Lucy Boynton). Child, age 13. Third daughter of the late Henry Dashwood of Norland Park, Sussex and Mrs. Dashwood, recently of Barton Cottage, Devonshire. Dowry of 1000 pounds. Good-humored and well-disposed. Romantically influenced by her older sister Marianne, she is inexperienced and adventurous. Her character is expanded in the movie and serves as the inquisitor, often asking critical questions that her family needs to know, but because of propriety, can not ask.

Image of Dan Stevens as Edwards Ferrars, Sense and Sensibility, (2008)Edward Ferrars (Dan Stevens). Hero. Bachelor, age 23 of Oxford. Son of Mrs. Ferrars (father deceased), brother of Fanny and Robert. Heir to the Ferrars fortune and his mother’s hope to achieve public status and distinction in politics. Educated, amiable and highly eligible, he is attentive to Elinor but guarded, distant and troubled at times. Secretly engage to Lucy Steele for four years hence. Honorable and principled, he is willing to forgo his fortune and future happiness to keep his word instead of being with the woman he loves.

Image of Linda Bassett as Mrs. Jennings, Sense and Sensibility, (2008)Mrs. Jennings (Linda Bassett). Widow of Berkeley-street in London. Mother to Lady Middleton of Barton Park, Devonshire and Charlotte Palmer of Cleveland, Somersetshire. Talkative, overactive matchmaker who is often an embarrassment to the Dashwood’s. Wealthy empty-nester, bored, and determined to find matches for the Dashwood sisters. Gregarious, unrefined and excessively fond of gossip and a good tale, her well intentioned meddling into the Dashwood sister’s love lives is often unwelcome.

Image of Daisy Haggard as Anne Steele, Sense and Sensibility, (2008)Miss Anne (Nancy) Steele (Daisy Haggard). Unmarried, age nearing 30, of Exeter. Mr. Pratt of Plymouth’s niece. Sister to Lucy Steele. Cousin of Lady Middleton of Barton Park, Devonshire. “With a very plain and not a sensible face, nothing to admire.” All “vulgar freedom and folly“. On the quest for prodigious, handsome, smart, and agreeable beaus. Can’t keep a secret, and often says the wrong thing and admits as much. Aggressively in pursuit of beaxs.  Unguarded, revealing her sister Lucy’s secret.

Image of Anna Madeley as Lucy Steele, Sense and Sensibility, (2008)Miss Lucy Steele (Anna Madeley). Unmarried, age 22, of Exeter. Mr. Pratt of Plymouth’s niece. Sister to Anne Steele. Cousin of Lady Middleton of Barton Park, Devonshire. Monstrous pretty and naturally clever, but unrefined and uneducated, whose nature “joined insincerity with ignorance.” Secretly engaged to Edward Ferrars for four years hence, using this to hold Elinor at bay. A sly, scheming gold-digger, she is a chameleon of many colors, changing her alliances to suit her pocketbook.

Image of David Morrissey as Colonel Brandon, (2008)Colonel Brandon (David Morrissey). Hero. Bachelor, age 35, of Delaford in Dorsetshire. 2000 pounds a year. Retired from the Army. Rheumatic and wears flannel waistcoats.  Over-the-hill, infirmed and past romance according to Marianne. “if he were ever animated enough to be in love, must have long outlived every sensation of the kind.”. Sentimental. In his youth, he fell in love with a young woman who reminds him of Marianne, but his family did not approve of the match, and he was packed off into the army and sent aboard. Stoic, practical, and steadfast, his amiable qualities eventually outweigh his age.

Image of Claire Skinner as Fanny Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility, (2008)Mrs. Fanny Dashwood (Claire Skinner). Wife of John Dashwood of Norland Park, Sussex who is half brother of the Dashwood sisters. Daughter of Mrs. Ferrars, sister of Edward and Robert Ferrars. Mother of Little Henry (Harry) Dashwood. Arrogant, manipulative and selfish she knows the true value of a pence, and convinces her weak-minded husband to keep as much of the recently inherited Dashwood fortune as possible, slighting the second Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters, and forcing them into poverty.

Image of Dominic Cooper as John Willoughby, Sense and Sensibility, (2008)John Willoughby (Dominic Cooper). Bachelor, age 25 of Combe Magna, Somersetshire. Nephew of Mrs. Smith and heir of her estate Allenham Court, Devonshire. An outwardly dashing romantic Byron-esque hero, but in actuality, is an unprincipled deceitful rogue who trifles with young ladies affections by courting them for his own amusement. Later revealed to be a seducer, he is disinherited and is compelled to marry for money because he has squandered his own fortune. Ironically, he later regrets his marriage after his inheritance in restored. His callous quest for money over love is his downfall.

Image of Jean March as Mrs. Ferrars, Sense and Sensibility, (2008)Mrs. Ferrars (Jean Marsh). Widow of Park Street, London. Mother of Edward, Robert and Fanny. “a little, thin woman, upright to formality, in her figure, and serious, even to sourness, in her aspect.” The wealthy, manipulative and officious matriarch of the Ferrars family. Her son Edward is her favorite, and she and his sister Fanny “longed to see him distinguished” in public life. He prefers the opposite, a quiet private life. Money and social position are her precept. Her attempts to control her children’s lives by threats of disinheritance are feared, but shallow, as they all choose their own rout anyway.

Image of Morgan Overton as Little Henry Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility, (2008)Little Henry (Harry) Dashwood (Morgan Overton). Child, age 4 (but looks about 6). Son of John and Fanny Dashwood of Norland Park, Sussex and heir to that estate. Likes to visit the wild beasts at Exeter Exchange. Spoiled and obnoxious. For Little Harry’s sake, the Dashwood sisters live like impoverished gypsies after his mother Fanny convinces his father John Dashwood to greatly reduce his financial support of his step-mother and half-sisters after the death of Henry Dashwood, his grandfather.

Enjoy the film!

Images courtesy of Masterpiece Classic PBS © 2008; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2008, Austenprose.com