(No, not the kind you garden with, the kind that ruin girls’ lives.) Let me state this up front: I hate Rakes. I despise immorality. I consider virtue to be one of the highest things a person can possess, and that includes sexual purity. Which means I especially hate an author trying to force me into approving of a philanderer enough to want him to wind up with the virtuous heroine. Since this shows up a lot in Regency fiction, I will focus on it there—but it also drives me nuts in every other time period.

If you want to know what a time period was truly like, look at the literature written during that period and compare it to modern stories set in the same world. The moral differences are stark. Since Jane Austen is the undisputed queen of Regency fiction, what do her works teach us? That during this period, your reputation as a woman was everything, but also, a man’s reputation mattered. There’s a lot of emphasis on her heroines avoiding falling prey to Rakes—men with dubious moral intentions, usually who seduce and abandon women, who in that time period, had no recourse, no way to re-enter polite society, and no one to protect them, unless a relative took them in despite their shame (or unless Colonel Brandon adopted you as his ward). But, men weren’t allowed to “sew their wild oats” without consequences either. Willoughby in Sense & Sensibility knocks up and abandons Brandon’s ward, and when his wealthy aunt finds out about it, she disinherits him for his shameful behavior. For ruining a girl! This is why he can’t marry Marianne – whom he genuinely loves (or at least, Elinor gives him the courtesy of thinking it’s real). She’s poor, and he’s been disinherited, which means no money for either of them. So he marries a wealthy woman who doesn’t care about his ruination instead. Poor thing.

Marianne doesn’t deserve Brandon, but he’s the hero we all need. 😛

Jane’s books work on a system of “punish the bad, reward the good.” It’s not a theme in all of her books, but it’s such a common one that her “rakes” are interchangeable; Willoughby, and Mr. Wickham from Pride and Prejudice, and Henry Crawford from Mansfield Park are all the same sort of man – “bad.” In that society, sexually immoral. They never get the girl, because they aren’t desirable. They are Rakes, philanderers, selfish in their hedonistic impulses. Jane didn’t believe they “deserved” to wind up with a virtuous heroine, and I don’t either. Marianne’s growth as a character is all about growing out of being attracted to a Rake (Willoughby) and realizing a virtuous man is a good catch, when she finally recognizes that Brandon is the better man. Lizzie Bennet doesn’t fall in love with Mr. Wickham, but she falls for his sob story (because it reinforces her own prejudices about Darcy), and then has to come around to realizing that as prickly as Darcy can be, he is the more moral and good man. Wickham is just after money, and then after revenge—but Darcy went out of his way to save her family from ruination, by forcing Wickham to marry Lydia after they ran off together and were living in sin. Even Emma has to fall out of her infatuation with Frank Churchill, who is a liar and a manipulator (a rake), to recognize that Mr. Knightley is the better man—again, because he cares about everyone else, rescues Harriet from humiliation, and even corrects Emma’s attitude when she has overstepped the bounds of propriety.

In this way, her heroes are the opposite of Rakes, because in each instance, they protect and do right by the women in their life. Brandon adopts the daughter of the woman he loved, who fell into sin, and raises her own illegitimate child. Darcy protects his sister from Wickham, and gets Lydia married off so it doesn’t ruin her sisters, even though it means dealing with a man he hates. Edward refuses to break off his engagement to the abominable Lucy, because he gave her his word, even though he loves Elinor. And Mr. Knightley cares about Harriet and her happiness enough to push Emma to stop her meddling. Even Captain Wentworth wants to do right by the women in his life.

The message Jane intends for her reader to absorb, even as they laugh at her wonderful characters, is that good and bad exist, and bad comes in the form of “Rakes” who want to ruin a girl. Theirs is not love, because a true love is selfless, and theirs is all self-serving, about their gratification at the cost of a girl’s life and reputation. I grew up on and admire these kinds of men, who show genuine love, because they want what is best for the woman in their life, rather than seeking to think only about fulfilling their sexual urges.

I am supposed to root for this hot guy. But he’s probably got venereal disease so no thanks.

But virtue isn’t desirable in most circles anymore, which is unfortunate. Rakes are now “sexy” even if I find them abhorrent. For contrast, let’s talk about Bridgerton. Since I haven’t read the books (and probably won’t), I’ll focus on the representation of a family of “Rakes” in the Netflix series. While the girls are all supposed to be virginal and innocent and virtuous, almost all the men (minus Colin) after them are promiscuous. All of the attractive men I’m supposed to root for have sexual escapades, until they start chasing the virtuous heroine. Simon sleeps around until he marries Daphne, and in season two, we see Anthony Brigerton simultaneously looking for a pure and well-bred wife while paying prostitutes for sex. All his brother Benedict wants to do is paint naked women and sleep with them, sometimes two at a time. But I’m supposed to swoon over them falling in love and root for them to get that gorgeous, virginal heroine into the sack, and believe that will end their philandering. Yeah, right. They are Rakes. It won’t stop it.

It’s not even authentic to the time period, since this behavior wouldn’t be considered appropriate in Regency society. If the news of Willoughby knocking up a girl could get him disinherited, Lady Whistledown breezily commenting on “Anthony being a rake with a capital R” in the society gossip pages could have had the same devastating consequences.  That wasn’t to say people behaved themselves, but it wasn’t a laughing matter. Yes, people got pregnant outside of wedlock (and ruined). Yes, men messed around, but they kept it on the down-low. Yes, some of them had mistresses, but I doubt they had sex where people could walk in on them. And as much lust as Anthony and a girl have for each other, she wouldn’t rip off all her clothes and sleep with him in a gazebo, either. That’s pure smut-fiction. Kate is a smart girl who would know she could get pregnant and ruined. (The books are apparently better in this regard; they have an arranged marriage, so all the ‘sexy times’ happens inside of that.)

Another Rake who slept around, but this one is 100,000x hotter. Still NOPE.

Beyond that, let’s think about this in purely practical terms. Unprotected Regency sex with prostitutes causes syphilis, which means the Rake could infect his pure, virginal bride and ruin her life. As a moral aside here, from my Christian upbringing—God doesn’t give us moral rules to ruin our fun, but to protect us from the consequences of our behavior. Sexual immorality with multiple people causes venereal diseases, and the consequences of those can be devastating—if you didn’t die from it, you got arsenic poisoning from the doctors trying to cure it; and in women, it could cause barrenness or deformed children.

So why in the hell I would root for a Rake to get a nice girl? Someone that I like? Why should she sleep with everyone he has ever slept with and possibly get hurt from it?

My unequivocal answer is, no. I will never root for a philanderer’s romance with a sweet, innocent girl. You can’t make me. It will never happen. So stop trying to sell me on this.

I realize why writers do this. It’s misogynistic if it comes from a male writer (the idea that a man should/can have lots of sex with random women, and when he’s ready to “settle down,” he deserves a pure mother for his children, which is incredibly sexist). But women writers tend to romanticize it, in the notion that the right woman can make an immoral man behave himself. (Nope.) It also allows them to have the man be “experienced,” so he can give the heroine mind-blowing orgasms right away. But in so doing, the Rake is treating women like meat. I use this one and throw her away, and do the same with this one, and then I will get my reward, which is a massive hunk of steak.

For some reason, the idea of a virtuous woman falling for a Rake is also “interesting.” (Not to me.) The problem is, it’s inconsistent with her character. A truly virtuous person has no interest in being with someone who isn’t virtuous, because virtue is one of their highest personal standards. It’s a deal-breaker.

Apparently Tom wasn’t a Rake. I demand better from Hollywood!!!

Which brings me to my last rant. Jane Austen herself. When the movie Becoming Jane came out, I went to see it… and left angry and perplexed, because Jane fell in love with a Rake. This boy pushed her to read sexually explicit literature, he slept around and drank, but for some reason, she still fell in love with him. It made no sense that the woman who focused so much on virtue, who abhorred Rakes in her novels and clearly preferred Virtuous Men, would fall for a Rake. It was inconsistent with her worldview and personality. Well, years later, I read a biography about Jane Austen. Imagine my horror to find out the “Rake” wasn’t one at all; he was exactly the kind of virtuous man she would have liked—a Brandon. Someone who loved her, but could not marry her, because he could not afford to. The screenwriters decided to make their story more sexually exciting by playing Jane’s moral beliefs off against those of a “Rake.” In the process, they sacrificed the truth of who both of them was, by ignoring her belief in virtue as one of the highest qualities a person can possess.

I don’t mind a bad boy now and again. I can even be quite fond of them. But I want my heroes to be moral. I want the man I am rooting for to be a Colonel Brandon, not an Anthony Bridgerton. I can’t respect men who disrespect women, and I certainly don’t want them “rewarded” with a good woman. It’s one thing to have made mistakes in your past, to be repentant and to be striving toward virtue (redemption), but it’s another to expect me to root for a man who probably has venereal disease and who has disrespected other women in the past in his cavalier treatment of their virtue, to wind up with Marianne. Ain’t happening.