OK, here’s the thing. I love Persuasion, but Captain Wentworth is a bit of a douche-pony throughout much of the story. Every time I re-read the book, I am astonished anew at how annoying he is in his anger and resentfulness. It annoys me further that Anne interprets and excuses his behavior, that she castigates and blames herself for the decision she made at nineteen. But then the novel redeems itself (to me) by giving Anne an opportunity to share her thoughts with Captain Harville, overheard by Wentworth, and allowing Wentworth to realize fully just how wrong he was and do a bit of groveling.
I absolutely love it when Austen allows her heroes to learn where they have been in the wrong and to amend their behavior where appropriate in order to earn the respect and affection of their chosen ladies.
- Pride and Prejudice – Darcy’s fatal error in his first proposal to Elizabeth is his arrogant assumption that she will be gratified by his proposal, that he need not exert himself in any way to be pleasing. Honestly — “Your family is pretty damn awful, and I know I’m going to spend the rest of my life wishing that they weren’t a part of it, but I just can’t help myself… Marry me.” After the ensuing confrontation with Elizabeth, Darcy eventually realizes that her condemnation of his character is not wholly unjust, and he takes pains to improve himself. When he approaches her a second time, he is hopeful but not certain that he has succeeded.
- Persuasion – Wentworth’s error throughout the eight years of his estrangement with Anne is in holding too tightly to his belief of having been wronged by an inconstant Anne (rather than perceiving that the risk in marrying him was all on her side and asking her again once his ability to provide for her (and any children) was more a sure thing. He compounds this error by being a real jerk muffin towards Anne once he is again in her company. These are grievous errors, to be sure, but in his letter to Anne and subsequent conversation, Wentworth demonstrates that he appreciate’s Anne’s sufferings and fully comprehends that he was the cause of most of them. And, oh, that letter…
- Emma is perhaps a bit less approachable to a modern audience given the huge age gap between Emma and her Mr. Knightley and the rather odd occurrence of Emma sort of growing up under his tutelage (ew). Yet even in this story, Mr. Knightley approaches Emma convinced that he, with his constant correcting and nitpicking, has driven away all chance of her affection. The very instance of his seeing his behavior towards Emma as potentially officious rather than his natural right becomes, to me, the most attractive part of his character.
- Northanger Abbey – Henry Tilney gets to apologize for his father’s atrocious behavior, but he’s mostly on this side of the list because I like the story and construction of Northanger Abbey so well. Henry may not be exactly my favorite type of hero, but he is certainly the most charming and witty of all of Austen’s men (except, maybe, Frank Churchill–but Frank is also a bit silly and quite selfish and so does not qualify as a truly good man).
To my mind, nothing suits a man so well as a little uncertainty. It is the quality that separates my favorites of the Austen men from my least favorite.
- Mansfield Park – Edmund Bertram… ugh. One day he happens to look over at Fanny and realizes that he might just be in love with her after all. It’s true that he repents of trying to force her to marry Henry Crawford (and of being carried away by his appreciation of Mary Crawford’s fine features…), but I always wish for significantly more groveling than the reader receives. Fanny, of course, is perfectly happy to have him, but she’s Fanny, so it hardly signifies.
- Sense and Sensibility – Edward Ferrars gets another ugh from me. I think he’s my least favorite of all the leading men. After leading Elinor on and being super moody and a bit freaky about the hair ring (ew), he just shows up one day, declares that Lucy married Robert instead and asks Elinor to marry him, and she’s like “Hells yeah!!” And he’s like, “Good, ’cause Lucy had appalling diction, and her letters have been an embarrassment to me for a long time, but what can I say? Boobs!” And Elinor’s like “LOLZ.” Ugh.
Who are your favorites among Austen’s men? What are your qualifications for inclusion on your favorites list?