We love Jane Austen through her heroines. Knowing so little about her, we worship her surrogates. And generally speaking, unless we are cranky scholars or celibate critics, we love and rank the novels according to our regard for the female principals. I can’t help finding my own response to the novels colored by the degree to which I find the heroines attractive, although over the course of some 20 years of reading and rereading, I find my admiration shifting among the young ladies; unlike Frederick Wentworth, longtime lover of Persuasion’s leading lady Anne Elliot, I could be accused of inconstancy, but I like to think my tastes show an underlying consistency.
Like most Austen readers, I first loved Elizabeth Bennet, the protagonist of Pride and Prejudice, and I loved her more for reminding me of the great love of my freshman year in college, or perhaps it would be just as accurate to say that I loved Christine better for reminding me of Elizabeth. Later, I came under the spell of Emma Woodhouse, the eponymous heroine of Austen’s penultimate novel, believing this to be a more mature love. By the time I read Emma I was a graduate student and I may have been susceptible to the general academic opinion that Emma was the more serious achievement. There is no question, though, that I imagined her to share many desirable qualities, as well as a few not quite so desirable qualities, with my fiancée.
My affections have oscillated between these two most spirited of the Austen protagonists over the course of the years, although just lately, much to my surprise, I have developed a bit of a sneaker for Fanny Price, the diffident heroine of Austen's 1814 novel Mansfield Park.
If my actual romantic life has sometimes been influenced by superficial considerations, as an Austen reader the basis of my affections has been almost entirely cerebral. I have fallen under the spell of beautiful minds – though it couldn’t be otherwise, since we seldom get a very precise physical description of our heroines, and they are never the prettiest girls in the neighborhood.
Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, is the crude prototype of the Austen heroine, a teenage provincial whose worldview, such as it is, has been shaped by her extensive reading of gothic novels. Just 17 years old when she embarks on her first trip beyond the family manor to the great resort of Bath, Catherine is good-natured but gullible. She befriends the duplicitous and supercilious Isabella Thorpe and gradually falls for the wellborn, well-read cleric Henry Tilney. Though she is not always quick nor erudite enough to understand Tilney, her attraction to him suggests, despite much evidence to the contrary, that she is capable of good judgment. The narrator, who keeps popping up to wink at us, seems determined to exploit Catherine’s lack of experience and infatuation with Romantic fiction for comic effect. When she is invited to the Tilney family seat by Henry’s sister Eleanor, she insists on infusing the environs of Northanger Abbey with gothic menace, and while she seems to be cured of this tendency after a few weeks at the Abbey, the best we can say of young Catherine is that she may someday grow up to be the kind of heroine who populates the later novels.
If Pride and Prejudice is Jane Austen’s most popular novel, much of the credit belongs to Elizabeth. Smart, funny, by turns passionate and sensible, irreverent and feisty, the second of Mr Bennet’s five daughters embodies virtues that appeal to both sexes. How many female readers have imagined themselves to be just like Mr Darcy’s beloved, and how many male readers have become infatuated with her spirit and her wit?
Unlike Elizabeth’s father, who fell for the future Mrs Bennet solely on the basis of her beauty, male readers have little opportunity to become enamored with Elizabeth that way. Unlike some of her Victorian counterparts, with their belief in phrenology and their elaborately detailed descriptions of their characters, Austen is not much of a portraitist.
We know that Jane Bennet, the eldest, is the great beauty of the family; Mr Bingley, whose arrival in the neighborhood sets the events of the book in motion, on first meeting declares her “the most beautiful creature I ever beheld”, whereas the first assessment of Elizabeth’s appearance, from Bingley’s great friend Mr Darcy, is unpromising: “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.”
Later, on the basis of brief acquaintance, Darcy revises his opinion. “No sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing...”
This is hardly the stuff of sonnets, nor is it very pictorial, but it allows those of us who are already falling under Elizabeth’s spell the freedom to imagine her as pretty. But she is no prettier than she was a few pages earlier at the dance. Darcy’s improved opinion of her beauty is a function of his growing appreciation for her character.
Fanny Price, in Mansfield Park, is the only character in the novel who judges everything and everyone correctly. Virtuous, yes. Is she lovable, or even likable? That’s the central question that has complicated the response to this beautifully constructed, somewhat stately novel. Is she even plausible to readers 200 years later?
Fanny is a child of 10 when she arrives at the home of her rich uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park, and for many pages it’s not entirely clear that she is the protagonist. Neither Sir Thomas, nor his supremely lazy and self-absorbed wife, Lady Bertram, pays much attention to her, while Lady Bertram’s sister Mrs Norris seems determined to keep her in her place and constantly remind her of how unworthy she is of the honor of residing at Mansfield Park.
A sturdier plant than Fanny might thrive in this soil, but she is barely able to make her voice heard in this household, which includes four older children, two daughters and two sons. Only Edmund, the second son, takes an active interest in her welfare. He treats her with kindness and takes a hand in her education. “He knew her to be clever,” we are told, “to have a quick apprehension as well as good sense, and a fondness for reading which, properly directed, must be an education in itself.”
Fanny’s quickness and good sense are gradually demonstrated, but she is a passive figure through most of the novel who silently observes the folly of her adoptive family: her vain and frivolous cousins, Julia and Maria, their clueless elder brother Tom, and the officious Mrs Norris. Hers is a kind of negative virtue: she shines in contrast to the others, and by virtue of her superior perception and judgment. But in its first volume, at least, Mansfield Park is effectively a novel without a heroine, a fact that makes it much less inviting than its predecessor.
One can’t help suspecting a kind of penitential impulse in the novel and in the righteousness of its heroine, as if Austen were trying to atone for the lightness and the “lack of shade” with which she taxed herself in her previous novel. Reaction, or overreaction, to the previous work is a fairly common impulse in authors and this seems evident in Austen’s oeuvre. It’s hard to imagine that the home performance of a play would have been a scandal in Pride and Prejudice, as it is in Mansfield Park, or that Elizabeth Bennet would have been horrified by the idea. Fanny is a sweet soul, but you wouldn’t want to take her to a party.
Emma Woodhouse could hardly be more different than her predecessor: “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition”. You can’t help feeling that Austen was a little sick of Fanny’s virtue and modesty, that she is once again reacting against her previous creation. When we meet Emma in her 20th year she has just married off Miss Taylor, her governess and companion of many years (her mother having died when she was very young). “The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.” Austen announces Emma’s flaws right at the start and then provides ample evidence of them.
If Elizabeth is mistaken mainly in her judgment of Wickham, Emma is constantly misreading character and intention. She self-importantly adopts a foolish young protégé named Harriet Smith, sabotages the girl’s budding romance with a local farmer (beware when your mentor says: “Do not imagine that I want to influence you”), and attempts to set her up with the local vicar, whose interest in her she misreads as interest in her friend.
She imagines herself to be the romantic object of Frank Churchill, the handsome and eligible young stepson of her governess Miss Taylor, failing to realize that he’s secretly engaged to her neighbor Jane Fairfax. And she undervalues Jane, out of jealousy of her beauty and accomplishments. All in all, she’s on the verge of qualifying as a rich bitch.
Emma is the only one of Austen’s protagonists who is at certain points viewed from such an objective distance as to nearly become a comic character, as when the narrative describes Emma as “highly esteeming Miss Taylor’s judgment, but directed chiefly by her own”. Austen fluidly moves between an omniscient point of view and the limited third-person perspective of Emma’s consciousness, employing the former partly to compensate for the defects in Emma’s judgment and partly to give us a clearer view of Emma herself.
Emma’s flaws are almost flaunted. In the end the list includes heedless cruelty, after she insults the blithering, good-hearted spinster Miss Bates during the expedition to Box Hill. But she deeply regrets and repents this particular sin, and gradually learns to acknowledge and regret all of her mistakes in judgment and comportment. It’s a very cold-hearted reader who isn’t standing by ready to forgive her, or to share Mr Knightley’s feelings when he declares his love.
In the end, for all her flaws she seems far more human than Fanny, and the novel to which she gives her name seems far richer in emotion and more full of life, despite its more limited compass. Emma is the most constricted of all the novels in terms of event and geographic range, if not in amplitude of feeling.
Near the end of Mansfield Park we hear that the caddish and inconstant Henry Crawford “lost the woman whom he had rationally, as well as passionately, loved”. Rationally as well as passionately could stand as her prescription for true love.
“Critics have remarked that there is no real delineation of true love in Jane Austen and that is true enough,” David Dachies claims in an influential and otherwise sensible essay entitled “Jane Austen, Karl Marx and the Aristocratic Dance”. “Austen knew only too well that in that kind of society genteel young ladies cannot afford true love. The only object must be marriage, and marriage with someone eligible. In Jane Austen, only the poor can afford passion.” It’s hard to believe a reader of sense could be so preposterously obtuse and misguided, although Charlotte Brontë made a similar argument a hundred years earlier (“The passions are perfectly unknown to her”). For all of their differences, a belief in true love, with passion as its signal component, is precisely what distinguishes Austen heroines from most of their contemporaries.
Elizabeth Bennet, when she rejects Mr Darcy’s first proposal, rejects the great estate of Pemberley and £10,000 a year — a far greater prize than her friend Charlotte Lucas sacrificed herself to in accepting the proposal of the odious Mr Collins — for the simple reason that all of her passion is against him. She can’t bring herself to marry Darcy for purely prudent and mercenary reasons. Fanny turns down Henry Crawford, and Anne Elliot in Persuasion turns down Charles Musgrove in large part because passion is missing. But Austen clearly believes that passion without reason is dangerous.
There have been some recent attempts to enlist Jane Austen into the Romantic movement, despite the famous disapprobation of Charlotte Brontë. But Austen would have been appalled by William Blake’s avowal that “those who control their passions do so because their passions are weak enough to be controlled”.
Lydia Bennet and Maria Bertram are the pathetic examples of those who let their passion overrule their reason. Given the choice between rationality and emotion, Austen chooses both. And yet, the most important quality that all the Austen protagonists share is a capacity for passion and a commitment to the concept of romantic love. Personally, I’m inclined to be most passionate about those, like Elizabeth and Emma, who are not always perfectly rational and measured, whose passion sometimes gets the better of their reason.