“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)
The 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.
Happily, 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.