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Who's the most romantic character in literature?

So, in a recent British poll on the most romantic literary character of all time (men, that is; they dealt with women in an earlier poll), top honors went to Rochester, the brooding hunk at the heart of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Though I’m a huge fan of Jane Eyre — I reread my well-thumbed copy at least once a year — I’m not enamored of Rochester, who, let’s face it, wasn’t very nice to poor Jane. (For those who you who haven’t read the book, or who read it so long ago it’s a distant blur, let’s just say Rochester was alternately cold, imperious, and withholding, and he proposed to Jane —  and was going through with the wedding — without  disclosing that he was already married to a madwoman he kept imprisoned in the attic). But am I possibility in the minority here? British best-selling novelist Penny Vincenzi wrote in the Daily Telegraph: “From that very first meeting [age 13, when she read the book for the first time], when Rochester’s horse slipped on the ice, and he was unseated, and I was confronted by his dark, unsmiling presence, his ‘stern features, and heavy brow… his considerable breadth of chest,’ I was completely in his thrall.”

So here’s the British poll in full:

1. Edward Rochester of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre
2. Richard Sharpe of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series.
3. Fitzwilliam Darcy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
4. Heathcliff of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights
5. Rhett Butler of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind
6. Mark Darcy, of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary
7. Captain Corelli of Louis de Berniere’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
8. Henry DeTamble of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife
9. Gabriel Oak of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd
10. Rupert Campbell Black of Jilly Cooper’s The Rutshire Chronicles

Several thoughts here. Maybe it’s because I’m a Southern, but Rhett Butler — the dashing Charleston-born blockade runner who lusted after Scarlett O’Hara — is tops with me.

(I took umbrage at Vincenzi when she said Butler lacked Rochester’s “complexity.” Excuse me — lacked complexity?) And what’s with No. 2, Richard Sharpe? Didn’t every single woman he romanced die in childbirth? (It’s been awhile since I read the books, so I could be wrong.) And who in their right mind could truly love the unutterable snob Fitzwilliam Darcy? (Oh. Wait. This is a British survey.)

I’m still mulling over my final list, but I think both Max de Winter from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Benedick from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing belong on it. Gilbert Blythe from the Anne of Green Gables series. George Emerson from E.M. Forster’s A Room With A View.

When I canvassed my friends, I got some surprising answers. “Definitely, it’s Garp,” said one. “I go for the tortured, suicidal, depressed Westchester types. Or maybe I just sorta get him confused with John Irving.” “Are you kidding? It’s Father Ralph de Bricassart,” said another, mentioning the swoon-worthy priest of Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds. My colleagues had a lot to say on the subject too. Marc Bernardin nominated ”Gollum. His love for the Ring, for his Precious, knows no bounds, sends him on a quest across his known world, brings him into conflict with those who would do him great harm, and finally seals his fate.” Jeff Labrecque said, “He’s not dashing, but I always had a soft spot for Sydney Carton [from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities].” Alynda Wheat was partial to Richard Carstone from Bleak House (“a man who’ll marry you when you’ve been altered by illness — lovely”), to all the Austen men, and to William Dobbin from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. A fellow staffer who wished to remain anonymous mentioned both Logan Bruno from The Babysitters Club books and Rob Gordon from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity.

Who’s on your list?

Originally posted October 19 2009 — 11:07 AM EDT

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