I remember watching Sense & Sensibility with my aunt several years ago and at the end she was aghast that Marianne wound up with Colonel Brandon. To her, the gap in their ages was immeasurable and she could not overcome that prejudice in order to fully comprehend the difference Brandon made in Marianne’s life. It was not so for me. I loved Brandon from the start. I liked his principles, his gentle heart, his forgiving nature. I felt awful for him when Marianne shunned his affections and my heart soured when she finally came around. Willoughby never enchanted me, but Brandon captured my affection from the start.
Our modern society views such matches with a decided prejudice and in some respects that is understandable. I am rather surprised when coming across depictions of younger women involved with older men (a sometimes trend in more “controversial” films). But when Jane Austen was creating her wonderful literary figures in her head and on the page, marriage to older men was appropriate, acceptable, and widely practiced for practical purposes. Older men were settled, financially secure, and steadily employed (or at least known in society as a “gentleman”). Some matches were made in heaven and others made both individuals miserable (such as in the case with Fanny and Marianne’s elder brother).
History testifies to successes and failures in older/younger relationships. Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine Howard ended rather badly — with lots of screaming and bloodshed. The Duke’s marriage to Georgina (The Duchess) faired no better, with rampant scandal, several illegitimate children, and several ruined lives. I think both my knowledge of former eras and general interest in these literary and historical figures tends to make me more accepting of them, whereas in more modern productions I feel rather ill at ease. I have always been rather drawn to the older men in films, and the reason has more to do with their character than their age. They seem more mature, settled, reliable, and financially secure.
In almost all instances, they also have a positive influence in the life of the heroine. They are supportive of her efforts and do not stifle her, but challenge her to be a better human being. Marianne became less flighty and matured with Brandon at her side — a presence of calm reasoning and forgiving adoration. He was not “better” than she was, but helped her in becoming all she was meant to be. Because of Mr. Knightley’s nudging, Emma grew up and realized the difference between criticism and love. When Jo meets Professor Bhaer in Little Women, the audience is startled — no, this isn’t right, she is meant to be with Laurie! But it is the Professor who challenges Jo to become a greater writer, and pen something that truly matters.
The reason I am drawn to these literary men is not their age or position in society — it is their virtues. Their steadfastness of character, their honor, their gentle influence in the lives of those people who need them. The compassion that prompts Brandon to take in a ward, or allow the Professor to share what little he has with the children in the boarding house. Life has battered them about a bit but not made them bitter. Our hearts are given to them even as the heroine slowly comes to acknowledge their virtues. For it is their virtues that recommend them to us the most — whether they are twenty, or forty.