Waiting for Dobbin

He's not tall or rich and won't make your head spin. But neither will he sleep with your best friend. Here's to the real hero of Vanity Fair.
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It wasn't the climactic love scene we're used to in our Sunday night costume dramas. There was no Darcy-style skinny dipping as Vanity Fair drew to a close at the weekend. No heaving cleavages or clandestine games of footsie under the crinoline petticoats. After 10 long years, solid, faithful Dobbin got his girl and how did he celebrate? He wrapped Emmy in his arms, gave her a cuddly bear hug and kissed her... on the forehead.

"You'll never leave me, will you?" said Frances Grey, who for six weeks managed to play the part of wan Amelia Sedley without once appearing to visit the make-up caravan. "I'll never leave you," said Dobbin (aka actor Robert Glenister) firmly. And dear reader, as the credits rolled up, the nation went to bed more than content with the way events had turned out.

For it isn't often that men like Dobbin get to be heroes. For weeks the newspapers have been fascinated by the real-life Becky Sharps: scheming vixens who'll do anything to get what they want. No one was interested in Dobbin, the real hero of Vanity Fair. And no wonder - in William Makepeace Thackeray's novel, and the BBC adaptation, he is reliable Dobbin, kind Dobbin, safe Dobbin. Adjectives which make him sound about as exciting as a bottle of luxury fabric conditioner.

Even Andrew Davies, the man who adapted Vanity Fair for the screen, was disparaging when he talked about Dobbin on Radio 4. "He's hardly the kind of man you'd want as a dinner guest is he?"

For Dobbin and his real-life counterparts are not the kind of men who hold forth at parties with endless anecdotes in which they always seem to emerge as the heroes. They do not make women's heads swivel as soon as they walk into a room. They are not, as a rule, tall, dark or handsome.

But then again neither do they blow you out, fail to telephone when they said they would, or sleep with your best friend.

Don't get me wrong. Dobbin men are not doormats. But at the same time they are not going to make your stomach do flick flacks. Men like Dobbin are reliable and kind and loving and make great husbands. Unfortunately, as a general rule, women are incapable of discovering the delights of a Dobbin until they've been hurt a few times, says Julia Cole of Relate.

"Scientists believe that as soon as flirtation starts there is a release of the chemical Phenylethylamine. This chemical gives you the kind of feelings you get when you're drunk - extreme pleasure, dry mouth, dizziness. We imagine that we can't be in love until we meet a man who gives us this feeling of being on the edge. Yet, ultimately, these aren't the men who make us happy."

Even celebrities, veritable adrenaline junkies, are coming to appreciate the delights of a Dobbin. Only last week there were reports that Jerry Hall, going through daily humiliation as her marriage to Mick Jagger looks increasingly shaky, has befriended property developer, Guy Dellal. Okay so he's too rich to be perfect Dobbin material. But Dellal is hardly a rock star and worldwide sex symbol either.

Jerry didn't meet Guy at a backstage catwalk party. Rather, they were introduced at the bar mitzvah of a mutual friend's son five weeks ago (Dobbin would have approved). Neither is Guy your classic-looking hero. A good few inches off six foot, he is, shall we say, follicle challenged. Friends are quoted as saying diplomatically: "Guy is obviously very different from Mick, but that is part of the appeal for Jerry. Looking at him you would not think he was in the same league as Mick. But Jerry says it's the other way around." What Guy is good at, apparently, is listening.(a trait of any Dobbin. Bastards are notoriously self-obsessed.)

Jerry could do worse than look to Hollywood for inspiration. For years, Anjelica Houston dated Jack Nicholson, who in the meantime seemed to be dating everyone else. Now she's with the sculptor Robert Graham. He is not mega famous, or handsome, or as rich as Jack. He looks, if truth be told, like Father Christmas' kid brother. But he makes Anjelica happy - "I'm very settled," she's said. "He encourages me with everything in my life. That devotion makes such a difference."

Even Sharon Stone has seen the light. Earlier this year, she announced her engagement to Phil Bronstein, a newspaper executive who, judging by appearances, seems to have all the charisma of Belgium. She admits the marriage came as a surprise: "This really is a new life for me. It's nothing that I anticipated."

Elizabeth, 31, dated rogues through her early twenties until she met Andrew, her husband. Her prerequisites for the ideal man had always been: handsome, good job, sexy. "I'd always thought love meant having butterflies in your stomach, waiting by the telephone, the whole ghastly rollercoaster of relationships. When I met Andrew it was completely different. Suddenly there was this man who actually seemed to like me, who was nice to me.

"It came as something of a revelation that love didn't have to mean pain. Here was this man who was wooing me for once and it felt fabulous. The problem is that, when you're used to rogue men, this kind of affection comes from left field."

And how would she describe Andrew? "He makes me feel safe and happy," she says simply.

Joanna met Steve six years ago. They were friends on and off for years (Dobbin relationships often spring from long term friendships.) Joanna hates the idea that their relationship is pidgeon-holed by her friends. "Friends would always say `Oh I wish I had someone like Steve, he's so reliable'. Which seemed to be damning him with faint praise.

"The truth is that, yes, he is reliable. But that doesn't mean to say he's boring. People too often presume that they mean the same thing. He's a laugh. We're good friends, and that's why it works."

Joanna's point is a good one. All too often we dismiss Dobbin relationships for being safe and dull and, by extension, not-very-sexy. We assume that people who choose affection over adrenaline go to bed with nothing more exciting than a book and a hot water bottle.

But, says Cole, nothing could be further from the truth: "People presume that safe stable couples have boring sex lives. Yet in all my years of counselling, it's the more sensible-seeming couples who have a good time in bed. They trust one another. They feel secure. There isn't the game playing. The safer you feel, the better the sex."