In light of a recent Cherwell article, I decided it was time to give Austen’s female leads the credit they deserve. I love Darcy as much as the next person but it’s through Austen’s female characters that her writing is truly brought to life.
Even the lead characters who go traditionally underrated add more to the story than the male characters often do. A prime example of this is Fanny Price from ‘Mansfield Park’. She may get labeled a stick in the mud but Fanny knows what she wants in life and doesn’t falter in that, even if it does mean marrying her cousin who she’s had a crush on from the age of 10. Fanny manages to come to life when she receives that awful marriage proposal from Henry Crawford, bringing far more to the page than he or her cousin ever does.
Anne Elliot in ‘Persuasion’ is, like Fanny, not the fiercest of Austen’s female characters but she is intelligent, witty and steadfast in her love for Captain Wentworth even years later. Similarly, Elinor Dashwood in ‘Sense and Sensibility’ shows a stoic strength through her composure in a chaotic world, only giving in to her emotions at the end when she finds out that Edward Ferrars isn’t married after all (cue Emma Thompson letting out the strangest sound when Hugh Grant delivers the news). While it’s definitely not great to keep your emotions bottled up as Elinor does, her sister, Marianne, takes this to its other extreme. Even I will concede that this grows a little annoying, but her character still steals every page that she’s on and keeps the reader far more gripped than any of the numerous love interests that the book has to offer.
In Northanger Abbey, Austen makes a younger character the lead, and Catherine Morland is much easier to like than Marianne Dashwood. The brilliance of Northanger Abbey comes from Austen’s use of satire so Catherine is somewhat overshadowed by the caricatures that surround her. Nevertheless, she never fails to see the best in people. Her presence reminds us, that even in farcical situations, we can make the effort to do the same. It also helps that she provides us with someone to laugh at, especially when she starts to think that Mrs Tilney was murdered by her husband in her own home. Catherine is also a far more empathetic character than many of Austen’s male love interests, apart from maybe Knightley in ‘Emma’, who is a stark contrast to his eponymous counterpart. But the beauty behind this character is that Austen knows that Emma is flawed and that doesn’t make her less of a captivating female lead. I wouldn’t want to be friends with her personally (I dread to think who she’d try and set me up with) but it’s hard not to admire her intelligence and high spirits. Emma steals the show and, when she finally does exercise a choice for her own partner, is there a sweeter moment than when she realises that she’s in love with Knightley?
All of Austen’s novels have interesting female characters but it’s Pride and Prejudice that gives us her most beloved creation. Elizabeth Bennet is fierce, smart and funny and will not let anyone treat her or her family badly. I’m even brave enough to say that Lizzie overshadows Darcy. You only need to read the scene where Darcy proposes for the first time to see that Lizzie stands up for what she believes in, especially when her sister, Jane, has been slighted. Although some may criticize Lizzie for seemingly falling in love with Darcy when she sees his estate (or when she sees Colin Firth in a wet t-shirt if you’re going off the TV show), it’s wrong to forget her other reactions to Darcy, such as when she reads his letter after his failed proposal. The secondary female characters such as Lydia and Mrs Bennet never fail to make the reader laugh (especially when the latter is played by Alison Steadman) or let out exasperated sighs, further adding to the wealth of personality Pride and Prejudice has to offer.
All in all, Austen’s skills as a writer aren’t just shown through her female characters but primarily drawn from her astute and generous treatment of them. Yes, her male love interests have set butterflies in readers’ chests for centuries but it is the portraits of the female leads that the true heart of the stories lie.