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!