Jane Austen writes some fabulous characters, from bold heroines to romantic heroes and sneaky scoundrels. To celebrate Jane Austen month, we’re publishing three lists, ranking her most iconic figures from her six full novels. Let’s start with the heroines – the characters we spend the most time with, sharing their joys and trials as they negotiate Austen’s social landscape.
- Lizzie Bennet, Pride and Prejudice
Who else? Let’s be real here, Lizzie is the girl we all want to be. She’s smart, assertive and protective of her family. Her arc is so carefully developed, her character so fun and so flawed, that she was an easy choice for number 1. It’s clear that Mr Darcy doesn’t know how to handle her – a woman who isn’t afraid to speak her mind and take a light attitude to the pretensions of the nobility. One of her best moments comes when Darcy’s aunt Lady Catherine De Bourgh accosts her, to which Elizabeth takes her down with a firm patience and a complete lack of awe. She’s also a big reader and doesn’t mind getting her feet muddy in the countryside, making her a tomboy’s favourite.
Defining Feature: Her wry attitude to life and quick wit.
Best Quote: “There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”
Lesson Learned: It’s important to stay open-minded – people can surprise you.
2. Elinor Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility
Choosing Elinor as the main heroine of this novel might be something of a controversial choice. Depending on your own outlook and temperament, you might favour her romantic sister Marianne out of the two. However, Elinor is popular for many due to her right-brained, practical nature. She is the glue that holds the Dashwood family together, as her sisters and mother become hopelessly emotional in their small tragedies. She finds them a house that suits them, tries to look out for her sister as she falls for the scoundrel Willoughby and represses her own heartbreak to support others. In the end, she finally gets the love story that she wanted – and damn, it was well deserved.
Defining Feature: Level-headedness in the face of much wailing.
Best Quote: “Sometimes one is guided by what they say of themselves, and very frequently by what other people say of them, without giving oneself time to deliberate and judge.”
Lesson Learned: It’s ok to speak about your own worries, even whilst being supportive for others.
3. Anne Elliot, Persuasion
Oh, Persuasion, it’s such a beautiful and underrated novel. Austen’s last full novel to be published before her death, it speaks of regret in losing a lover. It’s hard not to assume this is one of Austen’s most personal works, since her own life and situation at the time of writing suggests that she may have been reflecting on her own past decisions. Anne Elliot is a wonderful character too, quietly passionate but devoted to her family even whilst she endures indignities as the ‘plain’ one of the family. Her genuinely emotional reaction to seeing Captain Wentworth after all those years is a truly honest piece of literature that many can relate to.
Defining Feature: Steadfast devotion to those she loves.
Best Quote: “All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one; you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.”
Lesson Learned: Whilst it’s good to listen to advice from others, sometimes you have to trust your own feelings.
4. Emma Woodhouse, Emma
Dear spoilt Emma. Jane Austen meant for you to be a tricky one, stating before she began writing that: “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Indeed, many have found her frustrating – the Regency equivalent of a queen bee, happy to boss around those less confident and completely convinced in her own superior judgement. However, she also has a heart of gold, taking everything to heart when she realises her wrongs and really enacting a change to heal those strained relationships. Her friend and eventual husband Mr Knightley sees that genuine kindness, and despite his frustrations, comes to admire her for her determined self-improvement.
Defining Feature: Misguided bossiness that masks a heart of gold.
Best Quote: “And have you never known the pleasure and triumph of a lucky guess? I pity you. I thought you cleverer; for depend upon it, a lucky guess is never merely luck. There is always some talent in it.”
Lesson Learned: Your actions and thoughts can have consequences so it’s important to be aware of the feelings of others too.
5. Fanny Price, Mansfield Park
Mansfield Park is an odd novel, noted for its ambiguous characters and an unusual reference to the slave trade that provided wealth for many of the nobility at that time. Fanny Price is also an odd heroine, meek and quiet without any of the strength of her other heroines. She’s also very difficult to read, with a moralistic streak that comes across as quite judgemental. However, like Anne Elliot, she is very much the outcast of the family and has to endure a fair amount of humiliation from childhood. To see her finally defy her uncle in the gentlest way possible and end up with her childhood love Edmund Bertram is satisfying to a point, but even he comes across flaky. Like the novel, the heroine remains mostly impenetrable throughout, making her a tricky heroine to enjoy.
Defining Feature: Extreme shyness and timidity.
Best Quote: “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”
Lesson Learned: Being kind and agreeable is certainly an excellent trait, but you have to stand up for yourself.
6. Catherine Morland, Northanger Abbey
Seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland isn’t always the easiest heroine to be around. Gullible and easily guided, she’s also a very poor judge of character and prone to over-imaginative ideas. Although she means well, she almost sabotages her own happiness by making assumptions of her possible suitor Henry Tilney – forgetting that people experience real pain and heartbreak that may not just be the stuff of Gothic novels. However, a lot of her mistakes can be attributed to her youth and while she is frustrating, who can say they didn’t make mistakes as a teenager? Her flaws are irritating but they’re definitely realistic.
Defining Feature: A naive, gullible outlook on the world (and fangirlish devotion to Gothic novels)
Best Quote: “Oh! I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it.”
Lesson Learned: Dramatic novels are all very well, but it’s important to remember when fiction ends and reality begins.
Do you agree with the choices? Submit your own list in the comments below!