My Favourite Romantic Heroes
It started with a crumpled, trouble-prone schoolboy from Richmal Compton’s Just William books.
William was my first romantic literary hero, although I was selling myself short because he despised girls and was consistently mean to Violet Elizabeth Bott.
I progressed to Gilbert from LM Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series. He worshipped her, so naturally she led the medical student a merry dance before accepting him.
It was from Gilbert that I learned a valuable lesson: a hero worth the name always positions a woman carefully on a pedestal. And then occasionally tips her off it.
Next I toyed with the professor from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women novels, but while he adored Jo he was a bit drab. He stood about in the rain for her, but so what?
Michael Furey did that for Gretta in Joyce’s The Dead – and died from the soaking. Deeply moving. Except a dead romantic hero isn’t much good to a woman, no wonder Gretta had to take up with the pompous Gabriel. At least he was alive, solvent and could book them a room in The Gresham.
Then I hit on The One. The romantic hero against whom all future idols would be measured.
Mr Rochester from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eye. Masterful, arrogant, brooding and rich – let’s not be coy, girls, wealth can render the plainest man strangely attractive. Granted, he attempted to commit bigamy, but the best heroes are flawed. A woman prefers a man in need of reform. Those straitlaced would-be romantic heroes, the golden-haired Angel in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, for example, are too squeaky-clean. Right from the first, Mr Rochester was the man for me. Especially when he disguised himself as a gipsy and pretended to tell Jane her fortune. Opportunistic as well as prosperous. I liked it. Plus there was a certain frisson in encountering a romantic hero so at ease with his inner woman, he’d dress up in a skirt and hooped earrings.
While we’re on the subject of misters, there’s also Mr Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice. Mr Knightley from Emma was promising, but Mr Darcy was the business. Masterful, arrogant, brooding and rich (bit of a pattern here), he was a natural when it came to bowing and skimming his lips over a lady’s hand. Plus he was so gentlemanly he’d prefer to lose Eliza’s respect than break a confidence involving another lady. Oh, the integrity of it. Mr Darcy may have had to work very hard to persuade Miss Bennett to accept him, but I was his within a handful of chapters.
His 20th century heir was Max de Winter in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Max was thrillingly autocratic, even without sideburns, riding boots and the other Regency props.
I can’t really leave out Shakespeare’s Romeo, although since he was about 15 I’m in danger of being reported for child molestation. Still, any man willing to haul himself up a balcony to snatch a kiss must have had a romantic streak. I can’t help suspecting if the Capulets and Montagues had relented and allowed the lovers to wed, Romeo would have been chasing serving wenches within three years. But I suppose I should watch that cynical streak.
Shakespeare was dodgy on the romantic hero front, however. Look at Othello, murderous with jealous rage over the innocent Desdemona; look at Petruchio, humiliating Kate in The Taming of the Shrew; look at Hamlet, comparing brevity to a woman’s love.
I’ve always had a sneaking regard for Dickens’s Sydney Carton in A Tale Of Two Cities, who made the supreme sacrifice for love. He cared so deeply for Lucie that he gave her the prig – sorry, the upright man – she truly loved, taking his place in the tumbril. Then just to prove himself an all-round hero, he held the hand of a frightened young seamstress before she went under the guillotine. But the best part about Sydney Carton was his status as a reformed wastrel. Women are suckers for that: it adds a titillating whiff of sulphur.
Fast-forwarding a couple of centuries, my favourite modern romantic hero is in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Florentino in Love In The Time Of Cholera. He waited a lifetime for his amour: 53 years, seven months, 11 days and nights, be precise. He wasn’t downhearted when she married another, although he wasn’t celibate either – come on, he was Latino. Florentino still loved Fermina when he finally won her and she was old and fat. I repeat, old and fat. Look and learn, gentlemen.
Rhett Butler in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind has to be included in any line-up, for that ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn’ line which sends a delicious quiver tiptoeing up women’s spines every time we read it. If only because secretly we believe we’d be the ones to tame him and make sure he did give a damn.
Then there’s Oliver in Erich Segal’s Love Story, who loved Jenny more than his inheritance. This novel of doomed love sustained me through a relentless family fortnight in a caravan in Tramore as a teenager. Teenagers are partial to doomed love stories, since their hijacked hormones lend them a profoundly nihilistic take on life.
To be honest, I can take Heathcliff or leave him, but I know some women crumple at the mention of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights’ star-crossed lover. Never underestimate Byronic appeal.
I nearly excluded Benjamin in Charles Webb’s The Graduate, for snatching Elaine from a mistaken marriage right at the altar rails with the immortal line: ‘Come on. Don’t faint.’ But I’ll leave him in because, well, you may have guessed, I have a weakness for masterful heroes.
And finally there’s Sean Thornton in Maurice Walsh’s The Quiet Man, who had impeccable taste in women. He said the finest ones in the world were Irish redheads. As an Irish redhead, it works for me.
And just for the record, here are some memorable quotes from those books:
‘Love means not ever having to say you’re sorry.’
Oliver in Love Story
‘Reader, I married him.’
Jane of Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre
‘It’s a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done.’
Sydney Carton in A Tale Of Two Cities
‘He is more myself than I am.’
Cathy of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights
‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.’
Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind
‘I think he died for me.’
Gretta of Michael Furey in The Dead
‘Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!’
Romeo in Romeo and Juliet
‘From the moment I was born, I have never said anything I did not mean.’
Florentino in Love in The Time Of Cholera