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Jane Austen created some of the brightest and most progressive heroines of her day–women with wisdom and fortitude that belied the female stereotypes rife in 19th century England. Which Austen heroine is the greatest? I’ll leave that to you to decide, but here are all of Jane’s heroines, ranked from my least to most favorite, along with their winning characteristics and greatest faults.
10. Jane Fairfax, Emma
Virtues: Intelligent and accomplished, yet unostentatious.
Defining Fault: Bit of a doormat.
Jane has her head screwed on straight. She has much to boast about, but prefers not to steal the limelight. Unfortunately, she has rather poor taste in men and sits silently by as her secret fiancé flirts madly with Emma Woodhouse. She deserves better and she should know it.
9. Fanny Price, Mansfield Park
Virtues: Humble, longsuffering, and sensitive.
Defining Fault: Shrinking violet.
Fanny is the epitome of 19th century feminine virtue–modest, chaste, humble to a fault, and deeply sensitive to the suffering of others. While I totally identify with her introverted ways, Fanny really needs to stand up for herself more. Her adoptive family isn’t very kind to her and she deserves better treatment.
8. Anne Elliot, Persuasion
Virtues: Learns from her mistakes, levelheaded, and considerate.
Faults: Easily persuaded against her better judgment.
Anne is extraordinarily unpretentious compared to her father and sister who are vain, conceited, and unpleasant people. Still, she allows herself to be persuaded that marrying the love of her life is beneath her station. Fortunately, she learns from her mistakes and seizes the opportunity to remedy the situation.
7. Harriet Smith, Emma
Virtues: Kind, warm, trusting, and loyal.
Defining Fault: Lacks critical thinking skills.
Harriet, Emma Woodhouse’s BFF/personal development project, is a sweet, trusting soul, but she’s not great at thinking for herself. She’s not innately vain, but adopts that particular vice under the Emma’s influence, thinking herself above marrying the man she loves because he happens to be a farmer.
6. Elinor Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility
Virtues: Practical, not in the least bit vain, and patient.
Defining Fault: Passive in matters of love.
Of the Dashwood sisters, Elinor is the one with all the sense. Were it not for her brutally pragmatic approach to money matters, her family would live well beyond their means and ultimately fall to ruin. Unfortunately, her can-do spirit does not extend to her love life, and she takes on a maddeningly passive role in her relationship with Edward Ferrars.
5. Marianne Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility
Virtues: Passionate, idealistic, seizes life by the horns, honest, not afraid to buck tradition when the occasion calls for it.
Defining Fault: Too romantic for her own good.
Marianne takes the “carpe diem” aphorism very seriously. She doesn’t let petty things like convention and good sense get in the way of her big dreams. This can get her into trouble sometimes, but it also inspires the people around her to embrace the beauty and majesty of life.
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4. Jane Bennet, Pride and Prejudice
Virtues: Kind, amiable, good-hearted.
Defining Fault: Not terribly interesting.
Elizabeth’s elder sister is as beautiful inside as she is outside and is rewarded for her virtue when she marries the equally upstanding Mr. Bingley. Perhaps that should be enough, but I require more of my heroines. Saintly as Jane is, she doesn’t really do anything interesting, which is a fault in my book.
3. Catherine Morland, Northanger Abbey
Virtues: Imaginative, enthusiastic, readily admits when she is wrong.
Defining Fault: Lets her imagination get the best of her sometimes.
Catherine reminds me a little bit of Anne Shirley (but only a little). She has a vivid imagination and a great love of gothic literature. She can let her imagination run wild sometimes, but she’s brave enough to own up to her mistakes and smart enough to learn from them.
2. Emma Woodhouse, Emma
Virtues: Charming, gregarious, and loyal.
Defining Fault: Meddlesome and sometimes insensitive.
Emma is an extrovert on steroids. She loooooves people and she loves to meddle in their affairs–with good intentions, mind you, but sometimes those good intentions have the opposite effect. Emma could do with some quiet and introspection. Still, she learns from her mistakes and genuinely seeks to atone for them.
1. Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice
Virtues: Principled, witty, honest, loyal to her family (even when they’re difficult to defend).
Defining Fault: Makes hasty judgments.
Elizabeth is Austen’s crowning achievement. She has the virtue of Fanny Price (well, almost), the sense of Elinor Dashwood, and a personality vivacious enough to match Emma Woodhouse (who would no doubt approve of her marriage to Darcy). She has a tendency to judge people a little too quickly, but let’s be honest, who wouldn’t judge a conceited rich boy like Mr. Darcy on first meeting?
Which Jane Austen heroine is your favorite?