The Character of Mr. Willoughby in Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility”

The Character of Mr. Willoughby in Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility”

First, permit to apologize for the missing post. Our Sarah Price had an accident involving her computer, a parrot, and a drink set close by. In Sarah’s place, I have pulled one of my posts from the archives of my blog to share with you. I hope you enjoy it.

John Willoughby is one of Dashwood family’s country neighbors in Devon in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, but what do we know of the character. He and Sir John Middleton are like bookends in the country society.

Willoughby literally sweeps Marianne Dashwood off her feet with their first acquaintance. He assists her home when Marianne falls and twists her ankle. In Willoughby, Marianne discovers a man she admires for his dash. She comments “that is what a young man ought to be” in describing Willoughby to others. In her naive fashion, Marianne does not recognize that a man of Willoughby’s cut MUST marry for money for he loves his horses, society, and women. He is a landed gentleman living beyond his means. His behavior is a statement to the hereditary privileges granted men of his social class. Although Marianne terms him courteous and gallant, but he is a man-about-time.

Willoughby, John Biography ~ Dominic Cooper

Willoughby, John Biography ~ Dominic Cooper

Willoughby is as his name implies. He is “pliable, but tough, and with a tenacity for life.” We must wonder if Austen took the name from Frances Burney’s “Evelina.” Sir Clement Willoughby is a baronet who pursues  Evelina throughout the novel. He meets her at an assembly and takes umbrage at her refusing a dance with him. Sir Clement “creates” situations to around Evelina. He is a smooth talker, but also superficial and obnoxious. His interest in Evelina is motivated purely by lust. [We also know that Thomas Willougby was the first Lord Middleton and a distant relative to Mrs. Austen.]

Willoughby holds no qualms about how he treats the women he encounters (i.e., what he did to Colonel Brandon’s ward Eliza). His charm is everything for which Marianne could hope: handsome, loves poetry and music, rich, etc. In truth, Willoughby’s gaming debts and his life of debauchery consume him. He will become the typical Tory country squire. The rivalry between Willoughby and Colonel Brandon contrasts the two men in broad strokes.

Prior to the opening of the novel, Willoughby seduced and abandoned Brandon’s ward, Eliza. The two men fought a duel over the circumstances, and they become rivals for Marianne’s love. Brandon is modeled in the Cavalier-Roundhead form. [“Roundhead” was the name given to the supporters of the Parliament during the English Civil War. They fought against King Charles I and his supporters, the Cavaliers (Royalists), who claimed absolute pose and the divine right of kings.] Brandon is modeled as a “Roundhead.”

In truth, most readers feel cheated at Marianne’s abandonment of Willoughby for Brandon at the end of the novel. It is difficult to muster up any of the romance we recognize in “Pride and Prejudice” or “Persuasion.” In Nation & Novel, Patrick Parrinder says, “There are, perhaps, political as well as emotional reasons why this plot resolution is unsatisfactory. Austen’s determination to end the novel with a version of the Cavalier-Roundhead alliance cannot alter the fact that Brandon, Middleton, and (in his final incarnation) Willoughby are all country squires representing broadly similar values and interests. The social tension between Marianne and Brandon is not great enough to become a focus of romantic interest.” (page 191)

In what is one of Austen’s most “contrived” scenes, Willoughby appears at what he thinks is Marianne’s deathbed and confesses his “love” for Marianne to her sister Elinor. The confession amplifies Willoughby’s selfish and spoilt personality, but also shows that he is not totally without principles. After this scene, he marries the appropriately named Miss Grey (a ho-hum type of woman). Miss Grey is wealthy and very proper. Austen tells us Willoughby was one “to exert, and frequently to enjoy himself. His wife was not always out of humor, nor his home always uncomfortable; and in his breed of horses and dogs, and in sporting of every kind, he found no inconsiderable degree of domestic felicity.” 

14 Responses to The Character of Mr. Willoughby in Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility”

  1. I have never felt unsatisfied with Marianne ending up with Colonel Brandon.

    In truth, most readers feel cheated at Marianne’s abandonment of Willoughby for Brandon at the end of the novel.

    And Marianne had never rejected Willoughby in the end. He did . . . long before the novel ended. Marianne simply recovered from his abandonment and moved on with Brandon.

  2. I always wonder why Miss Grey chose to marry Willoughby. With a dowry that large, she could have married anyone, even a Lord – so why marry an untitled cad? Hopefully her lawyers tied up her fortune so Willoughby was unable to get his paws on it.

  3. I agree with Renata. Colonel Brandon is a man of action. I’m a big fan of his because of it. I also see him as someone who has strong emotions but holds them in check, aside from action. No long flowery speeches to vent his feelings. Act, or don’t. I like him 🙂 Besides, Willoughby helped with a twisted ankle. Colonel Brandon saved her life (although I can see arguing differently there).

    Also, Sarah, I hope your computer is okay, and the Parrot.


  4. I cannot say I was left wanting! I am satisfied with the ending although not screaming that I “loved it”. I would agree with all the points above and in seeing/reading how Willoughby mistreated Marianne so wretchedly. Hang Willoughby – I have my hero in Colonel Brandon.

  5. I, too, was once young and foolish, but now I would fall in love with the man who refuses to chat during my performances, flies the country so as not to cause his true love distress when she must marry another, promises on her deathbed to care for her lovechild, fights a duel to defend the child’s honor, and is willing to ride ventre a terre to bring my mama to my deathbed (a nod there to Georgette Heyer). Thank God I grew up and Marianne did, too. P.S. A thank-you to Joan Ray for pointing all these things out at the Dallas-Fort Worth AGM.

    • I was not in Dallas-Fort Worth, Lori. I am sorry to have missed Joan Ray’s analysis. I own the Parrinder book and consult it often. I do agree that Brandon is the better man, but I think Austen’s writing had not fully matured during Sense and Sensibility. She leaves the reader wanting more, but not necessarily in a good way. Perhaps if Marianne could have recognized some of Brandon’s goodness early on, even if it were something as simple as his allegiance to his neighbors or his war record the missing “tension” between them would have been softened.

  6. Marrianne/Col. Brandon is my favorite JA couple. She needs some grounding force in her life and he needs someone spirited and uplifting. Willoughby just struck me as fluff right away. (Full disclosure: this was a conclusion that I reached while watching the BBC mini, before I’d read the book, and without much other logic except literary convention. I decided Brandon was going to be the one and rooted obnoxiously for him throughout (notably when Willoughby snubs Marianne at the party: “BRANDON WHERE ARE YOU?? GET OVER HERE FAST. REBOUND!! REBOUND!!) while my husband scratched his head.)

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