I know what every woman thinks of when she thinks of Jane Austen.
Carriages, right? Smelling salts and fashionable gowns? No, no, and no.
She thinks of men.
Specifically, those men. Fitzwilliam Darcy. Captain Wentworth. Colonel Brandon. Mr Knightley.
I lay the blame for this equally on the BBC and on Colin Firth. That white shirt…that lake…that well-defined chest…how could any lady possibly resist?
Now, a show of hands – who’s more familiar with the film versions of Austen’s books than the books themselves?
*raises hand sheepishly*
And there’s nothing wrong with that. After all, we’ve seen some excellent Mr Darcys on the screen – Matthew MacFadyen, Colin Firth, David Rintoul, Martin Henderson. We’ve had wonderful Elizabeths as well – Jennifer Ehle and Keira Knightley, as well as memorable portrayals of Emma from Romola Garai, Kate Beckinsale, and Gwyneth Paltrow.
But no matter how many Austen films we see or books we read, it’s the men she created that we remember. What is it, exactly, that keeps us coming back to Darcy and Mr Knightley and Colonel Brandon?
They are all, without fail, inherently good men. They do the right thing. They are honorable. They are dependable. They are loyal. They are steadfast and moral.
And in lesser hands than Austen’s, all of that gentlemanly gallantry and goodness could add up to one giant yawn. We women love our bad boys, after all. But because Darcy and Colonel Brandon and company are flawed, with very human failings like snobbishness, pride, and stubbornness, their imperfection renders them all the more endearing and believable. Love definitely brings out the best in Jane Austen’s men.
This perfect imperfection is one of the things that make Austen’s men so unforgettable.
Consider Mr Darcy. He’s a gentleman of impossibly high standards but fierce loyalty. He initially misjudges Elizabeth, but does not later hesitate to admit he is wrong. When she rejects his high-handed marriage proposal out of hand, Darcy is stunned, then deeply offended. Yet when her sister Lydia elopes with Mr Wickham, Darcy moves heaven and earth to spare Elizabeth Bennett’s reputation.
Then we have the less tempestuous Austen men. Henry Tilney of Northanger Abbey is all that is pleasant in his dealings with Catherine, with a sense of humor and a strong sense of right and wrong. Edward Ferrars (Sense and Sensibility) is kind and considerate, loyal and decent; the same is true of the often maligned Edmund Bertram (Mansfield Park). He is incapable of flirtatiousness or witty repartee; it is not in his nature. Yet despite his faults, by the end of the book, he is completely devoted to Fanny Price.
And is there a more telling moment in all of Austen’s books than when Mr Knightley remonstrates Emma for her treatment of Miss Bates?
“It was badly done, indeed! You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her–and before her niece, too–and before others, many of whom (certainly some,) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her.–This is not pleasant to you, Emma–and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will,–I will tell you truths while I can.” – Mr Knightley, Emma
Knightley is a highly moral man whose maturity far surpasses Emma’s. He scolds her, not to be unkind, but to make her understand the unkindness she has shown Miss Bates. He does not hesitate to tell Emma the truth, even if that truth proves unpleasant for him to speak and for her to hear.
And we cannot forget Captain Frederick Wentworth, whose wealth is self-made, not inherited, and his heartfelt letter to Anne Elliot:
“…Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant.” Captain Wentworth, Persuasion
In addition, to be memorable, a character must be likable. And Austen’s men – despite their flaws and foibles – are certainly that (with the possible exception of that irredeemable cad, Mr Wickham). In the end, it isn’t the style of a man’s cravat or the cut of his breeches that matter; it’s his decency, his innate sense of right and wrong, his constancy, and his determination to uphold honor no matter the cost to himself, that make us fall in love with the Austen men, over and over again.