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Jane Austen has become immortal over the centuries thanks to her witty, nuanced, and charming tales of romance in Regency England. But while the names of her famous heroines and heroes — Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley, Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars — are as well-known as her own, let us take a moment to appreciate one common thread that runs between all of her classic novels, adapted countless times for film and television. In them, there is one character type who has many different faces but one key purpose to the narrative: A type we’ll define here as the Jane Austen Fuckboi.
In Austen’s time, of course, fuckbois were not known as such, but oh, the society of the time knew they existed, using words like “rake” and “rogue” and “scoundrel” to describe them instead. These characters, when they appear in these stories, might be handsome prospects for a happy marriage, but some deficit in their characters — snobbery, greed, or just plain cruelty — ensures that instead of ending up with one of the central heroines, they instead cause real problems for these women and their families.
Netflix’s new adaptation of Persuasion, which begins streaming Friday, features plenty of modern touches, including details like heroine Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) bemoaning a “playlist” that her true love Captain Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) made for her… consisting of pages of sheet music. But plot-wise it’s a pretty faithful adaptation of the book, including the character of William Elliot (Henry Golding), a distant relative of Anne’s who stands to inherit the Elliot title and uses his charms to mask his ambition and greed.
In the film, Golding is serving pure unleashed Austen fuckboi magic, and while it’s wildly over-the-top, it’s tonally pretty in line with the rest of the film. More importantly, the character is just the latest in this proud tradition of Austen-verse villain, characters who are essential to Austen’s storytelling. Because as her stories continue to fuel new screen adaptations, they continue to explore how these are villains created by as much by society as they are by their own defects.
Not just specifically Regency-era society, either. One fascinating element of these characters is how easy it is for modern-day adaptations to make them work within a 20th or 21st-century context: For example, 1995’s Clueless (adapted from Austen’s Emma) tweaks the original text to make its Elton (Jeremy Sisto) more of this type (while Emma‘s most prominent fuckboi, Mr. Churchill, is transformed into Justin Walker as Christian, whose greatest crime is keeping his sexuality quiet). But the changes work well — even reincarnated as a high school student, Elton is as status-obsessed as any fussy lord of the Regency era, snapping “Don’t you even know who my father is?” when Cher (Alicia Silverstone) rejects his advances.
Meanwhile, this summer’s hilarious rom-com Fire Island, riffing on Pride and Prejudice, features Zane Phillips as a Wickham so seductive that our proto-Lizzie Noah (Joel Kim Booster) actually goes a lot further than a casual dance with the man when the two of them hit the “dark room.” But when it comes time for Fire Island to reveal the poor behavior which proves Dex (as the Wickham character is actually known) is a scumbag, it actually comes up with something as disturbing in 2022 as running off as an unmarried couple in the 1800s would have been.
Across most Austen stories, a nearly universal aspect is that her fuckbois may be the cause of much angst, but they are usually punished for their crimes — more often than not with an unfortunate marriage. After running off with the youngest (and most high-strung) Bennet sister, Wickham is bribed by Mr. Darcy to marry Lydia, and no spoilers for Persuasion, in case those unfamiliar with the original novel are looking forward to seeing the new Netflix film, but while William Elliot’s fate in the film is slightly different from the book’s, his punishment also fits the crime of toying with a woman’s feelings with ulterior motives.
In fact, the more sympathetic interpretations of these characters see a certain sort of tragedy in their ultimate fates — take 1995’s Sense and Sensibility and how director Ang Lee and writer Emma Thompson let Mr. Willoughby (Greg Wise) express real regret over his treatment of Marianne (Kate Winslet). In a world less ruled by status and money, it’s inferred, Willoughby would have been very happy to spend his life with Marianne. Instead, he’s almost as trapped by society as any of the women.
To be clear, Willoughby got a girl pregnant and fled like a piece of shit, and perhaps doesn’t deserve the luxury of a financially advantageous marriage. But there is at least some effort at sympathy for the character; Lee and Thompson don’t include the book’s final confrontation between Elinor (Thompson) and Willoughby, but instead Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman) offers up an observation to Elinor that does cast Willoughby’s actions in a slightly better light:
I have described Mr. Willoughby as the worst of libertines — but I have since learned from Lady Allen that he did mean to propose that day. Therefore I cannot deny that his intentions towards Marianne were honorable, and I feel certain he would have married her, had it not been… for the money.
At the end of the film, a solitary Willoughby even gets a moment to gaze from afar at the happy double wedding in action, revealing his lingering regret. (Fun bit of trivia: not that this necessarily means anything, but after meeting on the set of this film, Thompson and Wise actually ended up getting married and are still together today.)
Austen doesn’t have exclusive domain over Regency-era romances, but outside of adaptations of her work, the fuckboi type isn’t often spotted. All due respect to Regé-Jean Page, but his Bridgerton role is not well-described, as he told Variety this week, as “the best example of a Regency fuckboy that any of us had come across.” Yes, Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings, in Season 1, is reluctant to marry and definitely has sexual experience outside of the bonds of marriage, but he lacks the quintessential self-centeredness that causes the ruin or near-ruin of women in his acquaintance.
Meanwhile, the newly released film Mr. Malcolm’s List, based on the 2009 novel by Suzanne Allain, features plenty of high society intrigue but without a clear rogue candidate; the film’s biggest villain ends up being Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton), whose hurt pride leads her to an unfortunate scheme or two.
Bridgerton and Mr. Malcolm’s List are both solid period romances, but they do lack the dramatic juice that Austen knew a fuckboi could bring to the story. Her stories might be seen as prim and proper representations of her era, but that’s because Austen was quite subtle in how she wove social commentary into her books; one of the most subversive aspects of these characters is how Austen uses them to poke at the rigidity of society, as well as the standards to which everyone was being held.
Many of Austen’s female characters yearn for a freedom denied them by their status in society or even the basic fact of their gender; these ambitious gentlemen may not suffer from the latter problem but certainly often have to grapple with the former. Wickham and Willoughby and William Elliot and more represent a serious danger to the reputations of these women, but their selfish choices often can be seen as simply a different approach to trying to escape the pressures of society. They’re just another means by which Austen was able to scream silently through the centuries about a woman’s fate in a society that treats her as less than equal — and it’s in part thanks to the fuckbois that we’ll be listening to Austen scream for centuries to come.