May 12, 2020

‘Babe, look’: The worst boyfriends in classic literature tell it like it is

Behind the Book by
Amanda Sellet assists literature’s worst boyfriends in being a bit more honest.
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There’s a moment in The Lego Movie when Batman bails on his friends during a moment of crisis. “Babe, look,” he tells his girlfriend, Wyldstyle. “If this relationship is going to work out between us, I need to feel free to party with a bunch of strangers whenever I feel like it. I’ll text you.”

I can’t be the only person watching who thought, “I’m pretty sure I dated that guy in college. Only he talked more about Nietzsche.”

The cads, scoundrels and rakes of 19th-century literature seldom declare their selfishness up front. It takes hundreds of pages to figure out which flavor of dirtbag our heroine is up against. In an ideal world, a gang of girlfriends would be there to break it down for her, posting warning signs like a highway crew of the heart.

That’s the central gambit of my YA rom-com By the Book: A Novel of Prose and Cons, in which precocious Mary Porter-Malcolm, daughter of two literature professors, tries to steer her peers away from modern guys who resemble dangerous fictional archetypes. Is her crystal ball a little cracked? Perhaps! You’ll have to read to find out.

In the meantime, let’s imagine what it would sound like if all those cravat-wearing romantic duds were more forthcoming about their failings, à la Batman.

#1: The Drama Queen

“Babe, look. If this relationship is going to work, I need to keep the emotions at a 10. Passion! Jealousy! Revenge! Obvi I’m way too busy being intense to think about your happiness—so bourgeois—or personal welfare. Tell you what, though: I am totes the guy who will roll around in your grave after you die. That’s devotion.”

Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Vronsky from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

#2: The Dastardly Philander

“Babe, look. If this relationship is going to work, I need to bring my extremely platonic lady friend to live at our house for a couple of months. At least. You say adultery, I call it hospitality—potato, potahto. And duh, I totally know your name. That was just one time I slipped up. In my defense, it was super dark in the garden, and I wasn’t expecting you.”

Arthur Huntingdon from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
Gilbert Osmond from The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Amanda Sellet’s debut novel, By the Book.

#3: The Wannabe Wastrel

“Babe, look. I am definitely not someone who cares about money. I scoff at such worldly concerns! What matters to me is a deep emotional connection. Poetry. Our souls meeting as equals. But, like, you do have some, right? ’Cause I’m also not really the type of guy who works for a living, if you know what I mean.”

Morris Townsend from Washington Square by Henry James
John Willoughby from Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

#4: The Closet Misogynist

“Babe, look. I didn’t ask you to marry me because I’m dying to hear all your quote-unquote ideas. If you could just sit quietly in the corner being decorative, that would be great. I’ll call you if we need someone to play the piano. Or do light secretarial work. Nope. Hush. That’s enough. Zip it!”

Edward Casaubon in Middlemarch by George Eliot
Cecil Vyse in A Room With a View by E.M. Forster

#5: The Prissy Hypocrite

“Babe, look. There are few things more beautiful for a man of the world like yours truly than meeting someone so pure and inexperienced and naïve and provincial and maybe a little dumb yet also hot who worships the ground I walk on. A blank slate, if you will. Wait, you did what now? Doesn’t matter whether you wanted to or not. I’m the only one allowed to get my freak on before marriage. Now I have to dump you for your own good!”

Exemplar: Angel Clare from Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

#6: The Brooding Bigamist

“Babe, look. This is an old house. Sometimes things catch on fire in the middle of the night. And there might be weird noises. Everybody knows the wind can sound like maniacal laughter out here on the moors! You should also be prepared for mind games and occasional wound care when things get out of hand in the attic. On the plus side, you are my top candidate for Downstairs Wife. . . . Wait, where are you going? What did I say?”

Exemplar: Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë


Author photo by Darci Falin

Amanda Sellet

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By the Book

By the Book

edited by Pamela Paul
ISBN 9781627791458

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