In this particular chapter, Austen utilizes a time-honored and much-loved trope: Dashing hero arrives on the scene to rescue the damsel in distress. In her Juvenilia, Austen loved to play with (and mock) these sorts of plot devices, although it's rather clear based on the books she is known to have loved that she was quite fond of the stories she picked on. (Hence, in Love & Friendship, she has a pair of heroines who are so very "sensible" in the 18th-century meaning of the term that rather than doing anything useful to help their husbands - both of whom are injured in a carriage accident - that one of them repeatedly faints while the other runs around shrieking. For hours. The one who faints catches a fatal cold, and tells her friend "Run mad as often as you chuse, but do not faint." LOVE this for its humor and the way it pokes fun at the convention of having women faint all the time rather than do anything active. But I digress.)
This story having been written by Austen, Marianne finds herself in a commonplace, ordinary sort of peril: She has ventured out on a walk with her younger sister, Margaret, after having been cooped up inside for two days straight because of steady rain. With that bit of information, and a bit of a description of the current day - partly sunny, but with a possibility of showers - Austen gives us just enough to picture the downs: they must be very wet after so much rain, and the ground will therefore be soft in addition to quite wet. Because Marianne wants so very much to walk out, she completely discounts the threatening clouds, from which we can infer that she's pretty willful - good information for us to file away. The tiniest patch of blue sky is enough for her to declare the day fine, and the winds whipping past her and Margaret only envigorate her. (One imagines that Marianne might have enjoyed Emily Brontë's description of the moors in Wuthering Heights, given Marianne's romantic notions. Of course, Austen skewers that sort of novel for its overactive imagination - no wonder her sister, Charlotte Brontë, was displeased when her editor suggested she write less from imagination and more from real life, like Austen had done. But again, I digress.)
Much is made of Marianne's smugness and sense of triumph at how well her walk is turning out - until the rain begins to pour down on Margaret and Marianne, and triumph is replaced with chagrin. These fine young ladies are pleased, however, to have an excuse to run for it - and they set out pell mell down the hill toward their house. Marianne is in the lead until she twists her ankle. Poor Margaret is hurtling along so quickly that she can't even stop to help, but winds up safely at the bottom of the hill. What a funny (and, if one thinks about it from real life) dead-accurate description of running downhill!
So here we have a sodden, miserable, ankle-twisted Marianne - our damsel in distress. And along comes a handsome, polished, smooth-talking gentleman - NOT on a white horse, or on any color horse at all, but just walking along with his gun and his hunting dogs - who figures out that her ankle is injured and "perceiving that her modesty declined what her situation rendered necessary, took her up in his arms without farther delay, and carried her down the hill."
*SWOON* (Or should we run mad instead?)
He carries her straight up the path and into the house, putting her down on a chair in the parlor, and without so much as a "by your leave" or "won't you come in please," all of which acts to make him out as the perfect Romantic Hero. All the Dashwood women are aflutter - here's a hot young guy who rescued Marianne in most dramatic fashion, and then he turns out to be educated and eligible and most likely wealthy, and he doesn't even hang around much, but adds to his mysterious charms with a rapid departure. Here's how Austen put it after he declines to have a seat in the parlor:
But this he declined, as he was dirty and wet. Mrs. Dashwood then begged to know to whom she was obliged. His name, he replied, was Willoughby, and his present home was at Allenham, from whence he hoped she would allow him the honour of calling tomorrow to enquire after Miss Dashwood. The honour was readily granted, and he then departed, to make himself still more interesting, in the midst of an heavy rain.He already knows the Dashwoods' name, but they never knew he so much as existed. Oh, he's so swoon-worthy! *sigh*
Check out how Marianne talks herself into being entirely smitten by him, even though she's not sure what he looks like, really:
Marianne herself had seen less of his person that the rest, for the confusion which crimsoned over her face, on his lifting her up, had robbed her of the power of regarding him after their entering the house. But she had seen enough of him to join in all the admiration of the others, and with an energy which always adorned her praise. His person and air were equal to what her fancy had ever drawn for the hero of a favourite story; and in his carrying her into the house with so little previous formality, there was a rapidity of thought which particularly recommended the action to her. Every circumstance belonging to him was interesting. His name was good, his residence was in their favourite village, and she soon found out that of all manly dresses a shooting-jacket was the most becoming. Her imagination was busy, her reflections were pleasant, and the pain of a sprained ankle was disregarded.While it's easy to poke fun at Marianne for the "rapidity" of her thought (which echoes comments made by Austen in Chapter 4 as well as in Pride & Prejudice), who among us has not done something similar in life - especially when we were about 17 years old, which is roughly Marianne's age here? Sir John manages to bolster his image as a dashing, bold young man, although he does it by focusing only on Willoughby's skills as a hunter. I love that when pressed for more details about the young man, he starts to talk about how awesome one of Willoughby's dogs is. And then tweaks Elinor about how he's an eligible catch, and she shouldn't let Marianne make off with him just because she tumbled down a hill. Oh Sir John, you are such a good-hearted, funny sort of man.
"Aye, aye, I see how it will be," said Sir John, "I see how it will be. You will be setting your cap at him now, and never think of poor Brandon."
"That is an expression, Sir John," said Marianne, warmly, "which I particularly dislike. I abhor every common-place phrase by which wit is intended; and 'setting one's cap at a man,' or 'making a conquest,' are the most odious of all. Their tendency is gross and illiberal; and if their construction could ever be deemed clever, time has long ago destroyed all its ingenuity."
Sir John did not much understand this reproof; but he laughed as heartily as if he did, and then replied,
"Ay, you will make conquests enough, I dare say, one way or other. Poor Brandon! he is quite smitten already, and he is very well worth setting your cap at, I can tell you, in spite of all this tumbling about and spraining of ankles."