The various portrayals of heroines in Jane Austen’s novels as well as investigate, who is a heroine and what makes a heroine
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a heroine as: ‘A woman distinguished by exalted courage, fortitude, or noble achievements.’ The novels of the 1790’s presented two types of heroine, the heroine who is fallible and learns, and the heroine who is Christian and exemplary. These were the standard heroine types of the reactionary novels of the 1790’s. But there are many other traits and qualities which can also be possessed by a woman to be described as a heroine. For example it is the fate of the romantic heroine to suffer and endure. There are many stereotypical heroines perhaps the most famous being Cinderella. This is a very good example, as she embodies all that is expected of a typical heroine- she is beautiful, morally right and kind and suffers at the hands of others. However other authors of the period present typical heroines as passive, weak and meek.
Fanny Burney’s Cecilia (1782) sees the character of Cecilia never straying from the standards of female obedience and submission. Austen wanted to break with the Burney tradition of vulnerable, but noble-minded heroines. Radical novelists of the eighties and nineties like Mary Hays and Mary Wollstonecraft for the most part produced heroines like Emma Courtney (1796) or Maria (1798). Rebellious and often outspoken, but so seriously concerned with their confrontation with society that challenges to pettier forms of tyranny are out of the question.’ (Mary Waldron)
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Austen began writing fiction as ‘an act of protest against the unmeaning gibberish expressed in popular sentimental novels’1 She wrote against the preposterous heroines of Love and Friendship (1790). And this is a clear indication that her heroines are not going to be straight forward representations.
Elizabeth Bennet is the charming witty heroine of Pride and Prejudice. To many she is a typical conventional heroine showing courage, strength as well as exuberance and energy. But also, as a central female character Elizabeth was quite new.
Her lively conversations with Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley shows this. As do her energetic walks through the countryside without thought of social decorum ‘No , indeed. I do not wish to avoid the walk. The distance is nothing.’ (78) She breaks away from the convention of the vulnerable, but noble minded heroines seen in novels by Fanny Burney such as Cecilia written in 1782.
Elizabeth departs quite startlingly from the Burney ideal. She is far from silent, frequently openly challenging to accepted authority, and contemptuous of current decorum’s.
As a reader we admire Elizabeth in her resolution to want to marry a man she respects and loves. And we respect her when she is revolted by the idea of marrying merely to survive economically as when she is appalled by Charlotte’s loveless marriage to Mr Collins for finical reasons.
To many the attraction and freshness of Pride and Prejudice is derived purely from the charm of its heroine. In fact Jane Austen herself stated in a letter to her niece that Elizabeth was ‘As delightful a creature as ever appeared in print.’ Elizabeth is a engaging heroine who has courage and strength as well as wit, and energy. Jane Austen rewards her heroine handsomely with her marriage to the rich Mr Darcy.
Jane Austen took for the heroine of Mansfield Park a girl who is essentially passive and uninteresting. It has been stated by critic Andrew Wright that Fanny is the antithesis of the conventional heroine. Given the bourgeois origins of the English novel, and the large female reading public, it is not surprising that the Cinderella story should underlie so many works. Jane Austen’s novels are no exception to this, and in Elizabeth’s triumph over Lady Catherine, and marriage to Darcy, the universal fantasy is satisfied.
But Mansfield Park it could be said destroys this fantasy, and deprives the reader of the fundamental pleasure of wish-fulfilment. The novel is furnished with all the characters of the Cinderella legend, but in the end the charming lover is rejected.
Mansfield Park has provoked a polarisation between critics who see fanny as a true heroine, standing for principle, duty, self-knowledge and self restraint.
However other critics see Fanny as a ‘prig, dull, self-righteous’ especially when compared to the lively Crawfords. A heroine is expected to have vigour and vitality like Mary Crawford or Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, however Fanny has neither of these things. In a heroine we look for a certain bravery, and audacity but Fanny is timid, silent and excessively vulnerable. Fanny has more in common with the passive heroine of the Fanny Burney novel, than Jane Austen’s earlier heroines such as Elizabeth Bennet and Catherine Morland.
Yet despite of this she can be seen to display heroic qualities in the courage she exhibits in standing alone in her unmoving disapproval of the play. She also stands against Henry Crawford’s advances despite the most ardent pressure from him and Sir Thomas Bertram. Because of this act she has to endure terrifying disapproval from Sir Thomas.
Fanny also much in common with the concept of the Christian heroine, which is often depicted as sickly and enfeebled. Many critics believe that she is not inactive but holds courageously and strenuously to high standards and right moral values. In her fight to uphold these morals she displays real strength of character and mind. Her toils and triumphs are therefore all mental and moral. She stands for true integrity in a world of falling moral standards.
Emma is the only major Jane Austen novel that takes its title from the name of the heroine. Jane Austen’s nephew, J. E Austen- Leigh states in his Memoir that ‘she was very fond of Emma, but did not reckon on her being a general favourite’2 And Jane Austen said herself ‘I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.’3 In Emma, Jane Austen is much more concerned than in her previous novels with ‘presenting a detailed study of the heroine, through whose eyes a large part of the action and our impressions of the other characters are seen’4.
The combination of wealth and beauty in a heroine is a frequently occurring trope in eighteenth century fiction. Emma possesses both of these things and the opening of Emma at first glance appears to portray a faultless heroine. Apart from a reference in the fourth paragraph to the evils which resulted from ‘the power of having rather too much her own way’ the immediate thought is that she could be the ideal heroine as she is intelligent, beautiful and charming. Yet as the novel proceeds the reader witnesses Emma’s faults ones of vanity of perception, rashness and selfishness.
Firstly Emma is a social snob, and this is seen in various instances throughout the novel. For example she tries to raise Harriet Smith above the society she belongs and due to this causes her to wreck her prospect of marriage to Mr Martin. She is clearly a spoilt child and enjoys ‘adopting’ people and helping match make their lives.
Emma also misuses her intelligence in her match-making schemes and is overly sure of her own judgement. For example the instances with Harriet Smith epitomises perfectly all of Emma’s shortcomings. Emma wilfully misuses her natural sense ‘upon my word Emma, to hear you abusing the reason you have’ (63-63). Although after Mr Elton she does realise that she may have deeply injured Harriet and learns at least the dangers of trying to direct affections, she still cannot undo the role she has invented for herself. However Emma not only misuses her intelligence on others, her illusions also affect her own life. She misreads the situation with Frank Churchill and realises only too late she has been a pawn in his game.
Perhaps her most unattractive is act is her behaviour towards Miss Bates at the Box Hill picnic. Here she embarrasses a person who she has known as a child, a social inferior and someone who Emma should be protecting. Her behaviour is quite startling and departs quite drastically from the heroine ideal.
Emma also lacks the suffering quality needed to be a heroine, as throughout the course of the novel there is only three chapters devoted to her suffering at all. She is financially secure and has ‘a comfortable home’ and ‘ had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.’ It is the fate of the romantic heroine to suffer and endure; it is Emma’s destiny to lose complacency and suffer slightly as she learns the truth about herself her perceptions, imagination and others around her.
Despite her faults Emma can also be seen to possess heroine qualities such as the characteristic of energy and exuberance. She is the picture of health, bursting with life and vitality. She is vigorous and healthy whereas Fanny is languishing and sickly. She is independent and strong, as she is the real ruler of the household at Hartfield.
Other qualities also redeem Emma in the eyes of the reader such as her affection for her father. Emma’s dutifulness towards him is one of the virtues that redeems her from her many faults, and we are presented with the ironical spectacle of the naturally gay, vivacious heroine enduring a relationship with her father who is pessimistic and weak. Emma also has imagination, generosity, social grace and charm. She is kind to the poor and sick has great tenderness of heart a quality possessed by a conventional ideal heroine. Emma also shows selfless in her dealings with her Father as she believes she cannot marry the man she loves at the end of the novel for fear of leaving her Father alone.
Emma is a likeable character as she presents the opposite to the puritan ideal. She is quite unlike Fanny Price the heroine that preceded Emma. She has vigour and energy and the reader her admires her cheeky independence, for instance she is not afraid of defying Mr Knightley.
Emma is the novel of a ‘fallible heroine’5. There is no danger as there is with Elizabeth that the reader will fail to see the heroine’s mistakes. She has paid for her mistakes and throughout the book we have loved her for the contradictions in her nature which are amusing and deeply human. The new Emma at the end of the novel is more resolved, composed and serene.
Catherine Morland is set up from the outset as an anti-heroine. She has none of the characteristics of novel- heroines, she is not an orphan, but somewhat over-provided with near relations: she is not beautiful but very plain, and only rising to ‘almost pretty’ later in the novel nor is she clever. Her shortcomings are especially seen when compared to Charlotte Smith’s Emmeline. When compared to Emmeline we find how conspicuously Catherine lacks the attachments necessary for a heroine. Emmeline despite being brought up parent-less in a half ruined castle, has somehow acquired both dignity and accomplishments. Catherine on the other hand ‘fell miserably short of the true heroine height..for she had no lover to pourtary’ (pg 16). Catherine has neither the appearance nor the abilities of a heroine ‘she had a thin awkward figure, a sallow skin without colour’ (15). In sketching Catherine’s background, appearance and disposition her author manages to suggest both typical gothic heroine qualities, and in Catherine herself, the inverse. Throughout the early part of Northanger Abbey Jane Austen is careful to point out that Catherine has none of the qualities found in the ideal heroine.
Catherine similarly on her introduction into the world is not like Emmeline the conventional heroine at the time who knows instinctively the right moves to make. When Henry Tilney parodies the fashionable preoccupations of the average novel-heroine, she reacts in amused disbelief because so far she thinks of such behaviour as occurring only between the covers of a book (26-27).
Compared to Jane Austen’s later heroines Catherine Morland is somewhat Proffessor Mudrick remarks ‘too simple and too slight, too narrowly a symbol of the author’s rejection of romantic nonsense to assert the claim of personal feeling and value beyond mere function’6. Howells writes of her ‘Catherine Morland is a goose, but a very engaging goose..and in spite of her romantic folly she has so much good heart that it serves her in place of good sense’7. It seems to me that both these critics rather miss the point about Catherine, and her inadequacies as a heroine. Her inadequacies are there because Jane Austen uses her to establish her as a gooselike parody of the sentimental-gothic heroine. She can be seen to be a type of caricature of the conventional heroine.
In spite of this however Catherine still has qualities associated with the heroine. For example Catherine has physical energy and exuburance seen with her walks with the Tilneys and the energy she displays throughout the novel corresponds with Jane Austen’s heroines such as Elizabeth and Emma.
Catherine is Jane Austen’s most innocent heroine, she has none of the certainty of Elizabeth, none of the gentler perception of Anne Elliot, none of the righteous of Fanny Price. She is closer in nature to Harriet Smith of the novel Emma. Critic Norman Sherry thinks the character of Miss Tilney has all the virtues of taste, manners, judgement and correct behaviour. She is a little too good too be true, and ironically in this way approximates most closely to the fictionally heroine. Catherine on the other hand critic Norman Sherry (Evans) believes is inadequate as a fictional heroine, missing opportunities to suffer, to act, to confide in the way of the sentimental heroines of the age. She refuses to be persuaded into love by Isabella (41).
Yet despite these comment Catherine herself is a heroine and has been described as a ‘heroine of common life’ (Evans). She is the heroine of a love story that sees her being rewarded handsomely with a conventional happy ending. She may not be a heroine in the idealised mode of sentimental fiction, bus she is a very good heroine at the level which matters. She endures, keeps the readers sympathy and makes the reader care about what happens to her. Catherine miraculously wins our affection and even admiration. This is due to the fact that although gullible about how the actual world runs, she is always right about what is right and wrong, decorous and indecorous. Her standards of conduct are those of a well brought up girl.
Critic Donald Stone states that Catherine ‘must, whatever the demands of parody become a heroine’8. Thus in the midst of the spoof of fictions that invariably shows us innocent maidens in distress, Jane Austen gives us innocent maiden in distress. For example Catherine is bullied by the Thorpes to go with them rather than keep her promise to walk with Miss Tilney. However slight the scene, it brilliantly creates an atmosphere of frustration and desperation, that at once imitates and uses scenes out of Richardson and later novelists. Her strength of refusal again shows a typical heroine characteristic as she withstands with strength the proposal. When later Catherine runs to the Tilney’s to apologise her motives are entirely right, spontaneous, innocent and heroic.
The novel Sense and Sensibility can be read as a satire on the eighteenth heroine of sensibility. The novel deals with the two opposing qualities of sensibility and sense. The double theme of sense and sensibility has the disadvantage of conjuring up double heroines in the plot. Marianna and Elinor are very different Marianne loves poetry, picturesque landscapes, she believes in first love, and trusts her feelings to guide her conduct.
Elinor in contrast to Marianne continually behaves as she knows she ought. Suffers in silence and is always sensitive and sensible. She gives the appearance of being happy, keeping her secret of her lovers betrothal to someone else to herself and believes she is sparing her family pain in doing so (141). In behaving this way she conforms to the typical suffering passive heroine who puts everyone else’s feeling above her own. Similarly her strength is also seen after the death of her Father at the beginning of the novel, as it is her who supports and comforts the family ‘still she could struggle, she could exert herself’ (7). The character of Lucy Steele can be seen to be Elinor’s antagonist, in true heroine convention. Lucy is a caricature of what Elinor represents, she is an appalling example of ‘triumph of prudence over feeling’9.
In the novel, sense is seen to be justified and sensibility is shown as a weakness. Marianne is so debilitated by grief that she catches a putrid fever. Although on a didactic level Elinor is the heroine and Marianne her foolish foil, there is something very attractive about Marianne, and essentially very cold about Elinor. This was obviously not what Jane Austen intended, however the same problem emerges again as found in Mansfield Park; the difficulty of making a ‘good’ character likeable. We as a reader love Marianne, partially because of her sensibility and partiality because she is a fully developed human character whose pain we sympathise with. Her illness leads her to reflect on her past behaviour and she resolves that in the future ‘my feelings shall be governed’ (347). Marianne is like Jane Austen’s heroines Catherine, Elizabeth and Emma all who comes to a point of realisation about previous behaviour.
Despite her apparent coldness Elinor is a likeable character and a true representation of the passive suffering heroine. Elinor in contrast to Marianne always remains good mannered, polite and selfless. She restrains her own sorrow in order to shield her mother and sisters. In her politeness to Mrs Jennings she makes up what Marianne carelessly omits. She also respects Brandon for his activity in helping his friends long before Mrs Dashwood and Marianne have seen his virtues. She can therefore be seen as a heroine of civility or a Christian heroine like Fanny Price; an upholder of right and proper values. She can also readily admit her mistakes as she does with her wrong estimate of Marianne’s illness. She also has to endure and suffer with strength without succumbing to self pity and without ceasing to be herself. Elinor was created by Jane Austen not as an infallible heroine but a Christian heroine struggling in a difficult world.
Anne Elliot the heroine of Persuasion at the age of twenty-seven is much older than most heroines in a comedy of marriage. We may attribute the older heroine of Anne to Jane Austen’s frustrations about middle age, declining health, and the prelude to her early death.
Jane Austen does not overly criticise Anne as she does Emma, the narrators voice being full of praise and consequently it is rare to find a person who dislikes Anne Elliot. John Bailey writes ‘There are few heroines in fiction whom we love so much so much, as we love and feel for Anne Elliot’10. Jane Austen also does not show Anne to behave in a way ridiculous but she also does not make her into a complete saint. She is different to all of Jane Austen’s other heroines in that she has already been damaged by change before the novel has even started (pg 61).
Anne shows great strength when in truth she suffers greatly. She never forgets her first love, never abandons all sense of hope. She is revolutionary in that she loves on even when she believes Wentworth has ceased to love her and ultimately takes active steps towards winning her loved one back.
The reader falls in love with her spirit, and gains the readers sympathy when she hears in Chapter 7 that Captain Wentworth finds her appearance much altered. Similarly she plays the piano while he dances with other girls, her eyes filling with tears. She is a Cinderella character like Fanny Price and is frequently described as ‘only Anne’ rejected, ignored and pushed into the background. In her solitude she suffers far more deeply than Catherine, Elizabeth or Emma.
Anne also can be seen to possess good moral judgement throughout Persuasion. Yet she is not self-righteous, has no arrogance, no vanity and we have no inclination to dislike her, only sympathise. She can be seen to very selfless and can make herself useful to others. She has an on-going sympathy and charity which in turn raises the readers sympathy and admiration of her. Anne’s worth is shown after Lousia’s fall at Lyme. Anne shows quickness of mind while everyone else is too upset to think and takes control with calmness and decision. She displays courage, strength and fortitude in her ability to not succumb to self pity but instead serve the relationships she has inherited the best she can.
Anne at Lyme regains her former beauty and youthful vigour typical of a heroine. Wentworth notices the strangers admiration and it is this that sparks a turning point in the novel for Anne. She then takes active steps towards recapturing her happiness and assert herself equally with Wentworth. She can be seen to display typical heroine attributes and break away from the passive observer seen in the earlier part of the novel. Wentworth restores to Anne her feelings, her hope when it seemed that she was doomed to ‘fade away, merely to be exploited, unappreciated, by the humanly inferior family which imprisons her’11.
Anne Elliot is a puzzling figure she is not happy, energetic or brilliant like some of Jane Austen’s earlier heroines yet she is one of ‘fictions greatest heroines’12. She is quite the perfect heroine and even Jane Austen herself stated ‘she is almost too good for me’ in a letter to her niece Fanny Knight. Anne never loses her strength, compassion and dignity of feeling. On the other hand she can also be seen as a subversion of the conventional heroine due to her age and maturity. In her solitude she leads a very anti-heroic life but she can be seen to be rewarded with a typical heroic ending.
Anne is not the energetic heroine that Elizabeth and Emma are; she is older, mature and more experienced. She has lost her first bloom and innocence, however she is no less a heroine and is the perfect heroine for a novel which celebrates the second chance of happiness. Anne Elliot the mature heroine, is the fitting conclusion to Jane Austen’s works.
My dissertation ultimately asks to find who is the perfect conventional heroine. It can be said that Jane Austen asks at the start of her first novel what is a heroine and then in turn presents six very different heroines. Jane Austen was a woman who enjoyed using her mind, and thus she has created six very different charters. The characters of Elizabeth and Fanny portray differing aspects of what makes a heroine. Fanny exhibits few of the qualities we usually associate with the traditional heroine, being weak, shy and timid people and many people cannot believe she is created by the same person who created the sparkling brilliant Elizabeth. Yet the argument can be made that the concept of heroism is not straight forward that Fanny is still a true heroine just another version of one.
Jane Austen’s characters are instruments of a profound vision, she laughs at man and examines humanity closely. Jane Austen’s heroines are not idealised creatures, they are credible human beings. Thomas Baginaton Macaulay 1843 wrote ‘she has given us a multitude of characters, all in a certain sense common-place, all such as we meet every day’13. The heroines are truly loveable flesh and blood young women. Emma and Elizabeth can in fact ‘be seen as the prototypes of a distinguished line of heroines who are active shaping forces in their fictional worlds rather than passive victims in the tradition of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa’14. Jane Austen’s heroine it could therefore be said is within our ‘physical space whereas for example Richardson’s is still suspended on the wall of romance’15. Her portray of her different heroines is like a discussion and investigation into the different natures of women.
However it can be said that Jane Austen is happiest and her heroines are more ideal and popular when she deals with the flawed but vivacious character like Emma and Elizabeth. The good character such as Fanny and Elinor are in a secondary position.
But to many readers however the character which epitomises perfectly the idea of a heroine is Elizabeth. Elizabeth’ s sense and conduct are of a superior order to those of the common heroines of novels. From her independence of character which is kept within the proper limits of decorum and her well- times sprit. Elizabeth is also rewarded with the most glorious match in all of Jane Austen’s novels, and the question can therefore be asked is this the best reward for Jane Austen’s most radiant and best heroine?