The Unsung Heroines
I could write a whole essay about how Austen chose ladies who did not meet the era ideals of a lady as her heroines. If you judge by other novels of the time, a troublesome or flawed female is usually a secondary character. Austen pokes fun of this directly in Northanger Abbey. The Gothic novels that Catherine Morland so loves to read usually features a woman with some damaged past. Eleanor Tilney with the dead mother, moody father, and wayward brother would be the more expected heroine. Instead, Austen turns the notion on its head. Today, I will argue the opposite as well: Jane Bennet and Jane Fairfax are supporting heroines in their own right, not just secondary characters.
One of the things that makes Austen so enduring is her large cast of characters in her novels. Granted, there are times when it can get confusing. Persuasion seems to have an over-abundance of men named Charles that I think would have changed if she had time for more edits. On the other hand, because there are so many people and with a variety of personalities and foibles, her works feel incredibly realistic. Obviously, not every character can be given the same amount of “screen time.” Minor characters help round out any story, but tertiary characters have little impact on the plot. Secondary characters are essential to the plot because of how they interact with the protagonist. Still, they should not eclipse the hero/heroine and have the ability to change the course of the plot.
Now, I don’t mean to say that every secondary female Austen writes has the power to be a secondary heroine. Sense and Sensibility is clearly written with dual heroines. But who compares to Anne Elliot in Persuasion? Who can direct the plot in Northanger Abbey but Catherine? And as the plot of Mansfield Park is Fanny finding her position in the world and the Bertram family no one else can move events, no matter how interesting some find Mary Crawford.
First, let us look at the definition of a hero. Wikipedia lists this: A hero (masculine) or heroine (feminine) is a person or main character of a literary work who, in the face of danger, combats adversity through impressive feats of ingenuity, bravery or strength, often sacrificing his or her own personal concerns for some greater good. And Dictionary.com says this:
- a person noted for courageous acts or nobility of character:
He became a local hero when he saved the drowning child.
- a person who, in the opinion of others, has special achievements, abilities, or personal qualities and is regarded as a role model or ideal:
My older sister is my hero. Entrepreneurs are our modern heroes.
- the principal male character in a story, play, film, etc.
In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is undoubtedly brave when she refuses proposals from Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy — although I would point out she was still young, pretty, healthy, her father living, and with plenty of relatives. It is not as though it was she was choosing death instead of marriage. But you absolutely cannot say she ever sacrificed her own feelings for the greater good. In fact, some (like her mother) could argue that it would have been better to marry Collins! It is Jane who is already being called a spinster (by a sister and aunt no less) and who bears gossip of her neighborhood and teasing from her father about her broken heart. She bravely faces Bingley’s return with no sign of his continued affection whereas Elizabeth’s months of uncertainty came after being assured of Darcy’s constant love. And if Jane ever considered showing her feelings for Bingley more, she likely checked them given what was already said about the display all of her sisters put on (yes, including Elizabeth). She calmly quashed her own desires to marry Bingley with accepting that all of his friends and family did not like her for him. While she would still be happy to marry him, she constantly considered *his* happiness — such as after hearing Wickham’s story she worried that if Wickham and Darcy had a confrontation at the ball, it would wound Bingley. Elizabeth is drunk on a desire for justice and truth, and Jane only considers the happiness of others.
Likewise, Emma Woodhouse never makes any sacrifices on what she desires. She is pampered and spoiled. If she does not marry Knightley, she will go on living just fine as mistress of Highbury. She does grow and evolve during the book, and she is brave enough to not only argue with Knightley (and anyone else) but to face her own failings when she could get away with no consequences. However, that is nothing like the bravery Jane Fairfax displays. She was taken in by strangers as a child. She was reared with a position as a governess as her highest possibility. Once she fell in love, it had to be a secret engagement which caused her acute pain not simply from knowing the failing of propriety. She then saw her beloved openly court another woman and joke about her. When it seemed Frank desired to sever the engagement, Jane accepted a position as a governess to strangers arranged by a woman who meddled in her life and of whom she could feel no affection. If it were not for the death of Mrs. Churchill, Jane would have soon left Highbury for Bath and had been friendless, miserable, and just as poor as ever. She could have stood up and demanded her due as Frank’s betrothed. She could have exposed the whole thing. Even if Frank were disinherited marrying him at all would be a better situation than being a governess — Frank’s father was not destitute, and he was still young enough to gain a profession and was well-connected. Like Jane Bennet, I think Jane F considered what was best for Frank over herself.
Finally, let’s examine how each Jane affected the plot of her particular novel.
Jane Bennet was not at the mercy of events. She did not sit in the corner and only come out to give Elizabeth some grand awakening (Mrs. Gardiner’s letter, Charlotte’s conversations) or tell the reader something (Mary) or make Elizabeth equally as guilty as Darcy had been (Lydia). What if Jane had shown more of her feelings for Bingley? Dozens of fan fiction writers have played with the very idea. If Bingley perceives her regard, he usually acts on it, and the greatest sting in Elizabeth’s argument against Darcy is gone. Darcy and Elizabeth typically fall in love faster and avert half of the original story. What if Jane had gone out of her way to see Bingley more in London instead of resigning herself to his happiness of ending the relationship? What if she had asked to go with Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner to the North? What if she had taken Bingley to task when he returned to the area? These questions affect more than Jane’s storyline. They would change others’ parts as well. You simply can’t argue the same of the other characters who have no growth or revolution.
As previously stated, Jane Fairfax might have blown the whistle on the secret engagement long before the truth came out. She is entirely complicit with Emma not knowing of the engagement and following Frank down a path of indecorum and accidental cruelty to friends. Jane might have taken a position as governess temporarily or written to the Campbells and joined them later. She might have befriended Emma. What if she had encouraged Knightley the way Frank encouraged Emma? Emma likely would have awoken to her feelings for Knightley earlier.
Anyone can see that Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse are the stars of their novel, but I think with a little bit of scrutiny one can also see how the lady just next to them is a heroine of her own alternate story. As a fan fiction writer and avid Austen reader, I love that! What do you think?