By Janna Wong Healy
I am an unabashed fan of British literature, which makes me an unembarrassed fan of the heroes of those novels when they pop up on the large or small screen. There are a plethora of heroes to be found in British literature, and they are heroic for many reasons – for rescuing the heroine from physical harm or emotional travails, for rescuing someone else from disaster, for caring about others, for working steadfastly and diligently. In all cases, these are men who put others before themselves, a most heroic attribute.
In my journeys with reading and watching, I admit to falling in love with my share of British heroes from literature and film. I’m particularly fond of Gabriel Oak (Far from the Madding Crowd), Colonel Brandon (Sense & Sensibility), Mr. Rochester (Jane Eyre), Jolyon Forsyte (The Forsyte Saga), Captain Wentworth (Persuasion), Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights), and even the most tortured romantic hero of them all, Romeo. Each of these protagonists is stoic and guarded, yet they have attributes that exude sex appeal in the way they approach the women they love. It comes as no surprise that all appeared in period stories when times were more formal, and there was a certain level of behavior expected between women and men. These heroes are exceedingly polite and well-spoken, they care about those around them, they treat others with care, they look great in hats, gloves, and boots, and they are particularly handsome astride a steed. And while they may tend toward moodiness, they (eventually) are not afraid to share their deepest emotions when they find the right woman.
After giving this subject plenty of thought, I recognize that my all-time favorite heroes from British literature are (in alphabetical order): Mr. Darcy, Ross Poldark, and John Thornton. Jane Austen, Winston Graham, and Elizabeth Gaskell created indelible characters, and I have spent many hours mooning over these three characters. I’ve read Pride & Prejudice and North & South numerous times and I’ve devoured the entire 12-book Poldark series multiple times. In addition to the books, I have spent countless hours watching the filmic versions of these three heroes in action; indeed, I have watched Pride & Prejudice (the movie directed by Joe Wright), the current iteration of Poldark and the most recent version of North & South dozens of times each. Whether it’s the novel or filmed version, all three leading men are heroic to the nth degree and to me, they are the most charismatic, romantic, memorable, and naturally, swoonworthy characters of the British literature I’ve read.
Why They Are Literary Heroes
As created by their authors, each of these three men is special for his own reasons. Mr. Darcy is upstanding, polite, and well-educated. He takes care of his younger sister, arduously protects his friends and contemplates every situation carefully. Although he is rebuffed by Elizabeth when he proposes to her the first time, his love never falters, and his actions prove that without a doubt.
Ross Poldark, who returns from the Revolutionary War to discover his inheritance has disappeared (including a failing mine and barren land), and his girlfriend engaged to his cousin, he does not let his difficult homecoming destroy his spirit. He is not afraid to take risks, will go to any lengths necessary to help the impoverished or to rescue a friend, and he works hard and steadfastly, not so much for his own wealth but to ensure that people in his community are taken care of (compare him to, say, George Warleggan, his arch-enemy).
John Thornton, despite coming from a father who risked the family fortune on speculation, fights back from poverty to become a member of the gentry and a factory owner. He is sometimes rough with his workers but he will also go to extreme lengths to keep them employed. He is completely and entirely dedicated to his mother and sister, is extremely principled, and is loyal to those who are loyal to him.
Yes, these men are stoic and guarded – fairly typical of the British hero – but there’s something more to them that raises their heroism in my eyes: they aren’t perfect, they screw things up (in some cases, royally), but they recognize their mistakes and work to overcome their faults. In Mr. Darcy’s case, he is so prejudiced against Elizabeth’s family that it undermines his feelings for her, causing her to reject him when he first proposes. But, he learns from his errors and goes to great lengths to correct his mistakes by embarking on a quest to do everything within his power to make things right for Elizabeth’s family. Ross Poldark has a significant indiscretion during the early years of his marriage to Demelza, but he soon realizes the error of his ways and admits his mistake, illustrating that he has indeed acquired some emotional maturity during this ordeal. And, John Thornton, who often mistreats his employees and becomes cold as ice when Margaret initially refuses him, finally softens when he realizes what he stands to lose. Let’s face it, the sexiest thing about any man is when he admits he’s wrong! And these three are so very wrong that when they humbly admit their errors, it increases their sex appeal!
The Cinematic Versions
When a hero from literature is translated to the screen, it can be fraught with danger. Perhaps the hero is badly miscast (George C. Scott or Orson Welles as Mr. Rochester? No, thank you.). Or, the script does not do justice to the character (Tom Hardy, I love you, and it probably wasn’t your fault, but I didn’t like your version of Wuthering Heights at all). But, when the filmmakers get it right, there is no end to the daydreaming and fantasizing available to a young woman who has fallen in love with her favorite British hero from literature.
I admit to being in awe of actors who can so indelibly bring a beloved literary character to cinematic life. And because I am a hopeless romantic and spend an inordinate amount of time daydreaming about heroes from literature, let me present my case for why I believe these three characters and the actors that portray them are at the top of my list of British heroes. And, I will do my analytical best to come to a conclusion as to which one is the best.
I will say right off that I am more partial to Matthew Macfadyen’s portrayal of Mr. Darcy than Colin Firth’s and that’s because I watched the movie before I went back in time to watch the BBC series. I know some will find this admission unbelievable, but, it’s all about timing, I guess. I did not particularly enjoy the supporting actors in the BBC TV series. And, while I think Colin Firth is an exceptional actor, I don’t find him particularly sexy (I’m sure to be bombarded with criticism over this admission; all I can say is, there’s no accounting for taste!). I have the same feelings about Aidan Turner’s portrayal of Ross Poldark vs. Robin Ellis’ portrayal from the 1970 series. Similarly, I watched the current iteration of Poldark before I went back to view the original show from the 1970s, so Aidan Turner’s portrayal of Ross was already firmly etched in my head. By the time I went back to watch the Ellis series, it was too late – I was too much in love with the current version of Ross. As for John Thornton, the original series (made in 1966) is unavailable for viewing so, in my mind, there is one and only one John Thornton, and that is Richard Armitage.
These three actors are handsome, and each has the talent to bring their literary heroes to glorious life. Tell me, didn’t your heart skip a beat when Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy says, “You have bewitched me, body and soul, and I love, I love, I love you.” Or, when Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark realizes the heinous mistake he made and says to Demelza: “…After that night – because of it – I came to see that if you bring an idealized love down to the level of an imperfect one, it isn’t the imperfect one that suffers. My true, real and abiding love is not for her; it’s for you.” Or, how much does your heartbreak when John Thornton (Richard Armitage), after being rebuked by Margaret, says to his mother, “No one loves me, no one cares for me, but you, mother.”
Because the characters mentioned in this piece are my all-time favorites, I decided the fairest way to determine which one of these them is the most heroic was to get analytical about it. I thought of the attributes that, to me, make a good British hero, then I made a comparison chart. You may wonder how I could consider a man who makes an egregious mistake as being remotely close to heroic. For instance, how is it heroic that Mr. Darcy shows a great deal of pride (or, ahem, prejudice) or that Ross Poldark had a significant indiscretion during his marriage or that John Thornton exhibits bullying behavior toward his employees. But, when looking at these faults, I also looked at how they overcame them. If they did (and all three in fact did), then, to me, that contributed to their overall sense of heroism – they understood their faults and worked to correct them.
Below are the attributes I considered. Of course, you may question some of my options, but these are the attributes that matter to me when I’m reading a novel or watching a show with British heroes. It should also be mentioned that I took into account not just the novel but also the film or television translation. So, while I was reading, say, Pride & Prejudice, I was thinking not just of Austen’s written words but also of the portrayal of Mr. Darcy by Matthew Macfadyen. Oh, and for you fans of Outlander, Sam Heughan’s Jamie Fraser is not included because of his Scottish heritage…Anglotopia is focused on things British.
Here are the attributes I considered:
- Is Well-Educated
- Is Handsome
- Isn’t Afraid to Speak His Mind
- Has Great Hair
- Can be Moody
- Has Enemies
- Rides a Horse
- Rescues Someone
- Works with his Hands
- Owns a Business
- Is Kind to Relatives
- Is Good to Employees
- Engages in Risky Behavior
- Was a Soldier
- Cares About the Working Class
- Would Win in a Barroom Brawl
- Is a member of the Gentry
- Wears a Cool Hat
- Wears Boots Outside of his Pants
- Looks Good in Frills
Mr. Darcy and John Thornton are certainly appealing and have many strongly heroic attributes. To be sure, both are swoonworthy. But, when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of heroism, my heart belongs to Ross Poldark (and Aidan Turner’s portrayal of him). Aidan Turner has said in interviews that he likes playing Ross Poldark because, while the character is heroic and caring, he’s not perfect.
In an interview with AV Club from 2016, Aidan Turner describes his character this way: “Ross is a great guy, an incredible and memorable character. But it’s not just that he’s your typical, everyday hero. He’s not just the Robin Hood who rides in on a horse and saves the day, picks up his pretty wife, puts her on the back of his saddle, and rides into the sunset. There’s so much more to him; he’s a flawed character, but his moral compass is in the right place. He may jump into smuggling goods but he does it to earn money to pay back his loans and to feed the people of the village. He’s human; he makes mistakes. He feels real to readers. Men and women relate to him. He’s three-dimensional. There’s nothing bland about Ross.” (http://www.avclub.com/article/poldarks-aidan-turner-doesnt-know-why-his-show-so–242985)
So, there you have it. While I adore Mr. Darcy and John Thornton and count Col. Brandon, Capt. Wentworth, Gabriel Oak, Heathcliff, Jolyon Forsyte, Mr. Rochester and Romeo as indelible British heroes, there’s only one British hero from literature and film that stands alone at the top of my list…Ross Poldark!
About the Author – Janna Wong Healy
Janna has spent her entire life around the written word, editing books, writing magazine articles on a variety of topics and working in the film industry on such movies as “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and “The Day After.” She spent years as a story analyst for studios and production companies and has written more than 150 menu decks for movies and television series on DVD for Universal Studios Home Entertainment. She wrote about casual gaming for The Clik/Character Arcade, is a featured blogger on Mariana Wong’s Summer of Love” and “Let’s Get Lost,” are available on Kindle.and a professor of Business Communication in USC’s Marshall School of Business. Her novels, “