Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Hero? or villain?


That's the word my sister Anne spits out every time John Willoughby, Esquire, shows his face on the screen during Sense and Sensibility.  Maybe it's not the most mature way of describing his character, but it does seem to fit.  Charisma, gallantry and good looks are all very well, but when a person is so despicable, those little insignificant details are trodden underfoot.

My sister and I have very strong opinions about Jane Austen's villains.  No, actually we have just one opinion.  We hate them.  Henry Crawford, John Willoughby, George Wickham, William Elliot, Philip Elton and John Thorpe are all universally disliked around here.

Unlike Queen Victoria, we are much amused by the fact that Jane Austen apparently did not like gentlemen whose names began with W (Captain Wentworth excepted).  Willoughby, Wickham, William Elliot... we sometimes consider starting a fan web site called

You are supposed to be laughing now.

Oh, very well, have it your own way.  The imaginary web site is not the point of my post.  Rather, I wish to talk about John Willoughby and Tom Lefroy.  Specifically, I wish to tell you that I believe John Willoughby's character to be modeled after Tom Lefroy.

Now before you rise up in wrath and throw your Becoming Jane DVDs at me, let me say that I have duly read Miss Laurie's post on Tom Lefroy with great interest, and I have nothing against Tom Lefroy.  I do not mean to slight his character in this post, nor to slight Miss Austen's (or imply that she was bitter).  I am simply Making a Well-Informed Observation.

Jane Austen, as I mentioned in a previous post, was an excellent--nay, amazing--writer who drew from her own experiences, from real life, to write her novels.  Is it, therefore, "incontheivable" that she would base one of her villains on someone in real life?  Think for a moment, if you will, on the parallels between the two.

From what little we know of Jane's brief acquaintance with Tom Lefroy, we see that he was in the Steventon area visiting a wealthy Aunt.  Point number one.  I call to your attention Willoughby's rich relation Mrs. Smith, owner of Allenham.

Second point: we see Tom Lefroy as a mysterious, rather dashing personage, with whom Jane might just have fallen in love.  If she did indeed develop romantic feelings for him, it happened over a very short period of time.  Do recall Marianne's almost instantaneous affection for Willoughby when he rescued her after the ankle incident.

Third point: scandalous behavior on the part of both couples.  Marianne and Willoughby raced around on horseback, coolly toured Allenham despite the lady of the house's absence and danced with no one but each other at gatherings.  Jane and Tom danced and sat exclusively together, perhaps shocking their friends with their literary conversations about the "horrid" novel Tom Jones.

Fourth point: both young men had to suddenly go away, Willoughby to London and Tom... well, I'm not sure where Tom went, but presumably back to college.  Marianne was left heartbroken, while the more self-controlled Jane wrote lightly and brightly to her sister Cassandra of Tom's departure.  

Marianne, we remember, was quite sure that Willoughby would propose to her before he went away.  Jane wrote to Cassandra that she didn't care a sixpence for Tom Lefroy, but that if he proposed to her she would accept, if he were to get rid of his ugly white morning coat.  (Jeeves, anyone?)

Then came the time of wondering: would she ever hear from him again?  Marianne wrote effusive "notes" as she visited Mrs Jennings in London; Jane, it appears, laughed the whole thing off and started to write Pride and Prejudice.  We know that Cassandra Austen burnt many of Jane's more personal letters after Jane's death--could there have been something in those letters to divulge her real feelings? Speculation, speculation.

But then the sad part.  Willoughby, the rogue, married Miss Grey for her 20,000 pounds, while Tom was wed to a woman named Mary Paul (whose family situation I know nothing of).  I don't know if Tom married for money, but from what I've read of him it seems unlikely.  Willoughby, of course... well, we know his back story.

Here lies the biggest difference, however.  Marianne mourned, wept and refused even olives in her distress.  Jane, I think, let the whole matter drop, reconciled herself to spinsterhood and went on to write the best British literature of the nineteenth century.  Marianne ended up happy with Colonel Brandon... maybe because Jane wanted a fairy-tale ending, and knew that the only way she would get it was vicariously.

Did Jane Austen really think of Tom Lefroy as a villain?  I doubt it.  Does his behavior to her parallel that of Willoughby to Marianne (to a certain extent?) I think so.  Was Willoughby based on Tom?  Who knows?

But hey, if there were no speculation, we should be restricted only to "clouding the issue with facts."


Melody said...

Ha! If people like Tom Lefroy and Becoming Jane they're not going to like my guest post....;-)

Miss Dashwood said...

Hahaha... I'm getting quite eager to read this mysterious guest post!

Gracie said...

Warthog, indeed! Mr. Willoughby's behavior to Marianne was appalling. And it's too bad that men such as him are in the real world as well as the story books.

Melody said...

Mysterious, indeed! You know all my subjects. I guess you don't know all my opinions though. ;-)

I've just got those two questions left, then editing, pictures, etc.

Alexandra said...

Waaaaaaall....I *do* think he was cowardly and mercenary (the big W...and btw, I laughed about your little website thing. :-P). But...I *do* think he did love Marianne...just not enough, of course. I do feel the teensiest bit bad for him in the end of the 95 film....

And YES, I do agree that Tom had more of a dash of Willoughby!!! In Becoming Jane (which I know, I know, it's 95% speculation), they made him a cross between Darcy and Willoughby...I definitely saw some pretty strong tendencies from the latter there. However, I do like to believe (wish? :-P) that he loved her more than Willoughby did Marianne...

In some reviews I've read against Becoming Jane, they've been appalled that Jane would be "attracted to someone like that". However, I see it as the opposite...Marianne and Willoughby's relationship is written in a way only someone who had been in that kind of relationship could really write, you know?

There's my two cents. :-)

Hayden said...

Well, I admit at first I felt bad for Willoughby at the end of the older movie of Sense and Sensibility because I do think he really, in his way, loved Marianne. I think he's much more unlikable in the book. The guy who annoys me most is John Thorpe of NA, though. At least you could spend a somewhat pleasurable dinner with Willoughby. I don't think I could even bear to exchange "hello"s with Thorpe...

Anyway, I do see some similarities between Willougby and Lefroy. Definitely an interesting idea. I've never seen Becoming Jane, so I really can't comment on that quarter :)

Maria Elisabeth said...

While theoretically believing in his villainy, I'm still sorry for Willoughby. I think he is his own worst enemy. I don't feel sorry for Tom Lefroy, though. If he wanted to marry Jane, he probably could have. (If he got rid of his white coat.)

And this might be a little random, but I think this 'wicked W' thing has something to do with Frank Churchill. He was precariously close to being Frank Weston and also a 'Wicked W.'

Maria Elisabeth said...

Alexandra, I'm glad that there's someone who pities Willoughby, if only just a little. And I read somewhere that Jane Austen (humorously, perhaps) based Elinor Dashwood on her sister Cassandra and Marianne on herself. That would certainly support the idea of Willoughby being modeled after Tom Lefroy.

Victoria said...

Hm, I never thought of Willoughby as paralleling Tom Lefroy, though I have often wondered if Miss Austen based any characters on him. From what you wrote, it seems very likely! Thank you indeed for that interesting thought. :)

- Victoria

Julia said...

I Loved this Willoughby/Tom Lefroy post!!

(Jeeves, anyone?),

And "refused even olives"

had me rolling with laughter.

Also the WWW website. HAAhaa!! :D

You write very well, Miss Dashwood - have you ever considered trying your own hand at a novel?

Miss Dashwood said...

My goodness, didn't I reply to any of these comments yet? It would appear that I did not. Shocking!

It most certainly is a shame that there are such people in the world. But you know, Jane Austen's books are so great because she based them on real life.

I just finished reading his apology to Elinor and of course my heart melted... but I still think she was waaaaaay better off with the Colonel.
Now, the thing about Becoming Jane--from what I've seen/read of the movie, it looks like Tom L. is portrayed as a bit of a scoundrel and really not someone that Jane would have been attracted to... but of course, I haven't seen the movie so I can't really judge.

Now, I am quite the other way round; I wouldn't like to spend any time around Willoughby, though I'd at least get a laugh out of Thorpy's boorish behavior. :)

Miss Dashwood said...

Maria Elisabeth,
The more I read of Cassandra and Jane, the more I see them as Elinor and Marianne. :)

Isn't it fun to try and compare her characters with people in real life? I have to wonder if she ever met a real Mr. Collins...

Yay! You know Jeeves! A kindred spirit!
Thank you for the sweet compliment--I actually am trying my hand at writing a novel. :)
Have you ever written a novel?

Jane said...

I am certain that Miss Jane Austen knew people like Willoughby in her own life. Haven't we all? I have known both men and women who have treated me with smiles and attention and friendship, only to turn around one day and for no apparent reason refuse to acknowledge my earthly existence. It seems that most people never leave junior high behind forever...Have you ever tried to reach out to these people to figure out what happened, only to be given the silent treatment? It is a very cruel behaviour to inflict upon others--to leave them hanging and wondering for maybe the rest of their lives what ever happened. If only people could treat one another with basic respect and kindness! Jesus taught us to do more than that--to LOVE one another. Is it so impossible???