I first read Pride and Prejudice in ninth grade. I didn’t understand it, and her humor went right by me. I read it again in an English Lit class in college and loved it.
Every few years I reread P&P, delighting in Jane Austen’s wry wit. I also have read her other five novels at least once, most of them fifteen years ago as I was planning a trip to England. I particularly enjoyed visiting Austen-related places in Bath and her last home in Chawton, where the small table at which she worked still sits by the window.
Last year I joined the local branch of the Jane Austen Society. A member heard me speak on character development in my Show Me mystery series and suggested I talk to the group about Austen’s characters. I hesitated because I lacked the time and the expertise to address this knowledgeable group, but getting to know Austen better appealed to me. I wondered if offering a novelist’s view of the great writer’s protagonists might be worthwhile.
I decided to take a mental vacation, a journey through JA’s six novels, to indulge myself and to figure out what to say. My itinerary took me from book to book in the order in which she wrote her first drafts: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion. This allowed me to observe her literary growth from age nineteen to forty-one.
Along the way, I looked for an answer to a fundamental question: Why do the six novels of a writer who died 200 years ago continue to fascinate readers?
My previous readings had produced certain assumptions, not all of them correct.
- The books remain popular because of the characters and the wit, humor, irony, and insight with JA which presents them. The characters are universal and timeless.
- Each book has the same basic cast of characters.*A young female protagonist with a difficult family but one sympathetic sister or friend and a desire to marry for love in a time when economics often determined marriage;
* A wealthy, haughty man who turns out to have a good heart, e.g. Darcy;
* A charming, handsome man who turns out to be a charlatan, e.g., Wickham (characters likes Darcy and Wickham have become a convention in most romance novels);
* An older woman who provides comic relief;
* A man who’s a bit of a fool.
* Enough family, friends, and acquaintances to have a ball.
- Plots always feature a woman without money being pressured to marry for her own and her family’s security.
- The major settings are a village and Bath.
The books differ from each other much more than I remembered. JA never wrote the same book twice.
1 Each protagonist has a distinctive personality. They aren’t just weak versions of P&P’s Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy.Each book has at least one interesting female antagonist, some of them fascinating.
- Secondary characters play similar functions in each book but are distinctive personalities.
- The plots are quite intricate. JA lays out clues of what’s to come with the care and subtlety of a mystery writer. (Perhaps that’s one reason so many mystery writers adore her.)
- The settings also have more variety than I recalled. Austen clearly disliked Bath.
Jane Austen considered villages the ideal setting, a place one where everyone knew everyone and all the residents interacted with one another. All of her books have an ensemble cast, but Austen develops some characters more fully than others.
For this journey, I intended to focus on the protagonists and how these women differ. That proved difficult. Often the villagers, particularly the antagonists, demanded equal time.
Sense and Sensibility
Jane Austen started work on Elinor and Marianne in 1795, revised it in 1797, and revised it for the last time in 1810 for publication as Sense and Sensibility. It was her first grown-up novel, one she hoped to get published rather than merely share with family and friends. In her early teens, she’d written largely to amuse, but in S&S she discussed an intellectual issue, the comparative values of sense (basically practicality and rationality) and of sensibilities (basically emotions and aesthetics). The arguments play out in the characters’ actions and reactions, in the descriptions of landscapes, and in various discussions. The theme of sense and sensibility is emphasized much more than the theme of pride and prejudice.
Two sisters are the main characters, but they aren’t Jane and her adored older sister Cassandra. Protagonist Elinor Dashwood, who is 19 going on 30, represents sense and her sister Marianne, who is 17 going on 15, represents sensibility. Sense crosses the finish line far ahead of sensibility. Over the book, both sisters change, but cautious, self-righteous, admirable Elinor modifies her thinking far less than emotional, go-for-the-gusto, pleasing Marianne does.
We know from letters, etc. that Jane hated affectation, particularly people going into raptures over music, art, or scenic views, all of which she loved. That certainly comes across in this book.
Austen’s plots grow from the characters, and the plots reveal those characters. In the best scenes, those revelations come in marvelous dialogue, including long speeches few writers could get past an editor today. Austen also does a lot of telling rather than showing, usually in the omniscient voice, and that’s truer in S&S than her other books.
Here’s a quick reminder of the S&S plot and major players. When Mr. Dashwood dies, John, his son and heir—at his wife Fanny’s urging—sends the second Mrs. Dashwood and his three stepsisters off to live in poverty. Fanny is motivated by money and the threat posed by her brother Edward’s love for Elinor. The book starts slowly with this backstory, but the early dialogue in which John and Fanny justify giving less and less to his half-sisters is hilarious and brilliant in revealing their character. Their little scene hooks the reader.
Mrs. Dashwood’s wealthy relative gives the refugees a cottage and friendship. Elinor tries in vain to keep her mother from overspending and Marianne from dismissing people she doesn’t value. Marianne declares stoic Colonel Brandon, 35, as too old to marry and falls in love with a handsome, charming, young man named Willoughby who spends beyond his means.
Variations of Willoughby appear in all the novels. He spends a lot of time with Marianne and the family, and she gives everyone the impression they’re engaged. He leaves for London and doesn’t write or return. Elinor is the only one not surprised.
The sisters go to London with Mrs. Jennings, a sociable widow of a rich tradesman, although Marianne looks down on her. Initially Mrs. Jennings serves as the comic relief character, but she develops into one of the book’s most admirable people. In London, Marianne learns Willoughby has married for money and makes herself ill—as she thinks a person of sensibility should—by not eating or sleeping. She’s extremely self-centered (she’s 17) and inconsiderate.
In contrast, Elinor hides the pain she’s suffering from a similar loss and remains courteous despite all provocations. She’s astounded when Lucy Steele, a rather desperate young woman who lives by sponging on relatives and friends, reveals she and Elinor’s Edward have been secretly engaged for four years. (JA slips in women’s lack of power and the need to survive by their wits in each book.) The verbal sparring between Elinor and Lucy shows how intelligent both are and what self-discipline Elinor has. Their exchanges are the highlight of the book for me. Edward comes on stage, but we see little of him in the book.
Elinor and Marianne start home, but Marianne becomes very ill and they stay at a friend’s home. Colonel Brandon rides off in a storm to bring their mother. In a major surprise and one of the best scenes in the book, Willoughby shows up to explain why he couldn’t marry the woman he loved. That scene makes him one of the best-drawn of JA’s male characters.
I suspect that a publisher refusing to look at S&S in the early 1800s was a good thing, that JA’s later revisions made it a much better book.
Pride and Prejudice
Austen wrote the first drafts of First Impressions in 1796-97, when she was 20 and 21, and spent some time revising what became Pride and Prejudice after she sold S&S in 1810. One thing writers learn is that the title makes a difference in sales, and the change was important. During her lifetime, her name never appeared on her novels. They were “by a lady.” The parallelism of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice helped link the books in the minds of readers and encourage sales.
Reading S&S and P&P back to back showed me Austen made a great leap forward as a writer. In terms of structure, characterization, and wit, P&P is a much stronger book than S&S. The second book is superbly crafted. The opening chapter grabs you and propels you into the story. JA does much more showing, mostly through wonderful dialogue, and she gives more in-depth portrayals of her village’s secondary characters. She creates some of her best comic relief characters.
I’m certain the revisions were crucial. No manuscript is that good without several rewrites. By 1810, Austen had the distance to read her own work with an editorial eye. She also had collected readers’ comments on S&S (novels rarely received reviews), and the criticisms must have suggested such changes as more dialogue and less exposition. One major craft advancement is her excellent handling scenes with multiple people.
Besides, in a letter to her older sister Cassandra, JA’s her first and most trusted reader, JA wrote that she had “lopped and chopped.” P&P is her most tightly written book, though Emma comes close. We know that by the time she wrote the opening chapters of the never completed The Watsons, she was working from outlines and character sketches. She probably was doing that from at least the first draft of P&P.
A letter to Cassandra also tells us that Austen considered Elizabeth Bennet her best protagonist and possibly the best heroine in contemporary novels.
Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy remain among the best known characters in English literature. Film adaptations have made them familiar to many people who never read 19th-century novels. Elizabeth is flawed but feisty—and very articulate and outspoken. While she relies too much on first impressions, she learns to revise her hasty judgments, as in accepting that Charlotte is quite content in marrying a boring man (partly because she finds ways to avoid his company) and that Mr. Bennet hasn’t been a good parent. I suspect Elisabeth is the woman Austen would like to have been.
Elizabeth’s quieter, prettier, older sister Jane strikes me as likely to be the closest to Cassandra of any of the major secondary characters. Jane Bennet expects the best from people, but she senses wickedness in the charming and glib Wickham, a classic con man, before others do. He’s one of the few characters with no redeeming virtues.
Darcy is Austen’s most popular male character. I find his treatment of Elizabeth goes beyond pride to an unaccountable social awkwardness. But as Elizabeth said, he looked more appealing once she’d seen Pemberley, his prosperous estate. The remark is both a joke (wealth makes men more attractive) and a truth in that seeing how much his servants respect and like him gives her new respect for him.
The major comic relief characters are some of Austen’s most memorable, partly because they’re really funny and partly because they offer more than humor. The pompous, snobby Lady Catherine runs her estate herself and speaks on the importance of education and the unfairness of the entailment system. The obsequious Mr. Collins, her curate, stands to inherit when Mr. Bennet dies. Mr. Collins comes to the Bennets looking for a wife with the kind-hearted view that since he’s the heir, he should help them out by marrying one of the daughters.
For me and a lot of other writers, P&P is one of the few books worth reading multiple times. JA’s distinctive voice rings strong, and her wit and insight in portraying recognizable people delights again and again.
The book Austen wrote at 23 harks back to her teenage work, written for laughs. Northanger Abbey is a farce, a send-off of the formulaic Gothics popular then. Yet it also has some scenes as good as anything in Pride and Prejudice.
Northanger Abbey has an odd history. She wrote it as Susan in 1798-99, revised it in 1802, and sold it in 1803. The publisher held it, and she finally took it back in the spring of 1816. Somewhere along the way it became Miss Catherine. Her brother changed the title to Northanger Abbey for publication after her death in 1817.
I’ve read that she revised it and that she didn’t revise it in 1816. By then she was not feeling well and was working on other books. Judging from the writing and the content, my guess is that she polished the scenes in Bath, the best part of the book, and barely touched the later portion at Northanger Abbey. It has less humor, for one thing. Certainly she failed to develop Eleanor’s character and to foreshadow her marriage, and that’s not typical Austen. Also she addresses the reader more in this book than in her others.
Her protagonist is Catherine Morland, a naïve but intelligent curate’s daughter in rural England. She reads and takes seriously Gothic novels. She’s 17, which Austen apparently sees as the age when young women are most likely to do stupid things. When the book begins, Catherine has no street smarts and is a terrible judge of people. When the book ends, she’s learned a lot but still doesn’t have the savvy or sophistication of the other protagonists.
Austen begins by telling the reader what Catherine isn’t in terms of the conventions of Gothic novels. The description of Catherine as a child reminded me of something I’d read about Jane as a child. Little Catherine was plain and liked boys’ play, including rolling down hills. Until 10 she was noisy and wild and dirty but kind. At 15 she was much improved—“almost pretty.”
Her wealthy neighbors, the Allens, invite her to go with them to Bath for six weeks, probably because Mrs. Allen doesn’t know anyone and wants someone to go with her to the shops and to the gatherings at the Pump Room. Mrs. Allen, the comic relief character, sees everything in terms of fashion. Catherine asks her if it’s proper to go driving with a man, and Mrs. Allen worries about the wind messing up the girl’s dress.
At the Pump Room, described in considerable detail, they meet Mrs. Allen’s old school friend and her daughters. Both women talk, neither listens. Isabella, the oldest and prettiest daughter, latches onto Catherine as her noncompetitive wing woman in an ongoing hunt for a man with money. Catherine is so unworldly she protests when Isabella flatters her and welcome the manipulative Isabella’s false friendship.
Catherine dances with a young curate named Henry Tillney. He teases her because she’s so naïve and so involved in Gothic novels but recognizes that she’s unusually kind. He’s a bit of an intellectual snob and likes that she listens to what he says and laughs at his jokes. He’s nothing like the distant Darcy.
Isabella succeeds in winning the love of Catherine’s brother, James, an Oxford student who seems more affluent than he is. JA spends few words on James.
Isabella’s brother, John, courts Catherine because he thinks she’ll inherit money from the childless Allens. John is a buffoon and a braggart, which Catherine recognizes when she sees his horse goes half as fast as he claims. She tries to avoid him and spend time with Henry and his shy sister. She also meets their dictatorial, money-hungry father, who mistakenly thinks she will be wealthy and invites her to visit Northanger Abbey. Meanwhile Isabella flirts with the handsome older son, Captain Tillney, the book’s bad guy.
One of the things that’s different about the protagonist of Northanger Abbey is that she doesn’t have another woman to guide her or for her to guide. She’s out there on her own and has to find her own way.
Coping with deaths and other family problems interfered with Austen’s writing for several years. She planned and wrote a few chapters of The Watsons in 1804-1805, dropped it, and did little but revise her first two books until 1810 when she sold S&S.
In February 1811 she began work on Mansfield Park, which she finished in May 1814. I think she moved a little too quickly on publishing this one, that it could have used a little lopping. It has a darker tone than any of her books. I suspect she didn’t enjoy writing it as much as she did the first three. She’d called Pride and Prejudice “light and sparkly.” Perhaps she felt she needed to write a more serious book.
The cast of characters suggests Austen had lost some of her optimism about people. The major comic relief character, for example, is downright cruel. A lot of the secondary characters behave not just thoughtlessly and selfishly but destructively.
The protagonist differs in that she’s intimidated by everyone around her. She’s so physically weak she can’t go on long walks (important in JA’s fiction and her life), does not function as part of a family, and for an Austen protagonist, is inarticulate. She resembles the Fanny in Lady Susan, JA’s teenage epistolary manuscript. That Fanny is roguish Lady Susan’s mousy, put-upon daughter. When she finally triumphs, we’re not sure whether it’s mostly luck or a well-developed survival instinct.
Fanny Price comes from more modest circumstances than other protagonists. She’s the daughter of a drunken sailor and a woman who married beneath her. Her wealthy, reserved uncle and lazy, once-beautiful aunt take her in at age 10 at the urging of another aunt, Mrs. Norris. This nasty woman apparently wants someone around who’s lower on the totem pole than she is.
Taken from a large, noisy family and brought into the mansion at Mansfield Park, Fanny is scared, cowed, and lonely. She tries to make herself useful and invisible, and succeeds in both. Mrs. Norris and the two female cousins mistreat her, mostly with verbal abuse, but she gradually becomes indispensable, much like a servant, to her lazy aunt. Only cousin Edmund, who will become a curate, sees the child’s misery and is good to her.
So Fanny becomes a modest, mousy, moralistic, passive, always proper teenager. No one ever thinks about including her in balls, and she’s doesn’t object, partly because she’s not sure she’s strong enough to dance and partly because she views herself much as they do.
On the plus side, she’s extremely observant and skilled at reading character, traits the powerless develop in self-defense. As the self-absorbed slightly older female cousins make a mess of their lives and leave the home, Fanny receives more attention from her uncle and aunt and gains some confidence. To her and everyone else’s surprise, she becomes pretty and is a big hit at a ball. (Where did she learn to dance?)
Naturally Fanny secretly loves her good cousin, Edmund. He’s quite fond of her in a brotherly sort of way. He’s in love with the most interesting woman in the book, the wealthy, beautiful, charming, talented Mary Crawford. She’s taking a break from her usually active social life in the cities and staying with her amiable half-sister, the local curate’s wife. Mary initially likes the older brother, largely because he’s the one who will inherit Mansfield Park, but she comes to love Edmund—conditionally. He either has to inherit or take up a profession that pays well.
JA develops Mary more than most antagonists. She is a multidimensional character. For one thing, she sympathizes with Fanny’s position, treats her well, and teaches her little things that contribute to her growing self-confidence.
The most interesting male character is Mary’s brother, Henry Crawford. He’s wealthy, handsome, charming—a great catch whom the two female cousins pursue. Fanny sees how immoral he is and doesn’t like him. Her disdain challenges the Lothario, and he tells Mary he will make Fanny love him. His sister discourages him from hurting Fanny, but he pursues her and falls so in love he proposes.
To his and the family’s disbelief, she turns him down and resists all pressure to change her mind. Henry appears to have reformed because of his love for her, and even persists after he sees her unappealing lower-class family while she’s visiting them in Portsmouth. She begins to regard him more highly, and I was rooting for this guy—a lot more fun than Edmund. But Harry returns to his immoral ways and runs off with Fanny’s married cousin.
Austen began her fifth book, Emma, in January 1814, not long after she’d submitted Mansfield Park to her publisher. But Emma has a much lighter mood and a much less villainous cast of characters. As in Northanger Abbey and P&P, Austen was having fun.
From what she told her family, she knew that many readers wouldn’t like Emma as much as her other main characters, but she did. When I read the book years ago, I became annoyed with Emma, but I enjoyed the book far more on this rereading. It’s really well done, second only to P&P in integrating plot and character.
Emma Woodhouse is the most privileged, self-confident, and mistake-prone of JA’s protagonists. She also dominates the book more than other main characters.
The book’s first sentence tells us Emma is “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition.” She’s 20, which Austen regards as maturity. Her mother is dead and her older sister married, so she manages her father’s household. She’s the village’s Queen Bee with complete confidence in her abilities as a matchmaker and in overseeing the social goings-on in Highbury. The entire book, by the way, is set there. All of the other books have more than one setting. Emma’s arrogant and snobbish and impulsive and thinks her judgment better than anyone else’s. She lacks the self-doubts of all the other protagonists.
Another major difference: She’s happy with her life as a wealthy single woman and has no intention of marrying.
Two things make her a sympathetic character: She’s very good to her difficult father and she’s intends to help people even as she’s messing with their lives. Much of the humor comes out of those two factors.
Mr. Woodhouse is the major comic relief character, a role usually given to a woman. He’s frail and rigid in his ways. A lot of the humor comes from his hypochondria and his concern for his diet and for cold drafts, etc. He warns others about his health concerns, and Emma tries to protect his guests from such things as eating nothing but gruel in the evening. He’s funny, but he’d be hard to live with so Emma’s patience speaks very well for her.
The leading man, George Knightley, is a wealthy neighbor, Emma’s brother-in-law’s brother, and a longtime trusted friend and advisor. He’s about 35, an age Austen favors for men, and acts like an uncle. He’s fond of Emma and feels it his duty to point out her flaws as her father and no one else does. He pretty much expresses Austen’s and the readers’ judgments of Emma’s follies. He’s not particularly exciting, but he’s a good man who values and cares for people regardless of class. And he has no interest in being a curate.
In fact, the curate in this book, Mr. Elton, turns out to be a bit of a jerk. His bride is even worse.
The other major male character is Frank Churchill, the handsome, charming, well-educated young man who has been made a rich relative’s heir. He flirts with Emma and is obviously not as good as he seems, but he’s not a villain like Wickham or a cad like Henry Crawford. Instead he’s covering up his secret engagement to Jane Fairfax, a poor but beautiful, accomplished, and reserved young woman whom Emma sees as a threat to her role as Queen Bee. Unlike Mary Crawford, Jane turns out to be quite principled.
In this book, Austen gives us subtle clues to things Emma’s missing, such as Churchill going all the way to London for a haircut—a cause of great comment in the village—and an anonymous person giving Jane Fairfax a piano a few days later.
We see great changes in the protagonist, much like Catherine in Northanger Abbey.
Austen’s last novel was Persuasion. She began it in August 1815 and had it ready except for a final polish a year later. By then she wasn’t very well, and she never got back to it. Despite such shortcomings as overusing the name Charles and a long chapter revealing the villainy of the protagonist’s suitor being too much of an info dump, it’s a very good book.
Persuasion is shorter than the others, focusing more sharply on the main story. Some believe she intended to write another section. I doubt that for two reasons: She’s concluded the main story, and she wrote twelve chapters of a new book before becoming too ill to work.
The main characters, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, and several of the secondary characters are portrayed with great subtlety, sympathy, and softness. Austen populated Mansfield Park with many dislikable characters. She populated Persuasion with people you’d like to know, notably the older married couples. They don’t fare so well in other books.
I noticed an oddity in her comic relief characters, something she might have tempered in a final pass. The one-note portrayal of vain, arrogant, extravagant Sir Walter, Anne’s father, is so over the top that he’s a caricature. His oldest daughter, Elizabeth, is much the same. His youngest daughter, Mary Musgrove, is no more likable but is much more realistic and much more developed. The fact she’s the baby of the family may be relevant to her being such a spoiled brat and so hungry for attention.
Anne, 27 or 28, is Austen’s oldest and most mature character. At the cut-off age for marriage, she’s the most fully formed personality. Humble and reserved, clever and practical, she’s dismissed by all her family members but valued and liked by others. Again and again, she tales sp;ace in being useful, as when she plays the piano for hours while others dance even though she loves to dance. She had that in common with her creator.
Austen told her niece Fanny, “You may perhaps like the heroine, as she is almost too good for me.”
That goodness, her overdeveloped sense of duty and honor, led her to make a huge mistake. She allowed her mentor to persuade her to reject the proposal of the penniless young naval officer whom she loved deeply. Her father despised Frederick Wentworth because of his lack of wealth and status. When the book opens, Anne has been suffering for letting others sway for eight years. She’s “lost her bloom.”
When newly well-to-do Captain Wentworth returns, Anne hears from obtuse sister Mary that he’s said Anne has changed so much he hardly knew her. The rest of the book, of course, shows them finding their way back together.
Austen had brothers in the navy, and in this book she has four naval officers who are portrayed quite favorably. Wentworth is a bit too good to be true, but that fits with the portrayal of Anne.
Austen’s maturity as a woman and her mastery of craft come out in Persuasion. The interplay of six characters during their long walk and the drama of careless Louisa’s fall show considerable insight and technical skill.
So what did I learn during my mental vacation? Before rereading the books in sequence over about three months, I assumed Jane Austen developed her characters directly from people she knew even though her relatives claimed that only two or three of her characters were based on real people. Now I believe them. I think she was an extremely astute observer and eavesdropper (most writers are), but part of the fun for her as a writer was to create her own distinctive villages.
She drew on her own experiences but didn’t portray herself in any of her protagonists. No one person could have been Catherine in Northanger Abbey, Emma, and Elizabeth Bennet, her favorite. That doesn’t mean bits of her weren’t in all of them.
Jane Austen gave us some of the most memorable protagonists and antagonists in literature, and they’re people as recognizable today as they were 200 years ago. That’s why we’re still reading her books.
I enjoyed spending time exploring Jane Austen’s villages.