Let’s talk about Jane Austen and how she wrote men. Why? Because I think they remain one of the favorite subjects of lots of her readers over the centuries. Also they’re dreamy and that’s worth highlighting from time to time. I took a class on Jane Austen, and other female writers of the late eighteenth century, as an undergrad and we spent a week talking about masculinity in their work. When you think about it, it’s the one thing all of Austen’s heroes have in common.
Henry Tilney is mischievous, sarcastic, and a mystery, but I don’t think anyone can deny that he is also strong and manly, taking up as part of his duties the well-being of his sister, butting heads with his father, and dealing (not so well) with jealousy over Catherine Morland.
If you compare and contrast George Knightley and Emma’s father, you see that Mr. Woodhouse is severely lacking masculinity. He’s a hypochondriac, nearly agoraphobic, and depends on her for almost everything. Knightley is the exact opposite. Staunchly independent, yet a friend of (almost) everyone in Highbury, Knightley takes his responsibilities seriously–and expects others to do the same. He chides Emma whenever he feels she’s done wrong, perhaps because her father never has. We are clearly meant to favor one type of behavior over the other.
Darcy and Wentworth are almost too masculine for their own good. Each allowing their pride to get (temporarily) in the way of their happiness, but the reader ultimately admires them for their unwavering character. Had they been more wishy-washy and “modern” sharing their feelings and writing poetry, we would have loved them less.
I’m not going to talk about every Austen guy, but obviously I have to mention Colonel Brandon. The man tames wild hawks for sport. His complete understanding of who he is and his total lack of self-consciousness, are really breathtaking. Unlike Marianne and Eleanor’s father, who has no choice but to leave them penniless and cannot count on his son to help them, Brandon helps the daughter of the woman he loved but couldn’t marry. Talk about manning up.
Anyways, I’ve always thought it interesting that Austen’s heroines are given two examples of men: the good and the bad. Without doubt, the good is always overtly masculine. Even the beloved Mr. Bennett, is not able to support his family due to his years of overspending and negligence. We know Mr. Darcy will never let the same happen to he and Elizabeth. And that makes us love him, and Austen’s other heroes, all the more.
Update on Aerendgast: The publishing date has been moved up to this February! Stay tuned for news and excerpts from the book!