As far as I can recall, Jane Austen never used the term “rake” in her stories, but it’s my understanding that during her time, it had a different spin than we put on it in modern historical romances. Jane’s villains tend to be what might have been called rakes; their common trait is they take advantage (or try to) of women in the stories. Her heroines always end up with the good guys.
Jane’s bad boys aren’t all equally villainous and I have a little more sympathy for some than others. Actors’ interpretations can bring out nuances, too.
Frank Churchill from Emma is the lightweight, more selfish puppy than dark schemer. I can’t remember enough of other portrayals of Frank Churchill to judge, but here’s Ewan McGregor in the 1996 (Gwyneth Paltrow) version.
At the other extreme, Pride & Prejudice’s Wickham is pretty loathsome. Here are Adrian Lukis and Rupert Friend, from the 1995 and 2005 versions, respectively. I think Lukis’s Wickham is a little too obvious to fool Elizabeth. Friend, on the other hand, has a gaunt look about him that makes him seem more vulnerable and thus more deceptive.
William Elliot from Persuasion is another villain without redeeming qualities, but at least Anne sees through him pretty quickly. Here’s Samuel West, from the 1995 film that is my favorite adaptations. Honestly, I can’t remember other portrayals. I need to watch more Austen movies over the holiday break!
Willoughby (Sense & Sensbility) is more interesting. Dominic Cooper in the new version seemed kind of a toad; I prefer Greg Wise’s portrayal in the 1995 (Emma Thompson) version. He gives the sense that he will regret giving up Marianne for the rest of his life. Though perhaps he deserves his fate, I can’t help feeling a little sorry for him.
Although I find these last two the most well rounded as villains, they’re still not quite the reformable rakes of historical romance, who may get around but don’t treat women as badly.
So what do you think of Jane’s bad boys? Which do you find most interesting? Which actors did the best job with them? What do you think of good guys versus rakes in historical romance?
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