Imagining Jane Austen’s Heroines (with period portraits)

One of the interesting things about Jane Austen’s writing is that she rarely describes scenes or people. There are some very descriptive passages, such as Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberley, but in general we know very little about the houses the heroines live in or even what they look like.

Jane and Elizabeth Bennet are very sparingly described. We know Jane is a beauty, but she is never described at all. Elizabeth is less beautiful than Jane, she has dark eyes, a light and pleasing figure, and the ability to tan, but other than that we know very little. Even Caroline’s insulting speech is surprisingly void of real description:

Her face is too thin; her complexion has no brilliancy; and her features are not at all handsome. Her nose wants character; there is nothing marked in its lines. Her teeth are tolerable, but not out of the common way; and as for her eyes, which have sometimes been called so fine, I never could perceive anything extraordinary in them. They have a sharp, shrewish look, which I do not like at all; and in her air altogether, there is a self-sufficiency without fashion, which is intolerable. (Ch 45)

Thank you, Caroline, I really can picture Elizabeth now that I know she has “tolerable” teeth!

We have a possible portrait for Mrs. Jane Bingley:

A portrait of Mrs. Quentin by Jean François-Marie Huet-Villiers thought to be the picture identified by Austen in 1813 as a great likeness of Jane Bennet.

However, illustrators have proposed many different versions of the two main Bennet sisters. Here are a few artists renderings of Elizabeth and Darcy and Jane and Bingley from different editions of Pride & Prejudice:

By C.E. Brock and H.M. Brock, public domain (link to more here)

Hugh Thomson in the 1984 illustrated edition imagined Jane as a brunette (on horseback) and Elizabeth blonde (at the desk):

And of course, we have the many faces of Elizabeth and Jane from the many adaptations of Pride & Prejudice (this isn’t even all of them!):


Now personally, I have always associated Elizabeth with the cover of my very first copy of Pride & Prejudice:

Sir Thomas Lawrence – Portrait of Miss Rosamond Croker

As for Jane, her captivating beauty makes me think of the famous muse to multiple painters, Lady Hamilton (née Emma Hart)

Emma Hart as Circe, George Romney

As for Sense & Sensibility, here is a good representation of what I think Elinor and Marianne Dashwood look like:

Portrait of the ladies Duval. Painting by Jacques Augustin Catherine

Marianne’s eyes and complexion are described as dark, so I tend to imagine both sisters with brown hair.

Fanny Price of Mansfield Park is also only sparsely described, but as her cousins are fair and we know she has light eyes, this painting has always been my favourite (and of course is the cover of my variation, Unfairly Caught):

Edmund Blair Leighton, Where There’s a Will

Mary Crawford from the same novel is described as petite and brown, with sparkling eyes:

Portrait of Princess M.V. Kochubey, Francois Pascal Simon Gerard

Emma Woodhouse of Emma has hazel eyes and is very handsome:

Self-portrait of Rolinda Sharples with her mother Ellen Sharples (Also shown in cover image)

Harriet Smith we have more information about! She is described as “short, plump, and fair, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features, and a look of great sweetness

Caroline, Princess of Wales, 1798 by Sir Thomas Lawrence

And Jane Fairfax, with her pale but not sickly complexion:

Portrait of Sarah Windsor Amherst by British artist Thomas Lawrence

Anne Elliot from Persuasion has “delicate features and mild dark eyes” and is once described as little.

Henri-François Riesener – Alix de Montmorency, Duchesse de Talleyrand

Lastly, Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey is described as “almost pretty” I like the look of imagination on this portrait:

Girl Sketching – Henry Raeburn Dobson

To me, the beautiful thing about Jane Austen’s style is that we can each imagine the heroines as we like! There is no need to remain bound to a single adaptation or imagining of them. Elizabeth’s hair may be red, Jane might be the brunette, and Elinor could be blonde, it’s all up to our imaginations.

How do you imagine your favourite heroine?

For a full collection of quotes describing the heroines’ beauty, check out my Tumblr here.

As for the male characters, I already covered them in one of my previous posts!

As for the heroine of my novel, Prideful & Persuaded, I admit that Pride & Prejudice 2005 has biased me towards red hair for Miss Caroline Bingley. She is also from the north so it might be true!

10 responses to “Imagining Jane Austen’s Heroines (with period portraits)”

  1. Riana Everly Avatar

    When I first read P&P, I imagined Jane as brunette and Elizabeth as blonde. I was quite put out, at first, by the actors they chose for the 1995 mini-series. 😉

    1. bdelleman Avatar

      Interesting! I watched P&P 2005 first so I imagined them the same way as most adaptations, but I like in 1980 that their hair colour is reversed.

  2. cindie snyder Avatar
    cindie snyder

    I always thought Elizabeth dark haired and Jane lighter haired. The pictures made for a fun post! I like the look on the girl sketching she looks like she is thinking about what to draw!lol She fits the description though she is simply pretty. The others seem to fit their characters too.

    1. bdelleman Avatar

      Thank you! I spent a lot of time searching for portraits that seemed to fit the characters.

  3. Laurie McClain Avatar
    Laurie McClain

    I really enjoyed this article, very much! Loved all the illustrations. The one of Catherine Moreland was especially moving for me. Thank you!

    1. bdelleman Avatar

      Thanks 🙂 I really liked that one I paired with Catherine, a very nice portrait.

  4. Tysha Avatar

    The portrait for Anne kinda looks like Jennifer Ehle!

    I also imagine the heroines as the paitings on the covers of my books so Emma would be a brunette and Elinor and Marianne would be blonde.

    1. bdelleman Avatar

      It does look like her a bit!

      Oh nice! I love when the cover matches with my idea of the character inside.

  5. Delia Avatar

    I’ve always imagined Jane as Mrs Christopher Horton, duchess of Cumberland as the edition of the book I’ve read had this cover. And Elizabeth was blonde… but I’m not sure, as I read P&P, not much attentively, when I was 13 years old, before watching the BBC 1995 adaptation and then rereading the book, which made me imagine the characters differently.

    1. bdelleman Avatar

      That’s a very nice portrait!

      The adaptations can definitely influence how we see the characters. I watched 2005 first, so I didn’t have a chance to imagine them on my own.

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