Lucinda Elliot

Nine of the Most Annoying Heroes in Classic Popular Novels: an Uncharitable Rant…

As none of the following novels were written by authors still alive, I don’t see why I shouldn’t publish this uncharitable list to give a laugh to those who, like me, feel  in the mood for a bit of good old intolerance, so here it is.

I warn readers that the list is based on personal prejudice. Some of these heroes don’t, as ‘heroes’ go, deserve to be on it at all; there are certainly much nastier or annoying male leads from classic popular novels out there I have yet to meet and find objectionable.

Oh, and anyone who wants to nominate a vain, annoying, Marty Stu or downright obnoxious male lead in a famous novel by a deceased author is very welcome to do so.

Have I a list of annoying, obnoxious heroines, who may or may not be Mary Sues? Yes, but unfortunately my complaint about all these female leads tends to be the same. This is that once she gets together with the male lead she loses all her independence of mind and becomes half of a smug couple, or even if she doesn’t, that she loses all critical faculties regarding the man of her dreams. Therefore, my list needs some more work to make it in any way entertaining; but by way of a hint, Hippoylata in Mary Renault’s series on
Theseus, his captive Amazon who fights by his side against her former Amazon subjects, and Fanny Burney’s Evelina are both on it.

Number One

Dominic Alistair, Marquis Vidal, the ‘hero’ of Georgette Heyer’s ‘The Devil’s Cub’ is totally obnoxious. Even at fourteen, I cringed when I read this. Oh dear. This fellow’s got problems; in fact, he needs intensive psychiatric treatment and a good kick up the backside (sorry!). He likes killing men who annoy him, and he half throttles the heroine at one time, and at another, tries to rape her. This doesn’t stop her from falling in love with him, though.
To be fair to the heroine, she does have the sense to try and shoot him during the rape attempt, but she’s so sorry to see him in a fever as a result of the wound she’s inflicted that she longs to ‘kiss his bad temper away’.

To be fair to Heyer as well, she never again had a would be rapist as a hero. It still gets glowing five star reviews as a lot of woman readers think that the fact that the woman shoots at him makes things even.

I don’t. If he was shown as at least repenting of it, it might be different, but the whole sorry episode is happily swept under the carpet by both the heroine and many an avid reader alike.

Number Two

Theseus in Mary Renault’s ‘The King Must Die’ and ‘The Bull from the Sea’ .
By the living lord Zeus, this man annoyed me! OK, so he is meant to be over confident and machismo, and the men of the age didn’t see why women had any problems with being taken as war prizes (of course all Theseus’ war prizes adore him), but I detest him anyway, if only because the reader is expected to cheer him along as he avidly sets about destroying the nasty king-for-a-year sacrificing matriarchies wherever he goes (it’s worth noting here that it’s always on the one day a year that the King is due to be sacrificed that he comes across them). Everyone admires him, which isn’t surprising, as he generally kills off anyone who doesn’t.

I don’t see why the series isn’t called ‘The Queen Must Die’ as that’s what happens to all the women who marry him. He slowly chokes the unfortunate Phaedra to death (why, as an accomplished wrestler, he doesn’t use the quick and more effective strangle isn’t explained).
This fellow deserves to be made to clean the female lavs in Hades for a thousand years.
This series (brilliantly researched and in parts equally well written, by the way) also features the Hippoylata I mention above, who finds Theseus’ charms so irresistible that she joins him in fighting her old subjects.

Number Three


Now, I’ve said several times on the discussion thread on Goodreads that I started that I detest Heathcliff’s actions, not the sad character, who is clearly off his head. Also, I don’t believe that Emily Bronte intended him to be viewed as any sort of a hero, Byronic or otherwise.

Still, I remain astonished that anyone can possibly find this fellow romantic, with his habit of boxing girls’ ears and bullying children. Besides, he’s so  ridiculously sorry for himself, and mourns his loss of Cathy for such a long time.  I’m sorry to say many woman readers find his despising all women save his idol Cathy romantic. I can’t relate to that. I think too, that if he’d had his dream fulfilled he’d soon have tired of Cathy and started abusing her too. Also, he’s so mean that while he’s making a lot of money out of being a ‘cruel hard landlord’ he still rations the amount of tea the younger Cathy is allowed to offer to guests and has porridge for supper.

Number Four

Mr B.

I forgot about the hero of Samuel Richardson’s 1847 best seller ‘Pamela’, when I first thought up this list. I can’t imagine why. Squire B is as annoying a male lead as can be imagined. Not only does he make various rape attempts, but he manages to be self-righteous about a servant speaking insolently to him as she rejects his advances. Ridiculously, Pamela keeps on working for him, though the woman who used her services as lady’s maid, Mr B’s mother, is dead. Despite his attempts on her, she stays on to finish embroidering a waistcoat for him.

After he tires of bungled rape attempts, such s  jumping out of wardrobes at her, or ambusing her disguised as the kitchen maid Nan in a nightdress and nightcap,  thrusting his hand in her bosom whenever he possibly can,  Mr B decides that Pamela’s determined resistance means that she is good enough for him to marry, for all her low status.

After that, he gets a lot of fun out of travelling about the locality with her, lecturing the neighbours about the pleasures of a virtuous life. Pamela has no qualms about forgiving him once their relationship is put on a nominally respectable basis, and the critic Kincaid-Weekes was shocked that many other critics comment that she is a hypocrite for bartering her virginity in return for a respectable offer of marriage.

Number Five:

Brandon Birmingham from ‘The Flame and the Flower’ by Kathleen E Woodweiss (1974). This novel is a classic in the sense that it set the fashion for the many rapist male leads of historical romance of the 1970’s. The hero, who seems to be a cross between Dominic Alistair and Rhett Butler,  is supposed to be wonderful. Evreyone on his plantation worships him,  and all know that he is a massive catch. Unlike Mr B, his rape attempts aren’t bungled and the heroine doesn’t think to put him off by having a dramatic fit of the vapours. Like him, however, he is self-righteous. After their marriage, when she comments (fondly) on this rape, he responds, ‘Saucy wench.’ Also, the dress she was wearing during this is treasured by them both as ‘our dress’.   Yes, well…

Number Six: James Bond.

What can I say?
Unusually, I believe this fellow certainly suffers from serious sexual repressions of some sort as a compulsive Don Juan who goes in for such unimaginative seductions; for instance, why are the erotic episodes described so mechanically? Is it because I’m dyslexic that I particularly notice the way ‘his right hand went to her right breast’? And why are the (temporary) female leads always called ‘the girl’ almost as if Bond – or his creator – has temporarily forgotten their names? After all, it’s not as if they don’t have memorable ones: Honeychile Rider or Pussy Galore, anyone?

Number Seven

Charley Kinraid in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ is almost an ideal type of a Marty Stu (I dislike the whining Philip Hepburn, the ‘real’ hero of the story, even more, but Charley Knraid is clearly meant to be the romantic interest so he gets the listing). It shows what an excellent writer Gaskell is that despite this, ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ is still one of my favourite novels.  Almost everyone, save the carping, envious Hepburn, admires Kinraid. He’s a brilliant harpooner, handsome, fearless, a good friend, a hard drinker, a bold fighter, irresistible to women and the life and soul of the party. Nobody dances the hornpipe like him.

This opportunist is indestructible and always falls on his feet with a merry quip.
There’s no pleasing me! Heathcliff exasperated me by mourning his loss of Cathy for twenty years; Kinraid annoyed me by forgetting Sylvia six months after his dramatic parting from her.
He starts off his glittering career as ‘the most daring Specksioneer (chief harpoonist) on the Greenland Seas’ during the French Revolutionary Wars. When on shore, he’s a dedicated flirt and heartbreaker, causing at least one girl to go into a decline when he loses interest in her. At one point he seems to be engaged to both the eponymous heroine and one of her neighbours at the same time (weirdly enough for Gaskell, this ridiculous situation isn’t portrayed humorously).

I disliked him for that, but I did applaud his standing up to a press gang operating illicitly, though I was sorry he shot dead two of its members. With his invariable luck, he escapes hanging for this through being ‘kicked aside for dead’. Later on, however, after he’s press ganged into the Navy, Kinraid goes in for more heroics, though this time on their side, and is promoted to Captain. As all Naval Captains had to rely on press gangs to raise enough men to go to sea, and couldn’t be too scrupulous about the rule of their having to be sailors, he’s obviously happy enough to collude in the press gang’s activities and forget he shot dead two men for doing what he now endorses.

When Kinriad comes back to claim Sylvia, whom he has sworn he’ll marry or remain single, only to find she’s been tricked into marriage by Philip Hepburn, he’s forgotten about her and married to a pretty heiress in no time. This silly girl admires him nearly as much as he admires himself.

Hepburn dies expiating his sins, while Sylvia, overcome with guilt over renouncing Hepburn for his trickery, dies of a broken heart. However. the shallow opportunist Kinraid complacently faces a glowing future in the new century. I found him and his undeservedly good fate supremely annoying.

Number Eight

Lord Heriot Fayne in Charles Garvice’s ‘The Outcast of the Family’.
I disliked this hero initially for his habit of threatening to throw Jewish money lenders out of windows. For the rest, for some reason I found this cardboard baddy turned goody totally exasperating in that everyone who meets him feels inexplicably awed by his ‘air of command’. He inspires respect, it seems, even when he’s togged up as ‘Coster Dick’ to get hammered and brawl in a music hall. He’s so macho that when one of his opponents caddishly sneaks up behind and hits him over the head with a cut glass decanter, knocking him out, on coming to, he suffers no sissy symptoms like nausea, but happily lights up a pipe and strolls through the streets, rescuing the odd waif.

He also rescues the heroine when her pony bolts towards a disused quarry (he’s disguised as a tramp at the time). Then he saves a little girl who gets lost in a forest somewhere in South America (he’s gone there as a ranch hand). His reformation is effected by his going round the country as a busker. This course of behavioural modification is seemingly so swift and effective it is obviously to be recommended as a way of taming all young tearaways.

Number Nine

Ludovic Lavenham in Georgette Heyer’s ‘The Talisman Ring’.
To be fair, this fellow, who serves as a sort of ‘secondary hero’ , probably doesn’t deserve to be on here.

This is another Heyer historical romance I read at fourteen when snowed in. I  re-read it a year or so ago during several visits to a doctor’s surgery. I found this swaggerer purely infuriating as a teenager, and cringed with embarrassment at the way he flirted with his ‘little cousin’ when lying on his sickbed after being shot by excisemen:

Him: ‘Is that a tear, little cousin? Don’t you like your cousin Ludovic?’

Her: ‘Oh, yes! But I was so scared that you would die.’

After that scene, I’m sorry to say I almost wished he would. Reading the story again all these years later, (this research on romances) I expected to regard him more kindly. I didn’t. To be honest, I don’t know exactly why I find this Heyer hero in particular so annoying. True, he’s stupid and arrogant and full of over-the-top macho posturing, but that does tend to be so of several of Heyer’s young heroes and ‘Sherry’ in ‘Friday’s Child’ is equally idiotic. Ludo Lav is also, like Charley Knraid, really only a secondary hero, the real one being Sir Tristam Shield (get the names) his older and acidic cousin.

So, there’s the list, and probably in the case of the male leads who don’t go in for rape, throttling their wives or at least hanging their spaniels, quite unfair. Charley Kinraid, Heriot Fayne and Ludovic Lavenham are at least portrayed as being fairly gallant, even if they deserve to be called Marty Stu’s. I’m sure there are many heroes out there, particularly in classical literature, who are far worse than even Dominic Alastair.

So, there’s a highly uncharitable post . How jaundiced; I think I’d better go and do some weights or make a resolution to be kinder about such male lead characters in general…

4 Responses

  1. James Bond suffers from sexual repression?!! That’s a novel way of looking at it, Lucinda! I absolutely despise Bond too, though, and am at a loss to understand why women throw themselves at him. But then I suspect that he was never intended to be anything but a comforting male fantasy; realism is not the first word that comes to mind when describing the James Bond universe.

    I’m at a loss to understand why people insist on referring to “Wuthering Heights” as a love story. It’s not a love story. It’s a hate story. It says something for Emily Bronte’s skill that this book became a classic despite all the characters being vile.

    Happy New Year, Lucinda!

  2. Happy New Year back to a brilliant fellow writer, Mari, Glad you were always as puzzled as me as to why any woman would like James Bond, but your’re right, he’s just a male fantasy. Ha, ha, I’ve always thought that there was something joyless and stilted about the sex scenes in James Bond novels, with no real sensual exploration of women’s bodies at all (of course, to be fair,the rigid censorship may have played some part in this). I ascribe to the view that compulsive Don Juan’s are usually scared of women’s sexuality, hence their inability to stay with one and develop a really sensual, relationship,
    I so agree about ‘Wuthering Heights’ being a hate story. Really, I shouldn’t have described Heathcliff as a hero at all – as you say, I don’t think Emily Bronte intended him to be one, but I have included him because so many readers seem to classify him as one. I have held forth a lot about this on the discussion thread on Goodreads, and am interested in the theory that she was fascinated by the fate of the savage, unrepentant sinner in the beyond (not in an orthodox sense, of course). I think she thought Heathcliff’s acts so foul she never expected him to be defined as ‘a romantic hero’ and that is a real misunderstanding of the work. Oddly enough, I do like some of the characters, for all their faults – Isabella, and even Nelly Dean, who does often express views of Christian compassion towards Heathcliff; she quite rightly points out that he’s deranged by hatred.

  3. Hi Lucinda , loved your hated heroes list, tho I didn’t know a couple of the later ones, I hate them on all our behalfs (behalves? ) . I dunno about Ludovic Lavenham though, just an idiot really, not to be compared to many of the others and Heyer has many more much more acceptable ‘heyeroes’ in her canon . She was VERY young when she wrote the early stuff with the truly awful Vidal etc

    But loved your article anyway and I’m so glad you liked The Toast link!

    1. Hello, sema. Happy New Year to you! You are right of course in your charitable excuses for poor Ludo Lav, he was on my list as annoying rather than as truly belonging on a hall of shame for obnoxious so called heroes, where Heathcliff and co certainly belong. After doing this post I remembered Mr B in Richardson’s ‘Pamela’ who certainly deserves to go on (Richardson in ‘Pamela in her Exculted Condition’ tried to explain away his rape attempts as misunderstandings, but I for one don’t believe a word of it). You are right, too, that Heyer didn’t repeat the distasteful set up with Vidal; it is, as I say, unlucky that the greedy publoishers re-issued the work. As for the unknowns, I’d love to hear your take on the opportunist Charley Kinraid in Elizabeth Gaskell’s little known novel, ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’. As for Heriiot Fayne in ‘The Outcast of the Family’ Charles Garvice was a best selling late Victorian writer of truly appalling romances, worth reading just for an unkind laugh. He’s now slipped into obscurity, but is fascinating for the sheer badness of his style…

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