There are so many things to love about Jane Austen: razor-sharp wit, penetrating satire, and intricate storylines among them, but perhaps what really keeps readers coming back again and again are Austen’s complex, endearing, and realistic characters. Many a devoted Janeite has self-identified with the independent Lizzy Bennet, the practical Elinor Dashwood, the self-assured Emma Woodhouse, the imaginative Catherine Morland, or the humble Fanny Price.
Just as we tend to gravitate toward one of Austen’s heroines, we also tend to have a favorite leading man. In this post, I will be attempting to make an unbiased evaluation of three of Austen’s heroes: Mr. Darcy, Mr. Tilney, and Mr. Knightley. I’m pretty sure that’s impossible though, so if you disagree with my conclusions, or I’ve left your personal favorite off my list, feel free to make your case (civilly, of course!) in the comments. Without further ado, let’s get into it!
It’s only fair to start with Mr. Darcy, the ubiquitous Austen hero, the one everybody knows, even people who haven’t read the book or even–Heaven forbid!–at the very least seen one of the movie adaptions. A simple Google search for “I love Mr. Darcy” turns up over eleven million results; among them countless t-shirts, coffee mugs, and tote bags, all badges of undying devotion to the arch-nemesis-turned-dashing-love-interest of Austen’s most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice. On closer inspection, however, Darcy wouldn’t exactly be my choice of suitor. After all, his first proposal to Lizzy is prefaced by his admittance that he makes the offer against his better judgment.
Against his better judgment?! Lizzy deserves a better proposal than that, and she knows it too. Despite what the fangirls would have you believe, Mr. Darcy is not, in fact, the perfect man, but quite the opposite. While he is somewhat redeemed by his eventual change of heart, and things turn out well in the end, do we really think that someone who is initially so judgmental and condescending should be our idea of a model man? Just like Lizzy, we deserve better than someone who finds us merely “tolerable.” The attraction lies not in the original Mr. Darcy, cold and aloof, but in the man who tells our heroine, “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”
Mr. Tilney, the hero of Northanger Abbey, is perhaps the most obscure of my three contenders. He is clever, opinionated, and does not consider himself above womanly occupations (like picking out fabric for a dress–just ask him about the bargain he got on Indian muslin!). He also likes attention. Maybe a little too much: “I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought.” Simply put, he is only interested in Catherine because she is so clearly interested in him.
My overall impression of Mr. Tilney is that he’s a rather weak man who enjoys making himself look good. He holds himself in high esteem, and is flattered by Catherine’s hero-worship. All that being said, he does seem like a perfect match for Catherine, bringing her down to earth from her flights of fancy, and his witticisms are really quite enjoyable. One of my favorites: “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” Now that I can agree with.
And so we come to Mr. Knightley, my personal favorite. Mr. Knightley is just an all around good guy. He’s rich but not pretentious, he cares about the people around him, and he has a nearly faultless moral compass. Over the course of the novel, his older-brotherly affection for Emma becomes real love, but along the way his admiration and respect for her never waver. He’s also never afraid to let Emma know when she’s in the wrong. This is something I really appreciate, because I think being able to honestly let someone know when they’re behaving badly is important in any relationship.
Among our contenders, Mr. Knightley provides the best example of self-giving love. When he believes Emma is in love with Frank Churchill, he says nothing and tries to put his own feelings aside, even going so far as leaving Highbury. After his return, his declaration of love for her is true to character: “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am. You hear nothing but truth from me.” And when Emma expresses her concern about leaving her father, he offers to move to Hartfield. For a well-to-do man in Regency England, moving in with your wife instead of vice versa was practically unimaginable, but Mr. Knightley is willing to sacrifice not only his home, but also his dignity, for the woman he loves.