I’m a sucker for it all — the romance, the sickly fascinating ways of English society (people sure were into keeping it in the family in those days) and the characters who are just as crazy as they are charming.
Yet — and I really hate to criticize my idol — sometimes I think Jane was confused on what makes a good woman. Which is why the characters I love aren’t always the ones I’m supposed to. Sure, Jane got it right with Elizabeth Bennet. Who doesn’t love Elizabeth? Smart, sassy, unafraid to speak her mind, and not pretty enough to hate; unlike her painfully boring older sister Jane, who gets away with having the personality of a tea leaf because she’s hot stuff in the 1810s. Don’t have good looks and a weak immune system? Well, he’s just not that into you.
Barring Elizabeth, let’s take Sense and Sensibility‘s Marianne and Colonel Brandon. Man pines after woman. Woman gets sick. Woman realizes she loves man. Reader is supposed to be happy all is right in the universe. Sure, Jane loves a good near-death scene. But this reader still feels bad for the guy. He’s spent ages lusting after a woman who blows him off relentlessly because she’s obsessed with another dude. What does Marianne really have going for her anyway? She plays some piano and reads a lot. Oh yeah, she’s also really good-looking.
Her sister Elinor, representing the “sense,” isn’t much better. She condescends to Marianne, who isn’t quite quick enough to realize it, and just sits around appalled at everyone else. Instead, Mrs. Jennings represents the most sympathetic, enjoyable character. But we’re supposed to hate her because she’s loud and obnoxious — winning traits in my book, if I ever write one, that is. Jennings is pretty cool. She doesn’t care what anyone thinks, she’s non-judgmental, and she’s really nice to people even when they’re openly rude to her. Plus, she’s always inviting people to come stay at her fancy house in London! If I were Marianne or Elinor I’d start being a little more appreciative.
Austen throws the rest of us a bone and includes an ugly protagonist every once in a while, which brings us to Mansfield Park‘s Fanny Price. Fanny isn’t even semi-good looking. (She’s also in love with her cousin Edmund, making for some really weird sexual tension around the dinner table.) On the other hand, her cousin Maria, whom Austen portrays unsympathetically, knows how to bring it, and manages to snag a rich guy with a really sweet estate. Then, while said rich guy is away on business — or hunting or doing some other gloriously inane task the landed gentry did back then — Maria has an affair with smoking-hot Mr. Crawford, with whom she’s been madly in love for a long time. Granted, Mr. Crawford is supposed to be Fanny’s beau, but Fanny really loves Edmund, so no harm done. Maria ends up getting screwed in the end anyway, though: Mr. Crawford won’t marry her. Her reputation ruined and her previous engagement in shambles, she’s shunned from English society forever.
Okay, I get it, Maria probably shouldn’t have cheated on her fiance with her cousin’s boyfriend. But, doesn’t that sound a lot more fun than sitting around depressed all day? Not to mention waiting, like Fanny, for your cousin to realize he loves you, too, and is down with the incest thing.