On Handsome – and Not so Handsome – Leading Men in Jane Austen’s Novels, by Eliza Shearer

On Handsome – and Not so Handsome – Leading Men in Jane Austen’s Novels, by Eliza Shearer

I finally got around watching the 2008 Sense and Sensibility BBC adaptation. It is beautifully shot, with stunning locations, a historically accurate wardrobe and a very competent cast. I wasn’t too fond of the script or direction at times, but I liked the two central characters, Elinor and Marianne.

I was particularly pleased to see Mrs Dashwood portrayed as young and beautiful. Too often, the mothers of Austen’s heroines in film adaptations are played by women a tad too old for the role (I’m looking at you, Mrs Bennet!). However, this adaptation got something very wrong – so wrong that I was unable to stop thinking about it. It concerned one of the two leading men in the story.

The Many Faces of Jane Austen’s Heroes

Austen’s heroes are a rather diverse bunch. Pride and Prejudice’s Mr Darcy inherits his fortune, while in Persuasion Captain Wentworth’s wealth is built on merit. They are both rich, compared to Mansfield Park’s Edmund Bertram and Sense and Sensibility’s Edward Ferrars, destined to become clergymen of modest means. They also feature a range of ages. Mr Bingley, Jane Bennet’s love, is only 22, whereas Emma’s Mr John Knightley is almost middle-aged.

Their differences go beyond their socio-demographic characteristics. Austen is quite precise when describing the looks of her leading men, and it may come as a surprise that they are very much unequal.

The Handsome Chaps

Some of Austen’s leading men are properly drop-dead-gorgeous on the looks scale. Mr Darcy, with his “fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien” is probably closest to the archetype of the handsome romantic hero. In spite of tough competition from his friend, Mr Bingley is not far behind. He is described as “good-looking and gentlemanlike,” with “a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners.”

But Pride and Prejudice does not have the monopoly of dapper leading men. In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth is so attractive that even a snob like Sir Walter declares him “a very well-looking man.” The Bertram brothers in Mansfield Park warrant a similar description. They are “very well-looking”, “well-grown and forward for their age.” So far, so good.

The Not-Quite-But-Almost Hero

Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey is a bit different, in that Austen makes it quite clear that he is the type that doesn’t turn heads but isn’t bad-looking, either. Here is how she describes him: “rather tall, had a pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and if not quite handsome, was very near it.”

In other words, you probably wouldn’t go out of your way to admire him, but you would quite happily chat to him (especially about muslin, of course) and probably find him rather attractive after a while, which incidentally is what happens to Catherine Moreland.

The Very Average Guys

Jane Austen may have come up with dreamy Darcy, but she knew that most of her readers had little chance of meeting a real-life version of him. Perhaps that is why many of her leading men are actually pretty unremarkable in terms of looks, a fact steadily ignored by the casting directors responsible for most adaptations.

Mr Knightley in Emma is “a sensible man about seven or eight-and-thirty” with “a cheerful manner”; at no point does Austen refer to him as being handsome, and her silence is telling. Sense and Sensibility is particularly rich in unexceptional-looking men. Colonel Brandon is “silent and grave” with a “not unpleasing” appearance, which is another way to say not totally hideous. As for Edward Ferrars, he is “gentleman-like and pleasing”, but Austen also specifically describes him as “not handsome”. And here lies my main objection to the 2008 Sense and Sensibility adaptation: Edward Ferrars is too devastatingly good-looking.

I am ashamed to admit that throughout the viewing I was constantly distracted by Dan Stevens’ bright blue eyes and charming smile. I even missed the awkwardness of Hugh Grant’s take on the character, even though I have always considered him too attractive for the role.

Don’t get me wrong: I love a handsome hero, and I also understand that certain concessions must be made to ensure the appeal of a film adaptation. However, the great thing about Edward and Elinor’s love story in Sense and Sensibility is that they are both happy to embrace normality and simplicity, even though they were born in great homes with all possible comforts. I think that making Edward so outstandingly attractive misses the point.

On the other hand, I believe Mr Stevens cuts a dashing figure in breeches.


What do you think of the gap between how Austen’s heroes are described in the novels and how we have grown to imagine then? Which adaptations get it right in your opinion?

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16 Responses to On Handsome – and Not so Handsome – Leading Men in Jane Austen’s Novels, by Eliza Shearer

  1. I think this is always an issue for movies and tv shows where the main characters that are cast are always attractive. Even when the character is meant to be ugly they hire an attractive actor and then try to make them look “ugly.” This is more frustrating when it’s adaptations of books where the characters are described as ugly, but turn out looking like Iwan Rheon.

  2. It could also be quite telling to see the ranking of the antagonists in Austen’s novels. Many of the most dastardly ones are devastatingly handsome (even more than the protagonists).

  3. I automatically fall in love with any Darcy, no matter who it is. There is something about this haughty man falling so hard for a woman he believes should be flattered by his attention, but who tells him what a jerk he is. I love that. I am so perverse. Love the article.

  4. Movies and TV usually cast less-than-handsome actors in the roles of villains and side-kicks; rarely as heroes. Perhaps they think audiences won’t watch a movie or program unless everyone on the screen is drop-dead gorgeous. In real life, not every man is handsome, young, and physically fit with three percent body fat, and Jane Austen knew that. I always thought Alan Rickman was a great choice to play Colonel Brandon. Austen said, in addition to being silent and grave, his appearance not unpleasing, he was on the wrong side of five and thirty, and though his face was not handsome,his countenance was sensible, and his address was particularly gentlemanlike. For me, Alan Rickman nailed it; and, in my opinion, he was the most handsome man in the movie by the time the credits ran!

  5. I agree. The leading man should have something going for him. I also agree Dan Stevens does have beautiful eyes! I think Colin Firth played Mr Darcy well too.lol

  6. If the leading man in film is not attractive in some way I can’t imagine him in a romantic role. He has to have something going for him.

    • I agree that he needs to have something going for him! A man can be attractive without being handsome. Henry Crawford comes to mind: the Bertram sisters don’t think him handsome at all but both end up falling in love with him. Of course, he is far from a leading man! 😉

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