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The Bad Girls of Chawton, Jane Austen Style!
© 2012 by B. L. Bierley
Think the premise of bad girls or mean female characters is a Twentieth Century invention? Obviously you have never had the privilege of reading any of Jane Austen’s work! The idea of a scheming, conniving woman isn’t a new concept by any stretch of the imagination. Throughout the years many authors have portrayed females with some characteristics of artifice and even alluded to the suggestion that women are capable of dastardly doings. So far as being evil, literary women have often been portrayed as incapable of knowing their effects. In fact, some of them are given the feat of being only helplessly duplicitous orchestrated into evil by a man and forced to submit for their own sake or survival.
Then a revolutionary female author, one who didn’t hide behind a man’s persona or portray women as gentle doves incapable of knowing their place, stepped away from the “wicked stepmother” personification of an evil woman and instead embraced the idea of women being evil to greater and lesser degrees other than this fairy tale approach! This author was Jane Austen.
Now, some might say that as far back as Homer’s writings there have been evil women, but most were of a mythic proportion or some fantastical existence which people reading about them couldn’t fully identify. Jane Austen pioneered the romantic novel with layered characters and realistic tempers in male and female form! In her work, it wasn’t just male characters being written into existence and given such human emotions as jealousy, greed, pride and vanity. Jane’s women ran the gamut of personalities from A to Z, and she never shied away from what her contemporaries might’ve called unspeakable or amoral topics! She drew strong, imperfect women as well as handsome men who were likewise not without flaws!
Her reception among her readership was such that she became a favorite in the years after her death, amounting to what I believe in today’s society embodies the bestseller! What’s even more amazing to many scholars is the way that, in the two centuries since their creation, these characters have been emulated in other works and forms in much the same style simply because Ms. Austen took the trouble to construct actual personalities into her characterizations that made them real and believable. It’s been studied and reported that many of her most annoying and cruelest female characters were based on actual women she knew by association! In her characterizations these women took on many different roles, never once adopting the tired standard of the wicked stepmother, always such an easy place to pin such meanness. So join me in an exploration of women we love to hate: Jane Austen’s female villains!
Evidentiary Proof of the Origin of Soap Operas
Sense and Sensibility (1811)
I’ll start where Ms. Austen began … her first published work. This novel introduced the first circles of virtuous and villainous women both in their natural and un-varnished forms. To begin, we see the virtuous women given a little introduction. The Dashwoods, a mother and three daughters, were a family of women in forced poverty due to the laws of entailment (though it’s never named in the novel) and the laws of man at the time, which wouldn’t give rights to the wives and daughters of a man after his death. These women were at the mercy of others for all their support and comfort merely because they were well-born. The Dashwood ladies were too high in society to take jobs, and yet too poor to sustain themselves without some help.
Enter the villain: the girls’ sister-in-law, Mrs. John Dashwood, hereafter known as Fanny. This woman was a witch with a capital B, which in work of Jane Austen’s contemporaries was hardly seen in novels. She was cutting edge in her amplification of traits seen but never spoken of in literary females of the time. You don’t even have to get two pages into the novel before you meet Fanny, the money-grubbing greedy villainess. Her behavior toward her husband’s half-siblings is such that you can’t help but feel for the sweet Dashwood maidens in their plight.
This woman was the cause and essence of every evil for a put-upon woman and her daughters, much like the pivotal villain in any television drama. In short for this novel, Ms. Austen took the role of Evil Stepmother and made it Evil-Daughter-in-Law without missing a beat. Fanny’s hen-pecked husband (the main characters’ half-brother John) is further evidence of this woman’s shrewd character being expertly drawn by the authoress.
This novel provided us with more than an entertaining story. It’s a template that many soap operas operated on for years since its release. Our female populace has always thrived on this type of story. I believe novels such as Ms. Austen’s works introduced people to the roles of society and the secrets of relationships that were never before spoken of in polite company before this novel became a publication.
Another character, not the actual villainess in the work, but pretty near a second worst was Lucy Steele, the hero’s youthful indiscretion that refused to yield to his more mature choice. Ms. Steele cannot be overlooked. With her scheming and manipulation, she was perhaps the cruelest member of the book. Her constant confiding in our main heroine Elinor was like a knife to the back when you think about it. Knowing that Lucy had claim to something Elinor wanted and making Elinor the keeper of the secret engagement was an oddly gripping sort of torture in my opinion. I have tried to find another work released around the same time that did this so expertly, but so far I haven’t yet found one with such art and archness! Ms. Steele further wielded her weapons of manipulation and conniving when she throws off the disowned brother for the younger one, forcing his family to accept the consequences in the end and leaving the hero and heroine free to marry!
Jane Austen put the ink to paper and fleshed out such deviant females as had never been witnessed. She also propagated another form of character in a more subtle and realistic way: that of the playboy! The likeable Willoughby in the novel is a man tied to dependency, making poor choices for himself that led to dire circumstances for several people. Willoughby is partially at-fault but not wholly condemned as a villain even though he preyed on the recklessness of more than one young woman in the story: Colonel Brandon’s unsupervised ward, Eliza, and the too-impressionable Marianne Dashwood.
Something else that was revolutionary: Ms. Austen showed the effects of poor choices and the consequential after-effects with reality of circumstances rather than the morally judgmental repercussions so liberally used in other works of the period. She didn’t throw her ruined or near-ruined characters under a train or hang them on a gallows for their poor choices like some of her contemporaries. She wrote what society didn’t see in such circumstances—the truth of what happened to women and men who used more sensibility than sense.
Of course, Jane also managed to put in a few other types of women, those whom you wouldn’t necessarily call evil but still realistic nevertheless. The feather-headed women who were often overlooked until they proved to be excellent instruments for driving the plot where it needed to go (Miss Ann Steele, Margaret Dashwood, Mrs. Jennings and her dithery daughter Charlotte).
The Real Housewives of Merryton!
Pride and Prejudice (1813)
With everyone these days so fond of reality television, I couldn’t resist making the comparison to one of my favorite novels. There are ladies within this novel who are given characterizations that many would find appalling in women of today’s contemporary society. In any reality television program today you’ll find the same sort of examples that Jane Austen identified years earlier! There’s the matriarchal diva—Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the flirt—Catherine “Kitty” Bennet, the slut—Lydia Bennet, the know-it-all/bookworm— Mary Bennet, the gossipy-gold digger—Charlotte Lucas, the jealous/judgmental harpy—Caroline Bingley, and many more gossiping hens—Mrs. Phillips, Lady Lucas and all the housemaids, Ms. Hill in particular.
Of course, one could further add that Mr. Bennet’s relationship with his wife, Mrs. Bennet, is a classic case of the ill-suited couple. I think of Mrs. Bennet as a bimbo/trophy wife. In fact, if she were in existence today she would probably end up having her own show where she marketed her children out to the highest bidder (or maybe that’s already been done? Cough-cough-Kardashians-cough). However, it is safe to suggest that Mr. Bennet married the woman he didn’t respect because she had a little means (money) or perhaps her own mother marketed her even more successfully to an unwitting husband who then could not give her back so easily—in either case the fault falls on him for that!
Some of the characters I mentioned above do not fall into the villainy category I laid out at the onset of this essay. However, each in her way has a role of evil to portray in the work. As someone once wisely said, “there can be no light without the dark.” The three younger sisters are instrumental in driving the plot so that the two most eligible bachelors at first are repulsed by the Bennet’s. Jealousy and the gossip both serve as means to bring the hero and heroine into the same paths and give them clever reasons to speak to one another more than once. And the further actions of these villainous female characters circuitously carry out the actions in the plot to make the ending happy—so give them a little credit! The lines of characterization in this work are, for my opinion, very easily identified. So now I’ll move on to one of my least-favorite of Ms. Austen’s works.
A Family Affair
Mansfield Park (1814)
Okay, I readily admit that this is my absolute least favorite of Jane Austen’s finished works. It’s too political and objectionable for my taste. The heroine is whiny, and the only decent male character in the book is so self-absorbed and righteous that I had trouble liking him. And then there’s the whole first-cousin marriage thing. However, my article isn’t about those points. It is about the villainous women characters. Let’s focus on the two worst offenders: Aunt Norris and Maria Bertram.
Mrs. Norris is a sister to the heroine’s mother. When one sister marries well, she is jealous and incapable of catching a worthy man herself. She ends up with a miserly clergyman with a gouty constitution who dies near the beginning of the story, leaving her at the mercy of her sister and brother-in-law. She ingratiates herself to the man’s children, and she is drawn in the role of nemesis by her favoritism and her encouragement of the wrong sorts of behavior.
Her major fault, in my estimation, is trying to lay a claim on traits she does not possess, and in doing so she makes an oppressed slave of Fanny Price, the child of her other, less-fortunate sister. Aunt Norris is also a cheapskate! Mooching off of anyone, no exceptions or exclusions, she is one of those characters that you love to see get hers in the end. And it is her favorite niece, our other villainess, who is just the instrument to do it to her.
Maria Bertram is a spoiled brat. She wants a rich husband and has her heart set on having money through marriage. Even after she engages in some risqué behavior with the visiting Henry Crawford, she marries her boring fiancé Mr. Rushworth, despite the fact that her father is willing to allow her to throw off the engagement. Rather than let her younger, un-betrothed sister have the honor of the handsome visitor’s attention, Maria plays fast and loose with Mr. Crawford right under her fiancé’s oblivious nose. The eldest son Tom and his friend Mr. Yates encourage the ideas of improper vice (in this case it’s a play—which apparently in the highly moral Sir Thomas Bertram’s house is vile and horrific for his unmarried daughters to participate in with men who are not related or betrothed to them).
One more would be villainess, albeit less a villain than a calculated opponent for our weak heroine, Mary Crawford tries to wheedle and get her way with the second son, Edmund, right out from under sweet little Fanny’s nose. Duplicity and feigned goodness abound in this woman. She’s the epitome of fake-phony sincerity. Mary Crawford makes no scruple of admitting she doesn’t want to marry a clergyman, such as Edmund will be. She encourages him to think of other options, and at one point even wishes his elder brother might not recover from a debilitating illness, which would allow Edmund to succeed to the rights and privileges of a first-born son—a Baronetcy and all the bells and whistles. But eventually Mary’s lack of moral fiber leads to her true nature being revealed to the forlorn Edmund, who then must settle for his second choice—first cousin Fanny (barely suppressed shudder).
Curiously I was more interested in the villainesses’ outcomes and in seeing them on the receiving end of what they really deserved rather than having Fanny get her happy ending. And I’m ashamed to admit that at one point I actually hoped Ms. Austen might bless us with a tragedy—consumptive lung or perhaps a horrid fever that killed our young heroine for a moral tragedian lesson. Alas, this was not to be.
Fanny of course ended up with her cousin who, if I recall it accurately, decided he’d as well marry her as not since the woman he loved was not worthy of his vision of a clerical life, “…might not do just as well, or a great deal better: whether Fanny herself were not growing as dear, as important to him in all her smiles and all her ways, as Mary Crawford had ever been; and whether it might not be a possible, an hopeful undertaking to persuade her that her warm and sisterly regard for him would be foundation enough for wedded love.” … hot—no, NOT!
You might say I’m being too severe here, that it wasn’t unlawful or as disagreeable back then to marry first cousins—well, there’s a reason those laws were passed— I just couldn’t get past the ick-factor. But I’ll go further. The helpless heroine in this book didn’t thrill me. The political feelings against slavery, which was in the process of being outlawed around this time in England—when the book was being released, was partly to blame for this characterization of a weak, helpless heroine enslaved to her richer relations against her will. She wasn’t the sort of female that I, a 21st Century woman, could support. I couldn’t enjoy it even if I imagined it as a satirical picture of the sensibility that was, during the time of the release, so attractive in women as far as 19th Century males were concerned. To me, Fanny was as much a villainous creature for not sticking up for herself as Julia was, or like Maria for marrying a delusional fop and doing the dirty mattress dance with the clever dandy on the side thinking she wouldn’t get caught. Naughty, naughty!
This work to me was one of Austen’s most circumstantially clever. Here the villainess and the heroine are mostly one in the same! There is not any real evil in any of the female characters in “Emma” or any male characters for that matter. This story was bucolic in its portrayal of the events. Miss Emma Woodhouse’s immaturity and her failure to realize the course of actions or the consequences of her interference are the gist of the only real evil in the story.
The character of Mrs. Elton, a rich and self-aggrandizing woman who drops names like a squirrel drops acorn shells, is the only true villain against Ms. Emma Woodhouse—and her only crime really is a jealousy stemming from rumors that her husband was once the lover of the local favorite debutant. All the rest of the evil perpetrated in this novel was done by none other than our meddlesome heroine!
You have to love Ms. Emma, rather than fault her, because her actions are kindly meant in most cases. She gets a bit full of herself on the strawberry outing and she inadvertently hurts people when she falls victim to the cunning tricks of a clever man, who actually didn’t seek to injure her feelings or reputation as much as to protect his and his lover’s interests for the future. And the childlike innocence of the heroine is almost balanced by the hero in the story, Mr. Knightly. I liked the story, and couldn’t really find a real evil in any of the females. Some pride and minor manipulation, perhaps, but no real deceit. A little societal cruelty comes out on occasion, but not really enough to signify real hurt nor anything to the extent of wrecking anyone’s prospects or blasting anyone’s hopes. So I guess this one gets to be almost a villainess, kind of like a B-List celebrity.
The Birth of the Rom-Com!
Northanger Abbey (written 1798, posthumously published in 1816)
This work is one of my top three favorites of Jane Austen’s body of work. This book, obviously written as a satirical attack on the helpless heroines flooding the literary works of the age, used a very cheeky author’s voice to tell the story of a woman who was not quite so worldly as the books and novels of the day would allow her to imagine she was. Throughout the book, most of the villains are products of the heroine Catherine Morland’s imagination. And the main villainess is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The real evil creature to outline here is Miss Isabella Thorpe.
Isabella is a woman with little connection to society and not enough money to be influential in the worldly way she would like. Her character has many faults. She’s a gold-digger, master manipulator and a slightly inexperienced liar. The book doesn’t even attempt to hide her transgressions from the reader—which is really the point of the satire. Ms. Thorpe is the worst kind of female in the moral eyes of society: a fickle, climbing flirt with loose morals. This woman’s character portrait is pretty much the embodiment of every poor trait a female of the time could have. She tries to wheedle and cajole Catherine into doing whatever she wants at the time.
Our villainess here isn’t as clever or as keen as she would hope though. In the end all her sins and transgressions against our heroine (and her hapless brother) are easily known to us, even if our heroine and her relations are oblivious to the obvious. And the villainess’s brother (one of the books’ lesser villains) is the instigator of both the best and worst times for the heroine in the book, which is why he’s necessary even if he is a vile, toady sort.
If not for the interference of the poisonous female villain and her arrogant and ignorant brother, the story probably would have been just fine—given the behavior and attention of the very worthy hero—the handsome guy who has a sense of humor: our Mr. Tilney. But the story would’ve been shorter and without the humor of the tangles our naive heroine gets into during the story, which our hero so graciously overlooks when he can. So in this case, the villainess was a necessary evil. And the author herself gets props from me for being cheeky in her criticisms against the contemporary works of her peers. It’s quite entertaining to imagine early 19th Century literature she’s satirizing being much the same today when compared to the too-sweet-to stomach comedies or the too-artful-to-be-realistic dramas of contemporary chick flicks!
I liked the way Jane Austen avoided the fairy-tale trap here. She could have made the poor heroine into a Cinderella-like victim and had the rich Henry Tilney being her knight in shining armor. But she chose to portray a realistic heroine, though giving the effects of calling Catherine the heroine of the tale just as if it was a real novel but with a humorous turn, “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.” And it was this opening statement that suggests to the reader that the truest villain of this book was a silly girl’s imagination!
Persuasion (published posthumously 1816)
It is widely known that the latter works of Jane Austen were collaboratively published by her family and friends. This is another such novel. The main villains in this novel are scheming climbers again, but in the case of our heroine, Miss Anne Elliot, she’s more of a tapestry. Her life plays out with predictable activity, and yet you find yourself hoping for her success at a second encounter with her lost love! The subtle villains in this novel aren’t really even people at all, though there are villain-like women and men aplenty to carry out the work. Perhaps Jane’s brother might have chosen “Propriety and Persuasion” as a title of this work instead?
Or maybe “Pride and Persuasion” would have workedbetter? In truth the two real culprits in the novel are parental persuasion and pricked pride, but by already having pride in the title of another book, that particular transgression had to take a backseat in the curricle.
We’re introduced early on to the idea of Anne’s being impetuous or precipitous, of taking chances where prudence or propriety would argue against it, by accepting the proposal of a young man without fortune or foreseeable prospects to the average observer. Thus persuasion is the initial villain against the heroine in her youth, and her subsequent filial obedience plagues her life for the following eight years when the man she loves is hurt by her choice of a broken rather than a long engagement. By not valuing the need for such caution, he leaves her unrequited.
There are villainous women and men, as I said before, who are the instruments of delivering these villainous circumstances to our poor Anne. Sir Walter Elliot and his eldest daughter Elizabeth greatly undervalue Anne’s abilities and guidance. They are pompous and admire things for their superficial worth rather than their ultimate value overall. They are full of unwarranted pride, or as we’d say in the twenty-first century, “They’re full of themselves (or full of $#!t … take your pick).” Sir Walter had spent himself into a high level of debts that only his retrenching could remedy. Anne’s younger sister, the married Mary Musgrove, was the hypochondriacal pain-in-the-rear who believed herself higher than her husband’s family and due more than she felt she ever received at their hands.
Lady Russell is only mildly cruel in being the instrument forcing the separation of the young hero and heroine when their love and some future prospects might have seen them very happy together. The only thing preventing the family and friends’ consent was the fact that Frederick Wentworth’s future was only speculative at the time of his asking Anne to marry him, and as anyone worth their romantic license knows unknown prospects must never be counted according to parental advice. Rather than being imprudent or running away, we have our little heroine stay and obediently suffer the loss and broken heart with such martyrdom. Anyway, it’s for that reason that I cannot give Lady Russell the true title of villainess here.
Anne’s sisters are both villains without being intentionally or knowingly cruel. They don’t have pride in their middle sister, and therefore they give her no consideration either way. She’s only useful to them as they see necessary, and this is a type of cruelty, but without real intent. So you cannot really crown either of them as the queen bee of villainy. Mrs. Clay, a friend of Elizabeth’s and the widowed daughter of Sir Walter’s steward, is perhaps the most conniving and manipulative person in the book. However, one cannot credit her with any real treachery toward the heroine. Her antics are all in the service of self-improvement, although at the expense of the unwitting, pompous people she’s chosen to glom onto with her sugary pleasantness and effusive flattery. She’s only out to do for herself, but in no way is she truly aiming to injure anyone on purpose. So I again cannot award the rights of villainess to her.
The Musgrove sisters play a little at manipulation and persuasion themselves in trying to win the heart of the handsome Captain Wentworth, but they both fall upon their own swords—Louisa for determined impetuousness that leads to her own folly and Henrietta for scheming thereafter to get her betrothed a better situation, though hers is the more feeble effort of the two.
I guess you could say that while no violent evil exists here, there are enough instances of injustice to make the general character of women in the novel pale in comparison with the heroine. And the wounded lion of Captain Wentworth’s pride is healed only when he recognizes the real value of a woman like Anne Elliot and realizes his love is the only real constant. Aww!
Before I close this essay, note that I didn’t touch on Sanditon, the Watson’s or Lady Susan. To me, this is a compilation of incomplete works that mustn’t be dissected. I can’t speak for Jane Austen, but I know that I myself wouldn’t want my work to be judged on a few scrawled notes and ideas that I never had the opportunity to fledge and develop into any true storyline. Therefore, I will not use that work—which couldn’t be truly considered as fully hers in its published form—out of respect for her. I have read Lady Susan, but its epistolary format is difficult to follow. There is one clear villainess within the short novella, but unfortunately the only real character to see is that of Lady Susan—the adulterous, loveless mother who tries to ply her wiles on many an unwitting man using her brow-beaten daughter as a pawn. No real plot or actions to follow, and in my opinion an incomplete work.
As for the completed works, I applaud Jane Austen’s accuracy of portraying real women to such a turn. She allowed female characters to have wit, sense and cunning that so far had been absent in literature. She gave women a more natural approach, showing faults in the cleverest ways and cruelty without making it a property of madness or criminality. Back in the time of Jane Austen, women were valued for their traits of virtue, gentility and demureness. A female literary character of Jane Austen’s world, one given such a natural temperament and truth in coarse or cruel behavior, was not to be seen or spoken of before she took the chance of putting her words out into the public eye. We all have known one of these bad girls no matter which century we claim as our own, but Jane Austen took the trouble of exposing these rare glimpses of real women, good and bad, for the world to see.
Jane Austen is the true reason so many of my contemporary peers admire romance as a concept. She was the true revolutionary of her time, and still today hundreds of thousands of women fall in love with her stories. I admit, I came to the table late. It was in 2002 – when a will and an inheritance placed within my hands the VHS version of the BBC miniseries, “Pride and Prejudice.” I watched the tapes and realized that I’d never given the work its due. As soon as I’d watched the series (six or ten times), I returned to classic literature and re-read every one of Jane Austen's works. It was only then that I was first able to see the true qualities of romance that I admire in literature brought to life nearly two centuries ago.
Jane Austen will forever be the template by which romantic fiction is measured. And women like me will pray every time they sit to compose a story on the page that they can achieve even some margin of the talent that Miss Jane Austen displayed in her works.
B. L. B.