What is it about Jane Austen that brings fans come back again and again? I don’t think that it’s just the ‘romances’ – to be honest, once you look beneath the surface, more than a few of them are quite problematic. What is fantastic though is Austen’s cast of supporting characters. Austen is a succinct writer, she doesn’t let characters ramble on and on in the way that Dickens does, but yet each of her players are fully-realised. Perhaps that is why there are so very many Austen-esque spin-offs, so many question marks hover over her characters, so much space for the reader to wander and wonder. Still, while those from Pride and Prejudice do tend to dominate, there are fantastic background characters across all Austen’s books.
Jane Fairfax, Emma
The picture above relates to the spin-of written by well-known The Wolves of Willoughby Chase author Joan Aiken – I am strongly considering checking this one out. The tale of Jane Fairfax is the shadow plot to Emma and the titular Emma is utterly oblivious to it. Austen emphasises the parallels between the two girls, that they are the same age and that everyone assumes that they must be friends but Emma finds Jane far too perfect. Poor Jane is forced to watch as the man she loves flirts with Emma to camouflage their affair, believing that Frank’s strict guardian Mrs Churchill will never sanction their union and that she will have to live her life as a governess. She is only saved from this life by Mrs Churchill’s fortuitous demise. The events do echo a certain other famous book, something a number of writers have observed. Certainly Charlotte Brontë did read Emma, it is this which inspired her rather infamous comments that Austen failed to understand people’s passions. It seems a little dubious to imagine the book inspired Jane Eyre but I can imagine that Janes Fairfax and Eyre would have had a lot to talk about if they had ever met. Both patronised and treated with contempt by the great ladies, both teased and disrespected by the men who claim to love them – Jane Fairfax may be poor but she does not wish to live without love.
Mary Crawford, Mansfield Park
Generation upon generation of readers have preferred Mary Crawford over Fanny Price. It’s not that hard to see why – Mary is prettier, wittier and a lot more savvy – she even tells the rudest joke in the entire of the Austen canon (‘rears and vices’). Edmund Bertram is completely bewitched and so are we. While spin-off after spin-off seems to be centred around Pride and Prejudice’s Mary Bennet, I personally think that Miss Crawford is far more interesting. What are we actually supposed to think of her? She clearly isn’t all bad – she can see that Mrs Norris is an utterly awful person and that the way she speaks to Fanny is atrocious. Mary does seem to want to be nice. But then she says such awful other things – saying that if Tom Bertram dies that it wouldn’t be such a bad thing, rolling her eyes at Maria Rushworth’s adultery not because it was a rotten thing to do but more because Maria was foolish enough to betray herself to a servant. What does she actually want? For twenty-first century readers, Mary Crawford is a lot easier to identify with than Fanny Price – her cynicism and pragmatism are more akin to our own. If someone could actually explain what was driving Mary, Mansfield Park would be a far less problematic book.
Miss Mainwaring, Lady Susan
She barely gets a mention but in the bare few lines where she features, Miss Mainwaring is memorable. Lady Susan has an infamously enigmatic ending, with the foolish Reginald badgered into marrying Frederica and Lady Susan herself marrying the foolish Sir James. Austen cheerily dispatches all of these characters to their respective fates and says that herself, the only person she actually feels sorry for is Miss Mainwaring, who had been previously attached to Sir James and who had bought an extensive new wardrobe and travelled to London in the hopes of securing him, only to have him snatched away from her and then the associated debt from buying all the new dresses left her impoverished for two years. In this tiny sketch, Austen proves not only how well she can set up a character but also that she is the all time queen of the one-liner.
Caroline Bingley, Pride and Prejudice
Whatever will become of Caroline Bingley? At the end of the novel, her only brother has married a girl who Caroline had gone through some convoluted plans to separate him from, leaving the new Mrs Bingley with little reason to be fond of her. The man she had hoped to marry has taken up with another girl who Caroline had also been insufferably rude to – we hear that she ‘pays off ever arrear of incivility’ to Elizabeth because she wants to still be able to visit Pemberley, but one struggles to imagine that invitations will be plentiful in future. Her sister Louisa is married to a man who seems to be a boor, so she won’t want to go there. Despite being quick with a put-down herself, Austen leaves us in no doubt that Caroline’s meanness has left her in a difficult position. There is something about Caroline though that makes her a reliable fixture in spin-offs. In Follies Past, we see her trying to lay down the law when she stays at Pemberley since she expects to be mistress one day. We imagine the staff breathing a deep sigh of relief when they hear that the master has decided on someone else instead. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries sees her as an intellectual snob and wannabe hipster. She’s a very recognisable character type, the person who looks down their nose at you when you walk in the room, who tuts when you speak, frankly someone who suffers from Resting Bitch Face. We’ve all been made uncomfortable by someone like that – we want more stories about her because we want to see her pay.
Mrs Jennings, Sense and Sensibility
Ah – I can’t help but be fond of Mrs Jennings. She reminds me a lot of a particularly dear relative. Marianne thinks she’s dreadful but is happy to take advantage of Mrs Jennings’ invitation to London when she needs it. Mrs Jennings can be cripplingly embarrassing in how she brings up the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person, but her heart is good. Other than Lady Catherine de Bourgh though, Mrs Jennings holds more power than almost any other women in the novels. She is pleased with herself that she has disposed of her daughters so well in marriage but she is also quite clear that she expects to see them treated well by their husbands. Unlike Lady Catherine, she does speak up for the oppressed – she takes in her poor relatives the Steeles, she expresses sorrow for what Lucy’s life will be as wife to Edward Ferrars with no money – a baby every year and no way of providing for them. Mrs Jennings also speaks out when she thinks things are out of line – she is clear on what she thinks of Willoughby for how he treated her ‘young friend’ and when Elinor attempts to make allowances, stating that there had been no formal engagement, Mrs Jennings is very clear that this makes no difference – his intentions had been very clear. I feel that Austen was too harsh on Mrs Jennings, just as she was too harsh to Mrs Musgrove in Persuasion. I would like to know more about what the world looked like from Mrs Jennings’ perspective – I think she saw more than Elinor or Marianne could admit.
Elizabeth Elliot, Persuasion
Another Austen Mean Girl here – Elizabeth Elliot is the eldest of the three Elliot girls and by the end of the novel, she is the only one unwed. There is something very, very strange though about the relationship between father and daughter here. Elizabeth has become her father’s consort in the absence of her mother and while Sir Walter is fixated with how far those around him are ageing and decaying, he cannot appear to conceive that the same process is touching either him or Elizabeth. Yet Elizabeth is approaching thirty, has no redeeming personality qualities or skills, and is mean in a way that is only equalled within Austen’s books by Fanny Dashwood. Having felt smugly confident that William Elliot would marry her, he has instead run off with her friend. She has a life of indignity ahead of her which will not be helped by her personality. Indeed though, the very fact that she had hoped to marry her father’s heir is weird on a Freudian level. Elizabeth symbolises something not very healthy about the aristocracy and that she will probably have to fall on the mercies of one of her married-beneath-themselves sisters is something Austen clearly intends us to be aware of.
Isabella Thorpe, Northanger Abbey
More so even than Lydia Bennet, Isabella Thorpe is the Whore of Austendom. It’s not just that she’s a flirt, or even that she’s manipulative, it’s that she’s utterly absurd in how she does so. Northanger Abbey is Austen’s funniest novel so it fits that its villainess be equally comic. My personal favourite was when she tore poor Catherine to pieces for making friends with Eleanor Tilney and neglecting their ‘old’ friendship, despite the fact that they’d barely known each other three weeks – when I worked in summer camps, I witnessed friendships of similar intensity breaking out between the ten year-olds and they always combusted. It does feel that Austen is tapping into something. Isabella is the ghastly Queen Bee and all must pay homage to her or die. It’s easy to assume that she is seduced by Frederick Tilney – indeed the excellent ITV production makes this fact, with Isabella naively assuming that they must now be engaged – but it’s never made clear. She certainly seems to think better of her decision to end her engagement, but Isabella always seems to me to be a survivor. Where her brother is a brute, Isabella is far cannier, the kind of person it would be unwise to turn your back on. We are left to imagine what on earth she did next.
Miss Bates, Emma
If you listen carefully to what Miss Bates is saying, the plot of Emma becomes far less convoluted. Of course, the rich, beautiful, clever and generally annoying Emma is too busy being pleased with herself to be interested, but then the reader realises rapidly how little Emma really knows, so surely we should know that when Emma dismisses Miss Bates, she must therefore be important. But of course, we often don’t – it’s very tempting to skip over her. The woman really does go on. There are lots of theories about Miss Bates – as one of two daughters of a deceased clergyman and living with her elderly mother, there are some theories that she symbolises a kind of author self-portrait or caricature. Is this Austen’s way of expressing her frustration at being an ignored poor relation? As she and her sister and mother shifted from lodging to lodging, with her brothers only assisting them sporadically, Austen saw her own circumstances slide just as Miss Bates does. Then there are other theories – Miss Bates’ mother refers to her as ‘Hetty’, which would be short for Henrietta, leading some to suppose that it is she who is the mother of the otherwise unclaimed Harriet Smith. Whatever the truth is, Miss Bates deserves more attention than she gets and Austen wanted us to notice her.
Lucy Steele, Sense and Sensibility
Lucy and her sister Anne provide a horrifying mirror image for the novel’s main set of sisters, Elinor and Marianne. Anne (or Nancy) is the inappropriate blabbermouth who can’t keep her trap shut. Lucy is the clever one – the one with the sense. Famously good with the Middleton children, Lucy ingratiates herself wherever she goes, leaving an aghast Elinor in her wake. The story of how Lucy ensnared the anaemic Edward has mystified readers for years. For starters, why was eldest son Edward sent down to school in Plymouth in the first place when his brother Robert was sent to Westminster (posh school)? Presumably Lucy’s uncle introduced her into the household for the purpose of seduction (single man – large fortune – we know how it goes), certainly there seemed to be a lack of supervision. The question of what passed between Lucy and Edward that made their betrothal so indissoluble does bear close inspection. There is also something deeply absurd about a young man going up against his family and losing his inheritance so that he can marry a woman who he does not care for and who he knows cares not a jot for him. People have unfairly accused Austen’s novels of being marriage plots obsessed with tracking down rich men, but the only heroine who is truly mercenary-minded on matrimony is Lucy – this girl has made marrying well her goal and she is determined to only sell herself for the best possible price.
Admiral Croft, Persuasion
I have such fondness for the Crofts – they always seem to be the happiest matched couple in all of the books and while Anne Elliot notes that the Admiral requires Mrs Croft’s occasion help to keep the steering correct, their life together appears to be a contented one. The Admiral is a true gentleman, particularly in contrast with the self-consciously aristocratic Sir Walter. I always enjoy the part where he comments on how uncomfortable Sir Walter’s many mirrors made him, with the Admiral far preferring to get on with just his little shaving glass – clearly for him, looking in the mirror was only to be done for reasons of utility rather than vanity. I can’t help but be curious though about his sea-voyaging career though, particularly having read Master and Commander. The long absences from his adored wife in contrast to his obvious love for the sea and then his benign confusion at the ways of those there land-lubbing folk who will take their time over everything. The Crofts feel like a couple you could sit down next to at dinner, that they would make you feel welcome and want to hear all about you, just as I would love to know more of them.
There are many other Austen characters of both the minor and major variety who have also made me wonder – this may be a topic to return to! I would love to hear from other people – which are the Austen characters who have stuck in your mind the most?