A very popular question among Jane-ites is: “Who is your favorite Jane Austen hero?” Sadly, no one ever chooses Colonel Brandon. However, in the ongoing research I do for my Regency era novels, I found myself rereading a very good biography that I’m sure many of you know called, Jane Austen, A Life, by Claire Tomalin. In the discussion of Sense and Sensibility, I found Ms. Tomalin echoes a certain discomfiture I always feel at the end of the novel: the point at which Marianne Dashwood accepts the love of a man considerably older than she, and who Austen describes in this manner:
“Colonel Brandon was silent and grave. His appearance, however, was not unpleasing, in spite of his being, in the opinion of Marianne and Margaret, an absolute old bachelor, for he was on the wrong side of five-and-thirty; but though his face was not handsome, his countenance was sensible, and his address was particularly gentlemanlike.”
Such is hardly the image of the dreamy hero. At this point, I wonder what Austen really means. She says his appearance is “not unpleasing,” so, he’s not downright ugly, and yet, “his face was not handsome.” So, what kind of a face is that? When, at the end of the book, Marianne does finally decide she will have Colonel Brandon, there’s always a sinking in my stomach, as I’m certain there is for many readers. Really? I think, Colonel Branden? Is that the only option? Yes, he’s a good man, a noble man, a true hero in many ways, who has suffered for the love of Marianne, but is he really the kind of hero Austen readers prefer?
In comparison, there’s Willoughby: handsome, romantic, Willoughby, who rejects Marianne in favor of a loveless marriage and a sizable fortune. We’re glad Willoughby is in the rear view mirror—kind of. But isn’t there a part of each dear reader, who wishes things could have worked out between them? Let his wife die so he can still have the money but be with the one he really loves! No. That’s a disgraceful thought. Moreover, he’s already showed himself to be a man of weak character, whereas Colonel Brandon is the very best kind of gentleman.
Yet where does Colonel Brandon fit in among the other heroes of Austen’s novels: the incomparable Mr. Darcy with his sexy smolder and mind-blowing fortune; the one that almost got away, love of Anne Elliot’s life, Captain Wentworth; the cute cousin of Fanny Price, (though I have trouble getting past that cousin thing) Edmund Bertram; handsome and clever Henry Tilney; and, one of my favorites, the slightly fatherly, yet got-it-going-on, Mr. Knightley.
Poor Colonel Brandon, twice as old as Marianne, unlucky in love, and without the benefit of wit, looks, or skill in poetic love-making. The late, great Alan Rickman’s portrayal of him in Ang Lee’s film version of the book was right on. Yes, you could learn to love that face with a noble character behind it, but, is he really the hero that makes our hearts go pitter-patter?
Will Marianne find passion with Colonel Brandon? We fear not. However, she has been chastened by her own impetuousness and tempered by a near-fatal illness. Maybe now she will be satisfied to live a quietly contented life. But in Colonel Brandon’s arms will she find herself picturing Willoughby’s face? Will some part of her heart always belong to him? Jane Austen attempts to answer that question with these words: “…that Marianne found her own happiness in forming his [Colonel Brandon’s], was equally the persuasion and delight of each observing friend. Marianne could never love by halves; and her whole heart became, in time, as much devoted to her husband, as it had once been to Willoughby.”
To take Austen’s point of view here, many of us are happy in relationships with partners who may not be as handsome as Mr. Darcy, but have something else that makes them wonderful…and sexy: a great sense of humor, a kind nature, an honest and upright character… This is what I turn to when I think of Marianne Dashwood and her less-than-romance-novel marriage. I believe that Austen felt Marianne had the possibility for real happiness with Colonel Brandon, and mayhap, since we know Brandon feels a passion for her, she will feel that spark kindle within her own soul.
I invite you to share with us your thoughts on Marianne and the man she married. Were you satisfied with Marianne’s fate in Sense and Sensibility, or would you have rather it gone another way?