It’s been a few months since my Worst Boyfriends in Classic Literature list came out, and I’ve been trying to come up with one featuring best boyfriends ever since. The trouble is, there are surprisingly few good men in classic literary relationships. Even the male romantic leads that I like often do deeply troubling things (I’m looking at you and that possible marital rape scene, Rhett Butler). I was also disappointed in myself when I realized that I often find literary good guys super boring (it’s my fault, not yours, Edward Ferrars).
But never fear, reader dear; there are good men out there, even in the realm of classic literature. Mostly, I have realized, they live in the countryside and children’s novels.
As with the worst boyfriends list, I’ll warn you there are serious spoilers ahead.
Honorable Mention: Marius Pontmercy, LES MISERABLES
Marius is a good guy, but he’s definitely not my favorite literary romantic lead.
Bonus points: speaks French, English, and German, courageously holds to his principles, is offended when his friends encourage him to take Cosette as a mistress rather than marry her.
Deductions: falls in insta-love, has been portrayed by Nick Jonas, does not notice his gal pal is in love with him, loves boring Cosette, initially thinks father-in-law is a murderer, has death wish.
(photo from the 2012 film, featuring Eddie Redmayne before he decided to become a wizard and go gallavanting after magical creatures)
10: Joe Willard, BETSY AND JOE
You may not know Joe Willard, but you should. This is especially true if you love the Anne of Green Gables series even a little bit, since this is basically the Minnesotan version. Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy series, which is loosely based on the author’s own youth in the early 1900s, follows Betsy Ray and her best friends from age 5 to their twenties. Along the way, Betsy meets Joe Willard, who becomes her main school competitor (echoes of Anne and Gilbert, anyone?), her dancing partner, her writing buddy (she’s an aspiring novelist, he’s an aspiring journalist), and ultimately her husband. His succinct agony column apologizing to Betsy is one of my favorite love confessions in literature.
A Joe Willard line that only a librarian (or possibly only this librarian) would find romantic: “Say, you told me you thought Les Miserables was the greatest novel ever written. I think Vanity Fair is the greatest. Let’s fight.”
(illustration from the Betsy-Tacy books)
9: Faramir, THE RETURN OF THE KING
It seemed appropriate to throw in a little classic fantasy to shake up this list of nineteenth century British and American novels. Faramir is the ultimate good guy. The appendices to THE LORD OF THE RINGS describe him this way: “He read the hearts of men as shrewdly as his father, but what he read moved him sooner to pity than to scorn. He was gentle in bearing, and a lover of lore and of music, and therefore by many in those days his courage was judged less than his brother’s. But it was not so, except that he did not seek glory in danger without a purpose.” Add to that the fact that he is never tempted by the ring (unless we’re talking about Peter Jackson’s version), and you’ve got yourself a pretty great man. In The Return of the King, Faramir becomes completely devoted to Eowyn, and I love that they fall in love with each other only gradually.
Basically, if you like your fellows sweet and sensitive but also able to kick butt when necessary, Faramir’s the guy for you.
(photo from the LORD OF THE RINGS films, with Faramir portrayed by David Wenham)
8: Tom, AN OLD-FASHIONED GIRL
AN OLD-FASHIONED GIRL is my go-to read when I’m feeling blue. It’s not as well-known as LITTLE WOMEN, but I can’t recommend it highly enough if you’re looking for something short, sweet, and lovely.
For anyone who really wanted Jo to end up with Laurie, I give you Tom. Tom is pretty rambunctious when we first meet him, and he loves nothing better than teasing his sister’s friend Polly. It’s clear that he has a good heart, though, and he and Polly become dear friends and confidantes. In the end, Tom goes West, grows a beard, and works hard to make up for the financial troubles he has caused his family. He never confesses his love for Polly until he feels like he has grown up enough to be her equal.
Favorite butterfly-inducing moment: Before Tom even recognizes his romantic interest in Polly, he finds himself “idly wondering for a minute if she knew how long and curly her lashes were.”
(illustration from the book published by the Roberts Brothers)
7: Professor Bhaer, LITTLE WOMEN
All the Laurie/Jo shippers out there are probably up in arms, but please hear me out on this one. I feel like I should note LITTLE WOMEN is my favorite book, and I’ve reread it at least a dozen times. You can trust that I’ve completely overthought this.
I love Laurie. Seriously. I LOVE him. Probably more than it is appropriate for me to feel for an imaginary person. He’s playful, sweet, and fun, and he loves the March women with all his giant heart. BUT, I don’t think he belongs with Jo, and neither did Jo. I must confess that I also wouldn’t mind if Jo had never married anyone at all (though 14-year-old me would vehemently disagree).
Nevertheless, if Jo must marry, Professor Bhaer is ideal. He might be poor and a little paternalistic, but he’s smart and sweet and an adult. He’s well-read. He’s quiet and humble yet direct. He’s wonderful with children (his interactions with little Tina melt my cynical heart). He darns his own socks. He is fundamentally selfless and kind, and nearly every scene that features him is testament to that. Finally, remember that scene with the ball of yarn and the head bumping? Or the proposal scene under the umbrella? I still get the warm fuzzies thinking of those ones.
Also, I just realized that the old man character I’ve been picturing isn’t even forty, so now I’m having an existential crisis.
(photo: Winona Ryder and Gabriel Byrne as Jo March and Friedrich Bhaer, in LITTLE WOMEN, 1994)
6: Fitzwilliam Darcy, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
Oh, Darcy. I have mixed feelings about him because he can be moody and aloof, but PRIDE AND PREJUDICE has hands-down my favorite love story of all time. Darcy has his faults to begin with (as does Elizabeth), but he is ultimately humble enough to change. It’s also worth noting that the story progresses largely through Lizzy’s thoughts and dialogue, and, at least initially, she’s not a reliable narrator where he’s concerned. As the story progresses, we learn that Darcy is a kind and loving older brother, a generous employer, and in the end a selfless romantic lead. Best of all, he loves Elizabeth because she is his intellectual and moral equal. That’s my kind of romance.
In the words of my coworker: “He better be somewhere on there, because he’s my bae.”
(photo from so many film versions of Darcy. Seriously. So many.)
Part Two coming soon! (update: it's here!) While you're waiting, who would you recommend for the top 5 slots?