“The gentleman offered his services, and perceiving that her modesty declined what her situation rendered necessary, took her up in his arms without further delay and carried her down the hill.”
Willoughby, oh Willoughby. Such a dashing rake. No wonder Marianne falls for him in Sense and Sensibility. First, he comes to her rescue when she twists her ankle. Next, he is discovered to be graceful, uncommonly handsome, and well-spoken. In the eyes of his female admirers, Sir John’s assessment of him (a decent shot, a bold rider, possessing a fine pointer as well as very pretty property) does nothing to detract from his other charms. The added intelligence that Mr. W is a tireless dancer, a talented musician, and an enthusiastic reader seals the deal. He is exactly the sort of gentleman capable of attaching Marianne’s affections … and he does so effortlessly.
In the early chapters, the reader’s only hint that Willoughby may not be so perfect after all is his open contempt for Colonel Brandon. “Brandon is just the kind of man … whom everybody speaks well of, and nobody cares about; whom all are delighted to see, and nobody remembers to talk to.” His words serve as no warning for Marianne, however, since she feels the same way – a clue to her own shortcomings. Of Brandon she declares, “… he has neither genius, taste, nor spirit.” Elinor objects to their cooperative character assassination, and Willoughby offers the following explanation:
“I have three unanswerable reasons for disliking Colonel Brandon: he has threatened me with rain when I wanted it to be fine; he has found fault with the hanging of my curricle; and I cannot persuade him to buy my brown mare. If it will be any satisfaction to you, however, to be told that I believe his character to be in other respects irreproachable, I am ready to confess it. And in return for an acknowledgment, which must give me some pain, you cannot deny me the privilege of disliking him as much as ever.”
Well, at least he has good reasons for his prejudice. Thinking of the ’95 acclaimed production, where Greg Wise whirls Kate Winslet around as he delivers a close approximation of this speech, I daresay I would have been convinced as well. I liked the above quote so much, in fact, that I included a portion of it in my second book, For Myself Alone – one of the many Jane Austen lines I managed to slip into the text. This time, it’s a father disparaging the worth of his potential son-in-law:
“Upon my honor, Josephine, I had hoped to see you do better for yourself as to fortune. A man of some little property would have suited my ambitions very well. Mr. Arthur Evensong may prove a great success in the end, but as of this moment I have seen very little evidence of his genius. If it will be any satisfaction to you, however, to be told that I believe his character to be in other respects irreproachable, I am ready to confess it …”
We can’t always explain our gut-level dislike for someone, but we would fight to defend our right to our opinion, however irrational. In Willoughby’s case, though, his instinctive antagonism toward the colonel is not totally misplaced, just premature, since the worthier Brandon gets the lady they both love in the end.