John Willoughby is one of Dashwood family’s country neighbors in Devon in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, but what do we know of the character. He and Sir John Middleton serve as bookends in the country society.
Willoughby literally sweeps Marianne Dashwood off her feet with his first acquaintance in the novel. He assists her home when Marianne falls and twists her ankle. In Willoughby, Marianne discovers a man she admires for his dash. She comments “that is what a young man ought to be” in describing Willoughby to others, a line which is reminiscent of Jane Bennet’s evaluation of Charles Bingley. In her naive fashion, Marianne does not recognize that a man of Willoughby’s cut MUST marry for money for he loves his horses, society, and women. He is a landed gentleman living beyond his means. His behavior is a statement to the hereditary privileges granted men of his social class. Although Marianne terms him courteous and gallant, but he is a man-about-time.
Willoughby acts as his name implies. He is “pliable, but tough, and with a tenacity for life.” We must wonder if Austen took the name from Frances Burney’s “Evelina.” Sir Clement Willoughby is a baronet who pursues Evelina throughout the novel. He meets her at an assembly and takes umbrage at her refusing a dance with him. Sir Clement “creates” situations around Evelina. He is a smooth talker, but also superficial and obnoxious. His interest in Evelina is motivated purely by lust. [As to the name, we also know that Thomas Willoughby was the first Lord Middleton and a distant relative to Mrs. Austen.]
The character of Willoughby in the novel holds no qualms about how he treats the women he encounters (i.e., what he did to Colonel Brandon’s ward Eliza). His charm is everything for which Marianne could hope: handsome, loves poetry and music, rich, etc. In truth, Willoughby’s gaming debts and his life of debauchery consume him. He will become the typical country squire. The rivalry between Willoughby and Colonel Brandon contrasts the two men in broad strokes.
Prior to the opening of the novel, Willoughby seduced and abandoned Brandon’s ward, Eliza. The two men fought a duel over the circumstances, and they later become rivals for Marianne’s love. Brandon is modeled in the Cavalier-Roundhead form. [“Roundhead” was the name given to the supporters of the Parliament during the English Civil War. They fought against King Charles I and his supporters, the Cavaliers (Royalists), who claimed absolute pose and the divine right of kings.]
In truth, most readers feel cheated at Marianne’s abandonment of Willoughby for Brandon at the end of the novel. It is difficult to muster up any of the romance we recognize in “Pride and Prejudice” or “Persuasion.” In Nation & Novel, Patrick Parrinder says, “There are, perhaps, political as well as emotional reasons why this plot resolution is unsatisfactory. Austen’s determination to end the novel with a version of the Cavalier-Roundhead alliance cannot alter the fact that Brandon, Middleton, and (in his final incarnation) Willoughby are all country squires representing broadly similar values and interests. The social tension between Marianne and Brandon is not great enough to become a focus of romantic interest.” (page 191)
In what is one of Austen’s most “contrived” scenes, Willoughby appears at what he thinks is Marianne’s deathbed and confesses his “love” for Marianne to her sister Elinor. The confession amplifies Willoughby’s selfish and spoilt personality, but also shows that he is not totally without principles. After this scene, he marries the appropriately named Miss Grey (a ho-hum type of woman). Miss Grey is wealthy and very proper. Austen tells us Willoughby was one “to exert, and frequently to enjoy himself. His wife was not always out of humor, nor his home always uncomfortable; and in his breed of horses and dogs, and in sporting of every kind, he found no inconsiderable degree of domestic felicity.”