Jane Austen has a knack for creating sympathetic and admirable and yet very human characters. None of the heroes or heroines are too good to be true; they all have their foibles and weaknesses as well as their strengths. Captain Wentworth, for example, is brave and charming, but allowed resentment to dictate his actions and only slowly realizes that he has only himself to blame for his singleness. Fanny Price has often been criticized for being a doormat, but for all her timidity she has more strength of character than any of her cousins. Emma might be a somewhat arrogant busybody, but she loves her fairly exasperating father and shows herself capable of repentance and change.

And who can fail to love a character like Elinor, who feels things deeply and yet has self-control? She is always kind, but she won’t be drawn in to sycophantic flattery. One of my favorite exchanges between her and Lucy Steele (flatterer supreme) is the following:

“I have a notion,” said Lucy, “you think the little Middletons rather too much indulged; perhaps they may be the outside of enough; but it is so natural in Lady Middleton; and for my part, I love to see children full of life and spirits; I cannot bear them if they are tame and quiet.”

“I confess,” replied Elinor, “that while I am at Barton Park, I never think of tame and quiet children with any abhorrence.”

I love the next line: “A short pause succeeded this speech.”

Even Austen’s villains, for the most part, have rounded characters. Willoughby is selfish and weak, but has enough sense to regret what he has done. Frank Churchill (though perhaps not strictly a villain) is immature and somewhat thoughtless, but by the end of the book he seems to have learned something.

Perhaps the genius of Austen’s characters cannot be fully appreciated unless one has also read authors contemporary to Jane Austen. Austen might have admired Fanny Burney’s Cecelia, but one only has to read it to realize why it is that one author’s books have inspired adaptations, spin-offs, fan-fiction, and societies in every English-speaking country (and some other countries as well), and the other author is hardly read at all. Maria Edgeworth fares a little better by modern standards (I really like Belinda), but I have yet to hear of her books being read by anyone who didn’t already love novels written during the early part of the nineteenth century. And although I have no statistics to prove my point, I suspect the vast majority of people who do read novels written during that time period came to love the writing of the era through first reading Jane Austen. 

And it isn’t just the main characters in the novels that get this well-rounded treatment; Austen’s minor characters are also lifelike and endlessly entertaining. From the conceited but rather stupid Robert Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility to the unromantic Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice, Austen created recognizable personalities. I once thought the portrait of Emma’s Miss Bates was a little exaggerated, but only a few years later I met her twin, large as life. I sat with my mouth half open in astonishment as the good-hearted lady talked on and on and on at top speed without any pauses for reply (not that I would have known what to say if she had). And it wasn’t too long ago that I was reading Winnie-the Pooh to my child and suddenly saw that Rabbit is exactly like Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park—both are completely convinced of their own importance and intellect and have no hesitation in bossing everyone else around.

And then there are the characters that truly are no more than names—Dr. and Mrs. Hughes and their son Richard (attendees at the ball at the Crown in Emma), or Admiral Baldwin whose weather-beaten appearance disgusts Sir Walter in Persuasion. For those characters, it is up to the writer of Austenesque fiction to flesh them out and hopefully make them as memorable and lifelike as Austen made hers. I did my best with the Hughes family in the George Knightley, Esquire series, and made Admiral Baldwin a main character in Much Ado About Persuasion. I do hope Jane Austen would approve.

Jane Austen’s careful portrayals of her various characters is the reason readers react so strongly to portrayals of those characters in fan fiction. “Elizabeth Bennet would never do such a thing” or “This Captain Wentworth is nothing like the one in Persuasion” are frequent types of criticism leveled at Austen variations and retellings. That is because after reading Austen’s novels we feel like we know these people as well as we know our close friends. Her characters are consistent, relatable, and recognizable. It is what draws Austenites to re-read her novels constantly and inspire variations, adaptations and spin-offs more than almost any other author. And that is why, dear reader, you will never see an internet quiz entitled “Which Fanny Burney character are you?”

4 responses to “The Genius of Jane Austen’s Characters”

  1. Susan Kaye Avatar

    Austen’s main characters are great, and the secondaries are the best. But as you point out, even some characters who never have any screen time can fire the imagination. I am still considering something for Persuasion’s Mrs Wallis: ‘a mere pretty, silly, expensive, fashionable woman.’ Doesn’t that description just BEG for a story?

    Thanks for the insight, Barbara.

    1. Barbara Cornthwaite Avatar

      Oh my goodness, YES!! Mrs. Wallis needs a story!!

  2. cindie snyder Avatar
    cindie snyder

    Great post! It’s interesting to look at other characters in Jane’s books. I think like you some of the characters that don’t get mentioned much should have their stories too.

    1. Barbara Cornthwaite Avatar

      Yes! I’m now tempted to make a list. 🙂

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