Jane Austen’s novels are brimming with formidable and highly opinionated ladies.
At a time when the female ideal was passive and even-tempered, she never shied away from creating characters that were quite the opposite. Today, we will look at some of the older women in her novels, how the author portrays them, and who amongst the younger female characters in Austen is best placed to take their baton.
The Good: Lady Russell (Persuasion)
Lady Russell is a widow “of steady age and character, and extremely well provided for”. As a wealthy woman of impeccable conduct and good breeding with plenty of moral authority and no family of her own, she is ideally placed to take an interest in the daughters of the late Lady Elliot, her late best friend.
Although Lady Russell is eminently sensible and means well, she does get things wrong from time to time. Just ask poor Anne Elliot, who (almost) loses the love of her life when Lady Russell convinces her that Frederick Wentworth isn’t worthy of her.
Amongst the younger generations of Austen characters, the closest I could find to Lady Russell is Emma Woodhouse. Had she not married Mr Knightley, she may well have become a similar well-intentioned yet flawed figure, dishing not-always-great advice to her supposed inferiors.
The Bad: Mrs Ferrars (Sense & Sensibility)
Mrs. Ferrars was a little, thin woman, upright, even to formality, in her figure, and serious, even to sourness, in her aspect. Her complexion was sallow; and her features small, without beauty, and naturally without expression; but a lucky contraction of the brow had rescued her countenance from the disgrace of insipidity, by giving it the strong characters of pride and ill nature.
Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 34
Poor Edward Ferrars. His overbearing mother, Mrs Ferrars, disinherits him when he refuses to break his engagement to scheming Lucy Steele. He no longer loves Lucy – Elinor Dashwood has his affections instead- but he wants to do the honourable thing.
The surprise is that Edward’s younger brother (and new heir to the Ferrars fortune), Robert, ends up marrying Lucy behind his mother’s back. Mrs Ferrars forgives Robert, but Edward remains sidelined.
Edward eventually gets his happy ending with a wonderful wife, but the price he has to pay is high. Things would have been very different if Mrs Ferrars had been more accepting.Ho
Does Mrs Ferrars have a successor? You bet she does: her daughter Fanny Dashwood, Edward’s sister, is perfect for the role. Something tells me little Harry Dashwood won’t enjoy the benefit of his mother learning from grandma’s mistakes…
The Ugly: Mrs Norris (Mansfield Park)
Mrs Norris is another Austen widow that thinks of herself as beyond reproach, although in reality she only looks after her own interests. She is tolerated by the Bertrams, largely due to Lady Bertram’s indolence and apparent inability to look after her own family. Mrs Norris thrives in stepping up to help her sister and dot on the girls, Mariah and Julia – spoiling them rotten in the process.
However, Mrs Norris is not a good person. We see her nastiness throughout the novel, mostly in the cruel way she treats her powerless niece, Fanny Price, but also in many mean little gestures, such as when she keeps the green baize used in the curtain during the Mansfield Park theatricals.
Amongst the younger Austen characters, the ones she reminds me most of is Lucy Steele, who also excels at buttering up the powerful whilst very much sticking to her heartless agenda.
And the winner is: Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Pride & Prejudice)
No list of powerful Austen characters is complete without Lady Catherine. Wealthy, independent and magnificently rude, her conversation is so rude and disagreeable that only a woman of her age and class could get away with it.
With her need to dictate every aspect of her protegés’ lives, Lady Catherine is the ultimate micromanager (just ask Mr Collins!). She needs to control everything and is merciless in her opinions, unapologetically offending or ridiculing others.
I am sure many of you agree that Caroline Bingley is the young woman in Austen’s novels best placed to continue with the tradition of the obnoxious rich lady. She is more subtle when we meet her in Pride and Prejudice, but her style is surely to become crasser with age. I wonder if Lady Catherine would approve?
What do you think? Who is your favourite powerful older woman in Austen, and who do you think might follow in their footsteps?