The good the bad and the dashing: Jane Austen’s leading men are a mix of heroes and villains

HEROES

George Knightley, Emma
Mr Darcy may have the edge in brooding looks and in a certain televised interpretation swimming prowess, but would he be willing to move in with your unhinged parents? Probably not.  Mr Knightley, however, doesn’t hesitate to appease fair Emma’s wish to spend their newly-married life looking after her cranky father.
Kind, handsome, principled and the owner of a sizeable estate, Mr Knightley is underrated. Should actor Jeremy Northam wish to reprise the role with an added lake scene, there would be little protest from this corner and a good chance of Darcy being knocked off his perch.

Henry Tilney, Northanger Abbey
The unparalleled champion of lively Regency humour and an excellent dancer, Mr Tilney is the perfect first date. His teasing wit is utterly disarming to the point that we overlook his tendency to ramble excitedly and his bizarrely extensive knowledge of fine muslin. The issue of his being a middle child and, thus, out of the running to inherit the Abbey is quashed when we learn he has a Newfoundland puppy and some terriers.

Fitzwilliam Darcy, Pride and Prejudice
Destined to raise the bar for the male species for the rest of time, Mr Darcy ticks pretty much every box. If his handsomeness, his beautiful estate (think Chatsworth) and his intelligent wit don’t win your heart, remember that he might pay off your family’s debts. Consider also his acknowledgement of his own flaws and his determination to overcome them: ‘I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. I was… selfish and overbearing… Such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth!’ You have to love a man who admits he’s wrong.

Col Brandon, Sense and Sensibility
Aside from his extensive property and large income, Col Brandon has an irresist-ibly tragic past (involving a terribly romantic story about a long-lost love). Therefore, the manner in which Marianne Dashwood brushes him off is inexcusable, leaving one wondering whether she deserves such a catch. Not only does he come to the Dashwoods’ aid when Marianne insists on walking about in the rain all the time and selfishly catching fevers, he also spends much time frantically searching for his ward, Eliza, who has eloped with quite the rascal. Gentle and measured, Brandon’s tagline is ‘good things come to those who wait’ and, as usual, he turns out to be right.

Edward Ferrars, Sense and Sensibility
With no income or land, Mr Ferrars has to rely on his wit and looks, but, unfortunately, he’s unable to deliver on these attributes either.
Then, when we’ve just about softened towards him because he really is quite lovely with Elinor, we’re shattered by the discovery that he has feebly got himself engaged to the most irritating woman in the West Country. Despite a rallying cry from the audience to leave her for his true love, he firmly declares he will not; he made a promise and gentlemen do not break their promises. This admirable principle certainly elevates him to unlikely hero status.

Edmund Bertram, Mansfield Park
Edmund’s kind nature makes him blind to faults in others. Curiously, he seems to enjoy spending time with tedious Fanny Price, who refuses to have any fun and delights in pointing out the impropriety of those who do. His odd choice of company aside, one cannot fault the generosity, compassion and loyalty that make him worthy of the Austen
Hero title.

Capt Frederick Wentworth, Persuasion
Handsome and well-mannered, Capt Wentworth takes the crown for steadfastness, after waiting more than eight years for Anne to realise she was a moron to break off their previous engagement. Unlike aforementioned heroes, Capt Wentworth makes his fortune through hard work. His way with words is delightful; the letter he writes declaring his love to Anne ‘you pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope’—is enough to have Darcy wiping away jealous tears with a lake-sodden shirt.

VILLAINS

John Willoughby, Sense and Sensibility
A big fan of frankness and vivacity, dashing Mr Willoughby is hard to resist and, soon enough, Marianne becomes idiotically besotted with him. When he cruelly drops her for wealthy Miss Grey, Col Brandon is forced to reveal Mr Willoughby’s previous indiscretions: the seduction of Col Brandon’s young ward and abandonment of her when she fell pregnant. It’s a shame he’s so winningly fond of poetry and fine carriages.

George Wickham, Pride and Prejudice
Mr Wickham prefers to play the sympathy card to gain the affection of young ladies, cunningly prompting conversations in which he can slide in a reference to past woes at the hands of proud, cold Darcy a tactic that proves irresistible to those soft in the head. Thankfully, his lies catch up with him and his villain status is confirmed with the news that he has eloped with silly Lydia.

Frank Churchill, Emma
A ‘very good looking young man’, his spirit, liveliness and ease of manner immediately make Mr Churchill the talk of High-bury and a perfect match for beautiful, intelligent Emma. It’s quite a shock when we discover his flirtation with Emma was merely a ruse to cover up his secret engagement to Jane Fairfax. The cheek!

Henry Crawford, Mansfield Park
The charming Mr Crawford comes close to changing his villainous ways when he decides to woo the righteous Fanny Price, but he falls at the last hurdle when he has a scandalous affair with a married woman. Had he only resisted such desires, he may have won over Miss Price and, potentially, succeeded in making her mildly interesting. Alas, we will never know.

Portraits taken from BBC, ITV and film adaptations