25 Days of Sense & Sensibility: Day 3 – To Willoughby Or To Won’toughby, That Is The Question

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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.)

The following is an excerpt from austenauthors.net, in a post by Regina Jeffers:

[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:

Day 1

Day 2

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!

-R

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29 thoughts on “25 Days of Sense & Sensibility: Day 3 – To Willoughby Or To Won’toughby, That Is The Question

  1. A final question if I may. Why does Marianne get so (mentally) unwell over Willoughby? How can one guy exert so much emotional energy over a girl?

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  2. I love this post, and especially the idea that Marianne was Brandon’s do-over version of Eliza!

    To me, Willoughby isn’t a villain so much as a foil for Edward. If Marianne’s dramatics help us better appreciate Elinor’s stoicism, then Willoughby’s faithless behavior transforms Edward into someone worth rooting for.

    How else can we accept Edward as worthy of Elinor if we don’t see just how unworthy “real” men like Willoughby are? The film version gives us a just enough time with Edward to understand why Elinor might fall in love with him, but in the book, we learn very little about Edward Ferrars. All we have to go on is who he is not–he is not Fanny, his brother Robert, or Willoughby.

    What we do know about Edward is that he is the antithesis of the romantic hero. For most of the book, he’s uncertain, inarticulate, and resigned to letting life happen to him. We’re not going to see him swooping in to save damsels in distress. Except–that’s exactly what he does, at least when it really counts. He stands up for the one woman no one in the world should ever have to stand up for: Lucy Steele. (Granted, he made the idiotic choice to propose to her, but we’ll blame that on youth. Or maybe he’d had too much to drink one night…)

    Both Edward and Willoughby face the loss of their inheritances because they made a thoughtless decision in the past. It’s not that surprising that Willoughby chooses financial security over love. But it is absolutely stunning that Edward would choose a loveless marriage as well as financial loss–and why? He would damage Lucy’s reputation if he dropped her. By the point in the story when we learn of Edward’s decision to stick by Lucy, we’ve just learned that Willoughby seduced one woman and dropped another. Whoa, Edward is starting to look really good now!

    Ultimately, Willoughby can’t be a villain because he’s too pathetic to be anything but Austen’s tool. (But yes, the 1995 version of Willoughby is very, very nice to look at…)

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    1. Reading your comment, I realize anew that Edward really was being brave in sticking by Lucy. He was facing the loss of almost every friend, a future with a woman he couldn’t love or respect, financial hardship–to what purpose? Sticking by his principles, honoring his commitments, and trying to avoid irreparably harming the reputation of another. He understood the injury jilting would do to Lucy, that it could precipitate a spiral into poverty and ruin, and refused to do the dishonorable thing–really, it is very brave. I think our Edward is a Gryffindor at heart; I just overlooked it before because he’s quiet and shy.

      Hooray for the courage of the quiet and shy! ❤

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  3. This is one of the things I love most about Jane Austen–the complexity & humanity she extends to all of her characters, not just the ones we like. No one is irrevocably doomed to badness. All of the so-called villains are people who could have been good, if it weren’t for bad luck and (more importantly) poor choices. There but for the grace of God go we, she seems to tell us. A similar sympathy for human frailty is seen in Gaskell’s and Trollope’s works. Reminds me of the line in Crimes of Grindelwald–“you never met a monster you couldn’t love.” I’m not sure JA loved all her monstrous characters, but I think she did understand them, why they were who they were, and the choices that had led them there.

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  4. Wow! This was awesome and so insightful into a character that IS often portrayed as a pure baddie. It reads like a thesis! (In a good way, not a dry way). I really appreciate you also referencing the newer miniseries, as I have loved this EMma Thompson version until this new BBC miniseries filled in a few holes for me, and allowed for a bit more
    Character expansion. The dry and witty comedy is this version is brilliant, and Emma Thompson did win a Golden Globe for it.(Look up her acceptance speech, it is more Jane Austen Gold, and perhaps worthy of a blog post if you find yourself running out of topics!) Thank you for reminding us of the 18th century mindset and motivation of Jane Austen and her incredible characters.

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  5. Hey, Drunk Austen. Enjoying this series already! Great stuff on Willoughby.

    Maybe you’ll reread my Atlantic piece from a few years ago about the men in the film and let me know if we see eye to eye or not?

    https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/02/sense-and-sensibility-jane-austen-emma-thompson/434007/

    Loving thinking about S&S this way. The novel and film are near and dear to my heart at the moment. FYI, the Penguin Deluxe Classics S&S I edited isn’t going to be out until February 2019 (production delay), but rest assured that it has a pop culture section!

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  6. Thank you for this excellent essay on Day 3, particularly your exploration of the complex characters behind the archetypes. Another young woman fell for Willoughby’s charms – Emma Thompson is still married to Greg Wise!

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  7. I think you are correct, that the movie definitely portrays Willoughby as a character that is more complex. The end scene when he watches the wedding always gets me. The whole cast is great, but I think Greg Wise does not get enough credit for the emotion he conveys in that moment. The longing, regret, and pain are palpable.

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  8. I don’t think I have seen the mini-series version, but am I crazy to remember that the movie version filmed the scene (which was cut, but shows up in the deleted scenes on the DVD) where Willoughby shows up while Marianne is sick ? I have that scene very clearly in my head with Emma and Greg Wise in that dark panelled room…

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  9. Just a thought: isn’t Eloise the French medieval one? The love of Abelard – or something like that? The story was quite famous at the time

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      1. Thank you for the link regarding Eloise. Before I read the link it was making me wonder who she was. Guinevere was tied to the stake right? Before Lancelot carried her off. The production of Camalot I saw was not very clear.

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  10. Love your blog! I was wondering if I’ve gotten something a bit mixed up… I thought that W’s aunt heard of his actions with Colonel B’s Ward and disinherited him, or as Colonel B says “drove him from the house” Which would clarify his actions in drawing back from Maryanne. Without the inheritance of Comb Magna he’d all of a sudden be in more need of a rich wife than he previously thought… I mean the creditors hear he’s no longer to inherit and they start scrambling for they’re money right? I have not read the book or seen the other mini series though, so I’m only talking about what happens in this particular movie.

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    1. We are specifically focusing on the movie plot in this series, but I think you’re right that in the original novel, he is either threatened with disinheritance if he marries Marianne or actually disinherited for knocking up Brandon’s ward — either scenario would necessitate finding a rich wife. -R

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      1. But doesn’t W’s comment before leaving Barton Cottage for the last time show that the aunt disinherited him?

        “Lady Allen has exercised the privilege of riches upon a dependent cousin and is sending me to London.”

        To my way of thinking if he hadn’t seduced Beth he wouldn’t have been disinherited, so he could’ve married Marianne. The Dashwoods think it’s because of Marianne but they don’t know about Beth. I think W did know what happened to Beth and didn’t care.

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  11. The problem is that there are so many similarities between Willoughby and Wickham, that sometimes it’s hard to separate them. Both have gambling debts, both seduce younger women and ruin (or almost) ruin their reputation, and both are originally portrayed as good, fun loving guys that the families and audience (at first glance) can approve of. Out of the two, I think Wickham is worse because he does ruin Lydia’s reputation before Darcy steps in. At least Willoughby tried to separate himself from Marianne and save their reputations. Marianne just needed to take 1000 chill pills!

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  12. ET definitely made Willoughby much more sympathetic, didn’t she? I know it’s shameless rubbernecking, but I love that she began her relationship with Greg Wise during filming, and they are still together. It’s 50% of the reason I bought her S&S production diary, but of course she is very discreet, as one might expect.

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    1. You can see in the dance scene in the film the way Greg looks at Emma. It is if they are dancing and Greg has forgotten what to do next. The way he does actually not look at Kate in character as well. And he moves too close to Emma at one point after the failed picnic at Deleford. The clues are there 🙂

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  13. Very good points…even Marianne in the movie (I forget rn whether it’s in the book) points out to Elinor that he did what he had to, more or less: “Where does prudence end, and avarice begin,” or words to that effect… I hope we get to ponder how he and Wickham are similar and different in character and behavior!

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  14. What I find interesting in the book that the movie leaves out is that Willoughby says that Beth’s behaviour lead him to seduce her. I think Willoughby has different sides to him. I don’t think he wanted to seduce Marianne. He did want marriage.

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    1. I would like to add to celebrate 20 years Mompesson House did an exhibition of Sense and Sensibility and they had the dress Marianne wore in the rain along with Elinor’s violet dress that she wore to the ball.

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