Austen’s “Frienemies” by Amanda Kai

Austen’s “Frienemies” by Amanda Kai

Frienemy: that person who pretends to be your friend, but in the end, they’re only looking to serve their own interests. While the name didn’t exist in Jane Austen’s time, the concept certainly did! Jane put at least one character of this archetype in nearly all her books. Here I give you my rankings of the top 6 frienemies in Austen’s novels.


#6: Mrs. Smith (Persuasion)

You might be wondering why she’s on this list. After all, Anne Elliot always considered her a friend. Yet she makes the cut for one important reason in my opinion: even knowing Mr. Elliot’s character, she encouraged Anne’s relationship with him, hoping that Anne could convince him to help recover the late Mr. Smith’s fortunes in the West Indies. It was only after Anne insisted that she had no intention of marrying Mr. Elliot that Mrs. Smith revealed his true colors and history. Maybe Mrs. Smith didn’t think it was her place to interfere if they were already engaged. But personally, if my best friend had some dirt on the guy that she thought I was planning to marry and didn’t say anything to stop me from marrying a no-good scoundrel, I’d question whether she was truly my friend. Just sayin’…

#5: Isabella Thorpe (Northanger Abbey)

Oh, Isabella! When we first meet her in Bath, she seems like such a fun friend for Catherine Moreland! She’s outgoing and bubbly, loves the same kind of literature, and she’s soon engaged to Catherine’s big brother James. Sounds perfect, right?  But it isn’t long before her selfishness becomes plain. She and her brother try to monopolize Catherine’s time. Twice, they interfere with Catherine’s plans with Eleanor and Henry Tilney and make her feel guilty for spending time with someone besides them. Later on, Isabella dumps James Moreland on a whim in favor of a richer man, which shows how shallow she is. Worse still, when that falls through, she has the nerve to write to Catherine saying she ‘made a mistake’ and begs her to help patch things up with James. As if!

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#4: Mary Crawford (Mansfield Park)

Mary is one of those characters we wish we could love. On the surface, she seems nice, treats Fanny Price as a friend, is a talented harpist (always a plus in my book!) and she’s beautiful. But underneath that façade, Mary’s moral character is sadly lacking. She tells rude jokes and makes fun of the clergy and of Edmund for planning to become ordained.  She encourages her brother Henry to pursue Fanny, even knowing that he plans to toy with Fanny’s heart.  When Tom Bertram falls deathly ill, she coldly implies that it might be for the best if he died, in order that Edmund could inherit the baronetcy. The crux of the novel hinges on an extramarital affair that comes to light. When Henry and Maria Rushworth run away together, Mary makes it clear she finds nothing wrong with the affair except for the couple’s lack of discretion and blames Fanny for not accepting Henry’s proposal when she had the chance.  Lucky for Fanny, she dodged that bullet!

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#3 & #2: Louisa Hurst and Caroline Bingley (Pride and Prejudice)

Two of the meanest sisters that Austen ever wrote!  In Elizabeth’s presence, they always appear friendly and polite, but the second she leaves the room, they begin to bad-mouth her and her family. Caroline is the worst; she often disparages Elizabeth to Mr. Darcy, hoping to diminish his regard for her and elevate her own status. Louisa and Caroline think of Jane as a “sweet girl”, but they treat her more like a pet than a friend.  Whenever they are away from her, they seem to forget all about her.  That is, until they find out their brother wants to marry her. Considering that to be an unfavorable match, they help Mr. Darcy to separate Jane and Charles. When Jane follows them to London in hopes of reuniting with Charles Bingley, Caroline goes out of her way to avoid seeing Jane, only doing so, at last, to avoid being accused of snubbing her. The last time we see Caroline is when she and Elizabeth meet at Pemberley. Caroline is so cold towards Elizabeth, it is obvious she never wished to be friends, and as soon as Elizabeth has left, Caroline returns to her usual pattern of bashing her behind her back.  What a frienemy!


#1: Lucy Steele (Sense and Sensibility)

My opinion: Lucy is the worst of the worst when it comes to frienemies! Initially, she is friendly towards Elinor and they spend a lot of time together. However, once Lucy picks up from Mrs. Jennings’s teasing that Elinor is sweet on Edward Ferrars, she turns mean and jealous. Lucy is secretly engaged to Edward, but though he no longer has feelings for her, she refuses to give him up because he stands to inherit a fortune. Translation: gold-digger!  She pretends to confide in Elinor about her engagement in order to wound her and stake her claim on Edward, knowing that Elinor’s sense of honor will prevent her from either acting on her feelings for Edward or betraying Lucy’s secret. She is the master at carefully crafting her sentences to say nothing but friendly things, but her pointed emphasis on certain words tells Elinor that she actually means the opposite– they are not friends!

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Who do you think is the worst frienemy that Jane wrote? Is there someone that you think should be on this list? Tell me in the comments!


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24 Responses to Austen’s “Frienemies” by Amanda Kai

  1. I think you’ve got them spot on. Luch Steele is a thoroughly rotten person and is definitely in her proper place at number one. I too hadn’t considered Mrs Smith and was surprised to see her appear on the list. However, reading your reasoning behind it I understand why she’s there. Great post.

  2. I think Caroline Bingley definitely is one of the worst! I love the picture that accompanied her and Mrs. Hurst! So right!

  3. I definitely agree that Lucy Steele is the worst frienemy. Another thing she does is to deliberately deceive the Dashwoods’ servant into thinking she’s married Edward when actually she’s married his brother. Then for a while Elinor thinks all is lost.

    Great, fun post!

  4. For me the Bingley sisters. Two faced even from the very beginning….

    For other frienemies. I would say Mr Wickham. he befriended the Bennet family esp Elizabeth and in the end traitorously eloped with Lydia. Knowing full weel that it will devastate the family/

    Well. he pretty much did it to alot of people even GD…

  5. I always thought frenemies were people who loved and hated each other; they might go to the wall for you as long as it didn’t interfere with their own plans.

    • That could be one definition of it, yes. In fact, if you examine these characters, some of them do act in service of the heroine, as long as it doesn’t interfere with their purpose, as you said. Caroline Bingley, for example, tried to earn Elizabeth about Wickham, but partly because she couldn’t stand to have her dear Mr. Darcy’s name tarnished.

  6. Mrs. Smith has received mixed reviews. Though I am still a bit on the fence about her, in some way I understand why she didn’t speak at first. I remember a time when romances often had situations when people spoke against the woman’s boyfriend. Inevitably, this caused a breech between the two women and sometimes even between the woman and her parents. I know I didn’t like it when my dorm mateswondered why I was going with the man I later married. Their only complaint was that he didn’t fit their idea of goodlooking. It is often dangerous to a friendship to speak out . In Sense and Sensibility, Col. Brandondidn’t tell Marianne or her mother what he knew about Willoughby. There was alsways the chance that Willoughby had grown up and reformed his morals. Of course, Brandon was trying to be extra fir because he was in love with Marianne.
    Mrs. Smilth

    • I didn’t finish Mrs. Smith wanted to stay on the right side of Anne so that if she married Mr. Eliot, Anne could convince her husabnd to do right by Mrs. Smith.

      • I understand she was following society’s conventions and also trying to protect her friendship. But to me, she wasn’t acting as a true friend. I think if Anne was engaged to Mr. Elliot, she would have appreciated knowing the truth about him while she could still back out of the engagement, and she would have thanked her friend. Recall, in this same story, Lady Russell advises her against marrying Wentworth because of his temperament and lack of fortune, yet Anne forgave her and continued the friendship, and even still sought her advice many times.

  7. I have to admit a soft spot for Mary Crawford. She’s everything you said – selfish, manipulative, heartless – but she’s just so much fun! She knows her weaknesses and makes no bones about them, inviting others to laugh with her. That said, I wouldn’t want her as a bestie!

  8. The ultimate to me is Lady Susan! Her scheming make her the most dangerous of friends and/or family members. Then, I would say Lucy Steele.

    • Ooh, I didn’t even consider Lady Susan! TBH, this is one of the novels I didn’t read yet, so I don’t feel qualified to compare her character.

  9. I have two candidates. First is Lydia Bennet. She is “thick as thieves” with Kitty but is not above lording it over her when she is invited to Brighton and Kitty has to stay behind. Then she teases Kitty unmercifully about what good friends she, Lydia, is with Mrs. Forster and how much she and the officers like Lydia best. Not very sisterly or friendly! My second pick will be somewhat controversial, but I always thought that Darcy is a bit of a frenemy to Bingley. He is supposedly a mentor but treats Bingley like a child, someone not able to make any decisions for himself. He does of course change after he gets an epiphany (via Elizabeth telling him off), but even after that it’s pretty late in the book (and after he once again observes Jane and Bingley together) that he decides to be truthful with Bingley and almost destroys their relationship.

  10. OMG! Mrs. Smith… I never thought of her in quite that manner but once you pointed out her behavior… I can see it now. Man… I was hoping poor Anne had one friend she could depend on. Like Anne, I was disappointed in her behavior. Ah, heck, you might as well say it was her treachery. What else could you call it. She pushes for and uses Anne for her own benefit. That is ‘you are dead to me’ territory. However, Anne appears to have taken pity and forgiven her. Later Captain Wentworth was able to help her in the end.

    I agree completely with your list. Wow! I might rearrange them a bit. Mary Crawford has always been my go to baddie for first place. She is the most cruel and so surprised that someone would be upset with her.

    Caroline/Louisa are a given. What about Charlotte Lucas? She would be WAY down on the list but she knew what she was about when she grabbed Mr. Collins out from under the remaining Bennet ladies. Perhaps Collins would have chosen Mary next but not after Charlotte showed how agreeable she could be to him. She would be mistress of Longbourn and the Bennet ladies would be out a home. She was looking out for herself and not the benefits of the Bennets. She also knew her friend and that she would refuse him. This one is on the fence.

    Lucy Steele… excuse me while I spit. That girl was horrid. Man… how can I rate them? They all share the #1 spot. I suppose if you list all the degrees of meanness and cruelty… you have them pegged correctly.

    Now in Emma… who was her frienemy? Mrs. Elton perhaps? Emma would be the highest ranking lady in town and Mrs. Elton wanted to show her superiority but she really wasn’t a friend. Emma was actually a frienemy to poor Miss Smith. Although her heart was in the right place, wanting what she thought was best for her friend… she certainly caused her all manner of problems. This was a fabulous post.

    • Thanks for the compliment! I really wanted to include Mrs. Elton in this list. After all, she tries so hard to push Jane Fairfax into being a governess despite her protests and she’s REALLY annoying! However, as I considered her, I realized she really doesn’t have any ulterior motives. She truly thinks she’s doing everything out of the kindness of her heart with good intentions, she just fails spectacularly to realize how pushy she is. In many ways, she is Emma’s mirror image. Emma redeems herself as the heroine because, unlike Mrs. Elton, she sees the error of her ways and reforms. I plan to do a post in the future comparing these two characters.

      As for all the rest, yes, I would love to give them all the #1 spot! But since I had to rank them, I thought about it in terms of how damaging they were to the heroine or those closest to her, and I felt like this was the best ranking I could get. Certainly, anyone is free to disagree about the order! They’re all pretty awful girls!

      Charlotte, yes, she was a bit opportunistic. I make this a source of contention in my novel “Marriage and Ministry” in which Charlotte is the heroine. But I keep her as a true friend for a number of other great reasons, which you can read about in my post from last month here.

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

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