Willoughby is a total dick. But he’s also so much more than just a dick.
I hinted in yesterday’s blog that I wanted to dig further into Willoughby’s character — but even I didn’t think I’d do it so soon. So I hope you’ll sit back, relax, and think of England, cause this is gonna take awhile!
(…said the actress to the bishop.)
At face value, it is REALLY easy to fall into stereotypes of Austen’s characters, and I think this is something Emma Thompson’s script relates so beautifully from the novel: If you only want to see Willoughby as the Villain, and Marianne as the Romantic Heroine, and Brandon as the Hero, etc. then feel free to. It won’t affect your enjoyment of the story in any way.
However, if you dig a little deeper, I think a much richer plot unfolds. Namely — I don’t think Willoughby is simply “a villain.” Though he certainly makes choices that we, as the reader, consider wrong, it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that we can do so. And moreover, Marianne is nearly as complicit in the drama that unfolds.
Allow me to explain.
First of all, I need to establish that Marianne is very deliberately set up as the counterpoint to the story of Brandon and Eliza.
(Eliza, if you’ll recall, was the ward of Brandon’s father whom he fell in love with but was not permitted to marry on account of money.)
As Mrs. Jennings is telling the story of Eliza and Brandon to Elinor at about the 36-minute mark of the movie, the scene cuts back and forth between their conversation and Marianne playing a bowling game with Brandon on the lawn in front of them.
But I believe there is more to the camera direction than simply setting the scene for their conversation, because they’re trying to tell us something, that Marianne is Eliza.
Like Eliza at the beginning of the story, Marianne comes from a good home, has the support of a family behind her, and is young and beautiful, though penniless. And moreover, Brandon is in love with her, like Eliza.
At one point in the movie, Brandon even says to Elinor “I once knew a young lady very much like your sister,” which serves to really drive home the comparison.
Marianne, like Eliza, then goes on to make a series of bad decisions. Most notably, hanging out with Willoughby, and then her drama in front of all of London society at the ball. For Eliza, her bad decisions ended in “ruination and despair.” For Marianne, it certainly looks to lead that way. That is, until Brandon saves her by marrying her, in the way that he could not save Eliza. (Remember, he had been sent into the Army by his father as a means of separating the two lovers.) But he can save Marianne from ruination and despair, and so he does.
Really, if you think about it in a certain light, this entire part of the plot hinges on Brandon’s ability to save the women he loves: First, when he cannot, and then second, when he can. It’s got to be a jarring experience for him, and this is partially why Alan Rickman’s portrayal is so iconic — he is a master of wordlessly communicating an internal struggle. (See: Severus Snape, “Always.”)
Now, as pertains to Willoughby, I think this is one thing the 2008 miniseries does right, and the 1995 movie neglects.
If you’ve never seen it, the beginning of the miniseries depicts Willoughby before the events of Sense & Sensibility take place, seducing Eliza’s illegitimate daughter, and Brandon’s ward — who Brandon at one point in the movie calls “Beth,” though I don’t remember if that’s canonical. I believe the miniseries even shows the duel fought between the two men. There’s another part cut from the movie that is in the novel, and I believe is also in the miniseries, where Willoughby visits Marianne on her sickbed and professes his love, but then runs away. Though this explains a lot more of the background between the two couples (and between the two suitors) that we don’t get to see in the ’95 movie, it sets Miniseries Willoughby up as a coward and a villain in a way that Movie Willoughby is not.
And that’s what I want to focus on here: Movie Willoughby is not necessarily a villain, though Book Willoughby and Miniseries Willoughby definitely are.
Brandon tells Elinor and the viewer that Willoughby truly was intending to propose to Marianne that day. And since we’ve already set up Marianne as a sort of reincarnated Eliza, I don’t think it’s any great stretch to imagine Willoughby is a sort of Young Brandon. Like Young Brandon, Willoughby wants to marry for love, but is pulled away by a rich relation before he can. In Brandon’s case this is his father; in Willoughby’s, his aunt.
We never really get to find out in the movie if Willoughby is aware of the results of his actions with Eliza’s daughter Beth, but you can’t help but see the comparisons between the two girls who fall in love with the same man: One plays out her mother’s sad story, and the other is saved only by the skin of her teeth from doing the same. In the miniseries, Marianne kisses Willoughby, and an assignation between the two when they visit Combe Magna alone is strongly hinted at.
I don’t know if Willoughby was ever in love with Beth, but we can assume he does fall in love with Marianne, and it is made plain to us that he would have made her an honest woman, were it not for the “demands of a rich aunt upon a poor relation.”
But is that really his fault? Or is it a misguided demand of the society that he cannot escape from? If, as we are led to believe in the movie, Willoughby does not know of his child with Beth, then his actions make complete sense: For in all other respects, Willoughby does try to act honorably, even going so far as to return Marianne’s letters to her safely, so that she may not be made a fool of. And he tries to keep their encounter at the ball as civil and undramatic as possible. It is Marianne’s actions that lead to gossip — not his.
Yes, leaving her on the cusp of a proposal is reckless and mean, but it is far better to have jilted her before an engagement than after, when she quite literally could have sued him for breach of contract. This is one reason why Elinor feels betrayed by him too, until Marianne confesses there never was an engagement. It doesn’t excuse his actions, but it also doesn’t damn him in quite the same way.
Moreover, Willoughby is dependent on his aunt for his income, and as a young gentleman with no profession (indeed, he can have no profession, if he wants to keep his social standing) he either has to marry rich, or give up his inheritance.
This actually presents another interesting parallel between the two main love stories: Edward Ferrars faces this same dilemma, and makes the “correct” choice in the readers’ opinion. That is to say, he forgoes his mother’s opinion and inheritance to marry Lucy Steele, and to preserve her honor. (Lucy throws it back in his face by eloping with his brother, but that’s a topic for another day.) Once he’s already given up the inheritance, it’s relatively easy to turn to Elinor and marry her for love, though we’re led to believe that since he did it for Lucy’s reputation alone, he surely would have done it for the true love of Elinor. And thanks again to Colonel Brandon’s influence, it all can end happily because he now has an income of his own through the parish that Brandon offers him. Willoughby, to finish the comparison, of course makes the “wrong” choice, and casts away Marianne (and Beth) to marry for money. However this is a tangential comparison, if a notable one.
But was it really such a “wrong” decision? Willoughby had no promise of an outside profession or income like Edward Ferrars did. (Though, to be fair, Edward did not have his offer from Brandon yet when he made his decision to marry Lucy.)
But Willoughby has no hope of the story’s deus ex machina — continually in the form of Brandon — coming to save him. No, he crushed that chance with the bad decision he made months ago to sleep with Brandon’s ward, Beth. And yes, I do believe that had that incident not occurred, Brandon would have stepped aside for Marianne’s happiness and done whatever he could as a friend of the family to make sure she and Willoughby could marry and live happily. He does the same for Edward, simply because he is a friend of Elinor’s. (It just happens to ultimately benefit Elinor too.)
[Willoughby’s] charm is everything for which Marianne could hope: handsome, loves poetry and music, rich, etc. In truth, Willoughby’s gaming debts and his life of debauchery consume him. He will become the typical Tory country squire. The rivalry between Willoughby and Colonel Brandon contrasts the two men in broad strokes.
Jeffers sets up Willoughby as the “typical Tory country squire,” or in other terms — the patriarchy as we know it.
That is to say, he has a rich man’s privilege. He knows it. He uses it with no qualms. And he will do just about anything to hold on to it.
Can we really fault a white man of the early 19th century landed gentry for that?
(I mean, yes, obviously we can. But at least his motives make more sense.)
Willoughby, for all his charm and privilege, is locked into a desperate situation we usually only see Austen’s female heroines in — to marry for love and be happy but poor, or to marry for wealth and remain comfortable, but unhappy.
At any rate, I think it’s fair to say Willoughby was under pressures of his own. And he gets his comeuppance by marrying the mean but well-dowried “Miss Grey.” (A more apt name I’ve never heard of for such a bland, colorless character who is only defined by her money.)
Perhaps the thing that ultimately saves Miss Grey is that she and Willoughby are not in love with each other. Everyone else who falls in love with him seems to come out worse for the wear.
Now, I want to dissect Marianne’s complicity in this nonsense. “But,” I hear some of you protesting already, “She was 16! She didn’t know any better!”
Yes. She was just 16. (At least, in the novel she was — there’s reason to believe Ang Lee aged up many of the main characters for the movie. Again, that’s another topic for another day.) But she is presented to us as an adult, albeit a young adult, and she is considered by her peers and her family capable of making good decisions. That is partly why Marianne receives such a lecture from Elinor on her behavior with Willoughby, and later, ultimately admits that she should have acted more appropriately, like Elinor had. (On past behavior: “I compare it with what it ought to have been. I compare it to yours.”)
Again, from Jeffers:
Willoughby literally sweeps Marianne Dashwood off her feet with their first acquaintance. He assists her home when Marianne falls and twists her ankle. In Willoughby, Marianne discovers a man she admires for his dash. She comments “that is what a young man ought to be” in describing Willoughby to others. In her naive fashion, Marianne does not recognize that a man of Willoughby’s cut MUST marry for money for he loves his horses, society, and women. He is a landed gentleman living beyond his means. His behavior is a statement to the hereditary privileges granted men of his social class. Although Marianne terms him courteous and gallant, […] he is a man-about-time.
This is hardly entirely her fault. Doing what she does best, Austen has set Marianne up as a caricature of a fad; more specifically, of “The Cult of Sensibility.”
From a review of “The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth Century Britain” by G. J. Barker-Benfield:
“The essence of this culture […] was its articulation of women’s consciousness in a world being transformed by the rise of consumerism that preceded the industrial revolution. The new commercial capitalism, while fostering the development of sensibility in men, helped many women to assert their own wishes for more power in the home and for pleasure in “the world” beyond. […] The culture of sensibility [emerges] from struggles over self-definition within individuals and, above all, between men and women as increasingly self-conscious groups.
Spurred by the fashionable romantic and picturesque fashions of the age, young men and women were increasingly drawn to the dramatic, the sentimental, and the romantic. In fact, “sensibility” might as well be called “sentimentality” in the way we understand the word now. (For the record, “sense” has kept pretty much the same meaning through the years.)
This is hardly Marianne’s fault though — Willoughby literally rides in to save the day on a white horse, and then quotes her favorite sonnet to her.
I don’t care how hard-hearted you are, you’d’ve swooned too.
But it is her fault of sensibility that fuels much of her struggle in the novel and the movie. Marianne may not make the decision to fall in love (who does?) but she does pursue Willoughby long after he has made it clear he cannot marry her. She continues to write to him, and stalks him at a ball, and ultimately sneaks away in a driving rainstorm to whisper sadly and dramatically in the direction of his home.
Without such faddish dramatics, Marianne could have been sensible (in the “sense” meaning) like Elinor, and saved herself not only from the gossip of London society, but very possibly also from a deathly illness — which is entirely brought on by her arguably self-induced depression.
There is even a strong case to be made that Marianne felt dying was the only logical next step to her relationship with Willoughby: At one point early on in the movie, she tells her mother that “To love is to burn, to be on fire, like Juliet or Guinevere or Eloise!” Romantic heroines, to be sure, but not exactly ideal role models for a healthy relationship — or a long life.
(I am actually not entirely sure who Marianne is referring to when she says “Eloise,” but I suspect she means the title character in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Julie, or the new Heloise,” a 1761 novel that drew inspiration from the life and epistolary passions of Héloïse d’Argenteuil, a French abbess.)
The blame for her illness then can hardly be laid at Willoughby’s door. And, it has set her up not as a creature to be pitied, but as a laughable one:
(Ok, maybe it’s just us that makes fun of her, but she’s SUCH AN EASY TARGET.)
At any rate, Austen (and Thompson’s script) assures us that even faddish and foolish young ladies need not live unhappily ever after, and the specter of Eliza remains just that: An ineffectual and intangible warning only of what might have been, had Marianne not had her sensible sister and Colonel Brandon’s love to pull her out of “ruination and despair.”
Even Movie Willoughby’s plotline is wrapped up with a nice neat bow: We see him watching Marianne and Brandon’s wedding from far upon a hilltop, a look of sad acceptance on his face, before riding off into the sunset on his white steed to accept the fate he has chosen. We are not privy to any scene of note between him and his new wife, so it is left to the viewer’s imagination to dream up possible marital discord and tortures for them both.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my thoughts on the “Willoughby Situation,” and with any luck, maybe you can understand some more of the motives behind the characters now, as Austen intended it. I promise not every day of the blog will be such a novella, but obviously, I had a lot to say on this subject!
If you missed the last two days of the series, catch them here:
And please, chime in in the comments of any of our social media with your thoughts! What do you think of Willoughby? Is he a cut-and-dry villain, or is there more to him? Is there a difference between his character in movie, the miniseries and the novel? And, as always, if you have any ideas you’d like to see covered in a future blog, don’t be shy!