One of the hallmarks of an Austen novel is the presence of a variety of comical characters. Whether they are serving as plot devices to advance or hinder the hero and heroine or merely providing color and levity to the narrative, we just can’t picture Austen’s books without them. There are altogether too many to name every one, but I’ll share some of my favorites.
“Mr. Bennet, how can you abuse your own children in such a way? You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion on my poor nerves.”
“You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least.”
Intended as a model of a bad marriage, these two never cease to crack me up. I don’t know who is funnier– Mrs. Bennet and her drama queen antics, or Mr. Bennet and his rapier wit. It is clear that Mr. Bennet must have fallen for Mrs. Bennet’s looks as a young man, because it’s hard to conceive that he would have married her for any other reason.
“You judge very properly,” said Mr. Bennet, “and it is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?”
“They arise chiefly from what is passing at the time, and though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.”
The charm of Mr. Collins is that he has no idea how ridiculous he appears. He’s a born people-pleaser, but his efforts to flatter at so over the top, they’re laughable. He also seems to believe himself to be a great orator, as evidenced by his lengthy speeches nearly every time he opens his mouth. While many people detest Mr. Collins, I confess, I quite adore him. His servile reverence of his patroness, his long-winded remarks and even his obnoxious proposal are quite hilarious to me.
The letter F—had been likewise invariably brought forward, and found productive of such countless jokes, that its character as the wittiest letter in the alphabet had been long established with Elinor.
If ever there was a son in-law and mother in-law who got along like two peas in a pod, it’s these two. Their comic banter is so tandem that when I first saw them together in the 1995 Sense and Sensibility movie, I was convinced they were actually a couple until I had a chance to read the book. I still die laughing every time Sir John delivers his “F Major” line.
“You and I, Sir John,” said Mrs. Jennings, “should not stand upon such ceremony.”
“Then you would be very ill-bred,” cried Mr. Palmer.
“My love you contradict every body,” said his wife with her usual laugh. “Do you know that you are quite rude?”
“I did not know I contradicted any body in calling your mother ill-bred.”
Much like the Bennets, these two seem to be ill-matched. Mrs. Palmer is giddy and cheerful to a comic degree while her husband has a dry sense of humor and is quite her opposite in personality.
Should these two have gotten married? Probably not, but we’re ever so grateful they did because the story just wouldn’t be the same without them. I especially enjoyed Hugh Laurie and Imelda Staunton’s performance of these two in the 1995 Sense and Sensibility. Mr. Palmer’s deadpan delivery of his lines just slays me every time, along with his wife’s obliviousness to all his insults. “I do wish this rain would stop.” “I wish you would stop”, is another one of those great lines that I wish had been in the book, because it fits so well with Jane’s portrayal of this character.
What was unwholesome to him he regarded as unfit for any body; and he had, therefore, earnestly tried to dissuade them from having any wedding-cake at all, and when that proved vain, as earnestly tried to prevent any body’s eating it.
“Mrs. Bates, let me propose your venturing on one of these eggs. An egg boiled very soft is not unwholesome. Serle understands boiling an egg better than any body. I would not recommend an egg boiled by any body else; but you need not be afraid, they are very small, you see—one of our small eggs will not hurt you. Miss Bates, let Emma help you to a little bit of tart—a very little bit. Ours are all apple-tarts. You need not be afraid of unwholesome preserves here. I do not advise the custard. Mrs. Goddard, what say you to half a glass of wine? A small half-glass, put into a tumbler of water? I do not think it could disagree with you.”
A hypochondriac of epic proportions, Mr. Woodhouse’s fear of drafts and rich food makes for great comedy material. He’s a dear old man, and since almost all of us have known an elderly person who behaves like this, his highly exaggerated behavior is amusing.
“Very well, I am much obliged to you. My mother is delightfully well; and Jane caught no cold last night. How is Mr. Woodhouse?—I am so glad to hear such a good account. Mrs. Weston told me you were here.—Oh! then, said I, I must run across, I am sure Miss Woodhouse will allow me just to run across and entreat her to come in; my mother will be so very happy to see her—and now we are such a nice party, she cannot refuse.—‘Aye, pray do,’ said Mr. Frank Churchill, ‘Miss Woodhouse’s opinion of the instrument will be worth having.’—But, said I, I shall be more sure of succeeding if one of you will go with me.—‘Oh,’ said he, ‘wait half a minute, till I have finished my job;’—For, would you believe it, Miss Woodhouse, there he is, in the most obliging manner in the world, fastening in the rivet of my mother’s spectacles.—The rivet came out, you know, this morning.—So very obliging!—For my mother had no use of her spectacles—could not put them on. And, by the bye, every body ought to have two pair of spectacles; they should indeed. Jane said so. I meant to take them over to John Saunders the first thing I did, but something or other hindered me all the morning; first one thing, then another, there is no saying what, you know…”
A chatterbox by nature, Miss Bates prattles on endlessly, scarcely ceasing for breath and to let anyone else get a word in edgewise. While most of the townspeople tolerate her, she annoys the heroine, Emma, to no end. A well-meaning, sweet old spinster, she ranks as one of the best comic characters in Emma. There have been many great portrayals of her in film and television, but my favorite is actually Nikea Gamby-Turner’s performance in the Emma Approved web series. Every time she yells out “MAMA!” really loudly when reenacting her conversations with her hard-of-hearing mother for Emma, I burst out laughing.
“My dear Catherine,” said she, “do take this pin out of my sleeve; I am afraid it has torn a hole already; I shall be quite sorry if it has, for this is a favourite gown, though it cost but nine shillings a yard.”
Mrs. Allen is the stereotypical airheaded lady who thinks of nothing but fashion, constantly worrying about ruining her clothing and comparing her attire with others to satisfy herself that she is better dressed than them. Emma’s Mr. Knightley may say that “Men of sense do not want silly wives”, but here we have yet another example of an exceedingly silly woman married to a sensible man. Though Mr. Allen is much kinder than either Mr. Bennet or Mr. Palmer, it does beg the question: why do all these sensible men keep marrying silly wives?
“If this man had not twelve thousand a year, he would be a very stupid fellow.”
Mr. Rushworth followed him to say, “I come in three times, and have two-and-forty speeches. That’s something, is not it? But I do not much like the idea of being so fine. I shall hardly know myself in a blue dress and a pink satin cloak.”
A bumbling idiot who has no idea how silly he appears, Mr. Rushworth is probably the best example of a comic figure in Mansfield Park. He talks of his gardens, his sport, his dogs, his jealousy of his neighbors, his zeal after poachers, all while boring his fiance to death. He makes a big fuss over having a small part in the play (two and forty speeches!) and over the fact that he will wear a fancy blue outfit with a pink satin cape. He’s a nice enough fellow, but stupid enough that we can already envision the demise of his marriage to Maria Bertram before it even takes place.
Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed.
Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation. He had been remarkably handsome in his youth; and, at fifty-four, was still a very fine man. Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did, nor could the valet of any new made lord be more delighted with the place he held in society. He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliot, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion.
Mr. Darcy may get a bad rap for being prideful, but his sin is nothing compared to the pride of Sir Walter Elliot! Seriously, who sits around reading Debrett’s and thinking about how great it is to be part of a long line of baronets? His concern with his own appearance and place in society rivals any of the other proud figures in Austen’s works, and is exemplified in his eagerness to reclaim an association with his cousin Lady Dalrymple. Here his social climbing reaches epic proportions, as he spends several days agonizing over how to rectify a social faux pas from some years past that had severed the relationship between him and his cousin. Fortunately for Sir Walter, Lady Dalrymple is able to overlook the offense, and Sir Walter takes full advantage, in his comic style, of every opportunity to claim a social connection with a cousin who is a peer.
“I hope I am as fond of my child as any mother, but I do not know that I am of any more use in the sick-room than Charles, for I cannot be always scolding and teazing the poor child when it is ill; and you saw, this morning, that if I told him to keep quiet, he was sure to begin kicking about. I have not nerves for the sort of thing.”
“But, could you be comfortable yourself, to be spending the whole evening away from the poor boy?”
“Yes; you see his papa can, and why should not I”
It seems that Jane Austen also has a penchant for making light of characters that display hypochondriac tendencies. Mary always seems to fancy herself unwell and to complain about it to everybody. Except, of course, when there is someplace interesting she wants to go. Then, suddenly, she is well and eager to leave the house or to travel to wherever. When her child falls from a tree and dislocates his collar bone, she is in absolute hysterics, and it is all her poor sister can do to keep her calm and attend to the child at the same time. Yet as soon as the danger is passed, Mary is jealous that her husband wants to dine out, and would rather leave her son in her sister’s care and go out as well than stay home to nurse him herself.
I could go on all day about humorous characters in Austen’s books and quoting to you all the funny things they said or did, but these are some of the best moments that stuck out to me. Who are your favorite comic characters? What are some funny lines that you recall from the books or movies that you’d love to share with your fellow readers?
Until next time, Happy Reading,