Captain Wentworth is the worst Austen hero and I think he’s wholly unworthy of Anne Elliot.
Okay, now that I have your attention and possibly your anger, Hi! If you’re new here, I’m the blogger who likes to say wildly unpopular things for the sake of discussion. It’s my personal toxic trait. My long-suffering husband (next week is the 20th anniversary of our first date! We’re going to get dinner and see a superhero movie like we were 18 again) has learned to just shake his head at me most of the time.
So, now that we have that out of the way, lets start with the initial premise of this blog post. What is a “Mary Sue” character? There are a number of definitions of a Mary Sue, but basically it is a self-insert character based, at least in part, on the author. Often it is an idealized version of the author or a character that amplifies the good qualities and leaves out the author’s worst qualities. From my experience, it’s nearly impossible to write characters, especially main characters, that don’t have something of the author in the narrative. Perhaps a more experienced writer can disconnect their own voice from the main characters, but I don’t think I’m there yet.
There’s been a lot of criticism of self-insert and Mary Sue characters in the literary world, but what else is new? Almost any trope or writing “crutch” will be criticized by someone, especially if they are used by women authors. And most of the “worst” Mary Sue’s over the centuries are female characters of unwavering virtue and selflessness (think Bella Swan and Katniss). Male characters who are also staunch and virtuous (Superman or Steve Rogers anyone?) hardly ever get the same negative attention in critical circles. Over the massive amount of literary commentary, many female self-insert characters are criticized as being too good, too flawless, a fantasy version of the author or who the author would like to be.
But isn’t all fiction in some way an idealized version of the world we would like to live in? I know that there are powerfully tragic stories in the world, books that relay trauma, heartache, hatred, and other strongly flawed characters. However, much of our fictional worlds amplify the good, the brave, and the heroic characters we all wish we could be. Anyway, that’s the kind of books I like to read.
So back to our beloved Jane Austen. Many people who have weighed in on the question of Austen’s self-insert will argue that Elizabeth Bennett’s humor and quick wit, as well as her sharp tongue, is a match for Austen’s own real-life personality as revealed in her letters to her family. Elizabeth is the architype of a “girl next door,” not the most beautiful, but attractive in a subtle way. She is natural and unpretentious, the opposite of Caroline Bingley who personifies the women on London high society. In fact, Elizabeth Bennet is one of the earliest versions of the classic “girl next door” archetype. She literally is living next door to Darcy while he visits with Bingley, has a strict moral code, ignores Darcy in favor of Wickham, and is completely ignorant of Darcy’s affections until he declares himself in disastrous fashion.
Elizabeth also has a beautiful, kind, and much-loved older sister. We know that Austen loved Cassandra and could not bear to be away from her older sister for long stretches. I think most people agree that the gentlest, kindest, most beautiful, and loving of Austen’s characters, the one she named after herself, (which, by the way, is a Baller move) is based significantly on Cassandra. Additionally, from descriptions of the sisters, both in their letters to each other and later as described by their nephews and nieces, it seems that Jane and Cassandra were very much like Elizabeth and Jane Bennet.
So, it’s settled then, right? Elizabeth is Austen’s Mary Sue self-insert.
Probably. But also, maybe not, or at least not her only Mary Sue (see title of this post again).
I’d like to argue for a moment that many of Austen’s heroines were some versions of a self-insert, a character that reflected the stage of life that Austen was in while she was writing each of her novels.
So, starting at the beginning, Catherine Morland is a naïve young woman leaving home for the first and obsessed with gothic novels. Northanger Abbey was completed and sold to a publisher in 1803, even though it was not published until after her death in 1817. It is believed to have been written, in the majority, while Austen was still a teenager. Through her writings and letters, we know Austen was a young woman who loved to read all the popular novels of the time, just like Catherine. Both Austen and Catherine are the daughter of a clergyman with a modest living and had a full house of siblings. Catherine had an idyllic life with few problems, a loving family, and no reason to distrust the people around her. I think that the tone of Northanger Abbey is an outlier amongst Austen’s other completed novels, happier and more juvenile. The main heroine does not have to worry for her home or fortune. She is not afraid of an unstable living situation, which is a major theme in 4 of Austen’s later novels. I see a lot of young Austen in Catherine Morland.
Next is Sense and Sensibility, published in 1811. We know that much of the first draft was started around 1795 as a set of stories told in the form of letters between sisters Elinore and Marianne Dashwood. The final version was rewritten in novel form sometime after Northanger Abbey and sold for publication in 1811. Notably, Austen’s own father died in 1805 and her family was forced to make significant changes to their lifestyle, taking less expensive lodging in the outer community surrounding Bath, UK and economizing their spending. Austen, her mother and sister, were, in many ways, dependent on her oldest brother for their living situation. So is it with the Dashwood women. Thrown out of their home by their father’s oldest son, Elinore and Marianne’s half-brother, the Dashwoods learn to survive on a significantly reduced income in a small house (or small compared to the genteel estate Norland Park where they grew up) rented from a distant cousin. Somewhere between Elinore’s staunch dedication to making their new life work and Marianne’s desire to escape into romanticism lives a 20-something Austen trying to navigate a new reality of living without the security of either a father or a husband.
Third is Pride and Prejudice, which we have already covered. Most people believe Elizabeth to be the ultimate self-insert for Austen. I would like to take a short detour and make an observation as it relates to the character of Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth’s plain, spinster best friend who marries Mr. Collins after Elizabeth rejects that man. For those who do not know, Jane Austen never married, but she was once engaged for less than 24 hours. In December 1802, while visiting good friends, Austen was offered marriage by Harris Bigg-Wither. At the time, Austen was two weeks from her 27th birthday, the same age as Charlotte in Pride and Prejudice, and firmly on the self. In one of the biographies penned by her niece, Caroline Austen, it was speculated that Austen accepted the offer because of the financial advantages he could offer to her, the stability of being married to a man with an inheritance, and the long-standing friendship with the Bigg-Wither family. Though it is, without doubt, a massive dramatization of the original text, Claudie Blakely’s famous speech from the 2005 adaptation of the novel is an amazing analogue for Austen’s real life, short-lived, engagement.
I’m 27 years old. I’ve no money and no prospects. I’m already a burden to my parents. And I’m frightened. So don’t judge me Lizzy. Don’t you dare judge me.
In the end Austen could not go through with the marriage and rejected Bigg-Wither the next morning. She later wrote in a letter to her niece that “nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound without Love.”
Forth and fifth are Mansfield Park and Emma respectively. Here are two novels where I see much less of Austen in the characters, though not nothing. Fanny Price and Emma Woodhouse are in most ways polar opposites. Fanny is the poor cousin of the Burtrams, and has to be sent away to live with her cousins because her parents have too many children that they cannot support. Emma is the daughter of the wealthiest man in the village of Highbury with a large dowry and runs the social circles of the local gentry. Mansfield Park is melancholy and covers very heavy themes such as slavery, infidelity, and sacrifice. Emma is a comedy involving the mishaps and silliness of characters in and around Highbury. For me, these two Austen novels are nearly opposites of each other but they still have some very interesting parallels. Fanny and Emma are both very confident young women with strong opinions and morals to which they adhere strictly. Both are clever, though one is loud and the other nearly silent. And both are, consciously or unconsciously, in love with their closest male friend, a man who both challenges the heroine and exasperates her. These two novels were published within a year of each other in 1814 and 1815. They collectively represent a more mature Austen who had settled into her own situation and writing style. Austen also has famously described Emma Woodhouse as the heroine whom “no one but myself will much like.” Cheeky to the last.
And we have finally winded our way to the last of Austen’s novels, Persuasion. Published posthumously in 1817, I will argue here that Austen’s final heroine is her strongest Mary Sue, especially as a single woman writing in her late 30s and early 40s. Anne Elliot is the 27-year-old daughter of a Baron who finds himself unable to pay his debts and therefore must rent out the family’s estate, Kellynch, and move to Bath in order to economize. The difficulties of Anne’s life mirror Austen’s later years in many ways. Both Anne and Austen express their distaste for living in Bath and would have rather taken a small house in the countryside. Both found keeping up with the stress of pomp and society difficult, and both preferred nothing so well as to be comfortable at home. Other details of Anne’s life as a corollary for Austen are more speculative, such as Anne regretting having broken off her engagement years earlier. But the resemblance is still there.
It’s impossible to go back in time more than 200 years and ask Austen about how she sees herself and her characters. And it’s also disingenuous to believe that every author writes themselves into their books. However, I do think that whether we mean to or not, when we write characters, we use, not only ourselves, but also other people in our own lives to inform their personalities, mannerisms, and the hardships our characters face. Realism is a difficult thing to achieve, and I’m in no way saying that I believe I have achieved it in my own writing, but it certainly is elusive. For me, using people who I know in real life as models for my characters, makes it a little easier to round out those small details that make people human.
I believe that much of Jane Austen, her personality, her family, and her circumstances, can be found in her numerous characters. It’s endearing and, in my opinion, probably what makes her most famous and enduring characters real.
Now, for the grand finale! A topic that I’m sure will make several people very mad. But that’s what I’m here for apparently, hot takes unpopular opinions.
Okay, I hate Captain Frederick Wentworth.
I’m going to say that again a little bit louder for those in the back.
I HATE CAPTAIN FREDERICK WENTWORTH!
I think he is wholly unworthy of the kind, generous, and selfless Anne Elliot. We are told that when Anne was barely 19 years old, and Wentworth was a virtually penniless sailor, they met and fell in love. He asked her to marry him on a very short acquaintance and she said yes quickly. After talking with her friends and family, Anne was persuaded to change her mind and break their engagement. Wentworth leaves to go off and fight in a war on a naval ship.
OK, friends, let’s be honest. Anne was the daughter of a Baronet, who had extremely high opinions of himself and his family. Sir Walter had exacting expectations for his daughters and their eventual marriages. At 19, Anne was not able to marry on her own, she would have required the approval of her father to marry Wentworth, which she apparently did not have. We also know that the Elliot family is not overly flush with cash. Hence the reason they have to let out Kellynch House in order to pay their debts. So, while Anne probably had some dowry, though it’s never said in the book what it is, it probably isn’t large. Certainly not enough to independently sustain her and her husband.
So, let’s play out the scenario that 19-year-old Anne Elliot defies her father, marries Wentworth and then, best case, she gets a smallish home in one of the port cities near a military base. Either Portsmouth, Devonport, or maybe Brighton if she’s very lucky. Then, while Wentworth goes off to war, she sits in her itty-bitty home with no money, divorced from her family, waiting for her husband to maybe return home, which didn’t always happen. In fact, with alarming regularity, men died at sea during the Napoleonic wars. Also, Anne probably would’ve been left with a child that was conceived shortly after their wedding, because, you know, contraceptive wasn’t a thing in the 1800s. That is a nightmare scenario and it was absolutely the right thing for Anne to say “no I’m not gonna do that, I can’t do that.”
If Wentworth had been at all a reasonable person, he would have looked at it and said “You’re right. If I survive the war, I will come back for you.” But he didn’t say that. Instead, he stormed off in a temper tantrum because he was a child. And he grew resentment so hard, and so deep that he was an absolute twat to Anne when he comes back 8 1/2 years later.
Not only does he swan back into her life like nothing had ever happened between them, but he also then proceeds to flirt so outrageously with her young, pretty teenage sisters-in-law that he finds himself with his honor engaged. Everyone, by the middle of the book, is expecting that he is going to marry Louisa Musgrave, when he has no intention of marrying anyone. His only goal was for Anne to be upset and to see what she had lost when she refused him. Wentworth is so set on hurting Anne’s feelings that he ends up compromising a 16-year-old girl. If she hadn’t fallen in love with Benwick during her convalescence in Lyme, Wentworth would’ve fully had to marry her.
Wentworth was such a twatwaffle that he almost had to marry a 16-year-old girl for whom he did not have any affection.
Not only was he abusing Anne, causing her extreme pain, he was also using Louisa Musgrave. And she had no idea! She was innocent 16-year-old girl with no idea that Anne and Wentworth had a past. She would have been only eight years old when they were engaged. Louisa was being used by Wentworth in a horrible, unkind way simply for revenge against Anne.
I have hard pass opinions on this and the way he treats them both. I think he is truly abhorrent for 98% of the book. Wentworth is uncharitable and unkind, and acting out his absolutely ridiculous, revenge plot that exists inside his own head.
And the only reason any of us give him any reprieve is because of that letter. That stupidly perfect, beautiful, agonizing, glorious letter. It’s the best letter, for sure, of all of the letters in Austen’s books. It’s the best, most swoon worthy. Half agony, half hope is a dream. The most beautiful I still love you letter, but there’s no real apology offered. We all forgive him in the last pages of the book because he writes a beautiful love letter, but he still spent almost every page of that book being a total wanker. And that my friends is my rant about why I hate Captain Wentworth.
So what do these two topics have to do with each other? Well, I’d love to know who Wentworth is based off of. Who in Austen’s life was this man. For all I hate him, Wentworth is REAL. He’s a whole personality and has all those details that make him feel full. I think this is another reason that people love him so much. Of all the Austen heroes, we actually see the most of him on the page. His emotions are consistent and engaging, if difficult for me to excuse. He has friends, family, and wears his jealousy on his sleeve while in Bath in the last act. Wentworth getting upset when he thinks Anne is going to marry her cousin, Mr. Elliot, has big villain origin story energy. He draws you in and makes you want to root for him.
I fully believe that Jane Austen knew Frederick Wentworth in her real life.
Come find me in all the usual places!