Influential Widows and Matriarchs in Jane Austen, by Eliza Shearer

Influential Widows and Matriarchs in Jane Austen, by Eliza Shearer

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? 

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[…] Norris isn’t exactly a charitable soul. Incapable of feeling any kind of empathy, she treats Fanny and those she considers her inferiors […]

July 22, 2021 6:58 PM

Enjoyed reading your list.

Shana Jefferis
Shana Jefferis
July 20, 2021 8:49 PM

I know the good, the bad, and the ugly is a common way to categorize things, but I wish to add Mrs. Jennings and I don’t know where she fits in! I guess I have to call her good. She is a doting and generous friend to the Misses Dashwood. But she also has the elements of the ridiculous about her; I mean really, teasing Elinor about a man whose name begins with an ‘F’! She is generously provided for by her late husband who ‘traded with success in a less elegant part of town’. She can offer the Dashwood girls an opportunity to see London at very little expense. She is mistakenly trying to further Elinor’s romantic prospects with Colonel Brandon. Until she realizes what an evil witch Lucy Steele is, she even tries to help her. I like Mrs. Jennings. And even though neither of her daughters were much to speak of, both made excellent matches, which is interesting in and of itself. One has to assume they were well dowered, though I don’t think the reader is ever told the size of the dowries.

July 20, 2021 8:22 PM

Great post, Eliza!

Jean Stillman
Jean Stillman
July 20, 2021 7:24 PM

So cute and funny!

Jennifer Redlarczyk
Jennifer Redlarczyk
July 20, 2021 6:33 PM

Yes I definitely agree with the good the bad and the ugly. And how could anyone but our dear Caroline fulfill the next generation of snippy older women. Fun post thanks so much.

Linda A.
Linda A.
July 20, 2021 4:08 PM

I think Mary Musgrove is a Mrs. Bennet in the making. But I think the one I dislike the LEAST in your list is Lady Russell. At least she thought she was being helpful without browbeating people to do their bidding like the rest.

Shana Jefferis
Shana Jefferis
July 20, 2021 8:34 PM
Reply to  Linda A.

I love this point about Mary Musgrove. Her character in no way improves her husband. She is always looking for more money from her husband, Charles Musgrove, so like Mrs. Bennet, I think she has no turn for economy. And her hypochondria is developing nicely.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
July 20, 2021 10:14 AM

Lady Catherine is definitely a formidable lady! I don’t like Lady Russell for talking to Anne that way!

July 20, 2021 9:28 AM

Lady Catherine certainly gets a great deal of attention in both P&P and in JAFF. But, I agree, Lady Russell’s influence took away years of happiness for Anne and Frederick.

Amanda Kai
July 20, 2021 9:07 AM

Lady Catherine is probably my favorite of these bossy women. She gets some of the best one-liners (I should have been a great proficient, had I ever learnt!), and she’s a lot of fun to write.

Regina Jeffers
July 20, 2021 7:05 AM

I adore being in Lady Catherine’s head, but the one I greatly dislike is Lady Russell.

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