In 2008, the Jane Austen Society of North America took a survey of its membership about Austen’s characters. I’ve come across the results several times. I thought I’d recap them here and offer a few thoughts of my own.
Fully one-third of Janeites read three or more of Austen’s books in a year. Eleven percent read all six every year. By far (53 percent), Pride and Prejudice is the most popular book. Next is Persuasion (28 percent). Though it’s also my second favorite, most of my Janeite friends, plus several academics I respect, prefer Emma. I assume Persuasion carries the day because mature readers like the story of a mature woman having her “second spring.”
From Persuasion it’s a big drop down to Emma at 7 percent. Because of the popularity of the movie(s) made of Sense and Sensibility (especially Emma Thompson’s 1995 version, which set off the current Austen stampede), I was a little short of stunned that this book was so far down the list at 5 percent. I guess readers are more discerning than movie viewers; or, perhaps, the movie overcomes some of the book’s weaknesses.
Dragging their petticoats through the mud are Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey at 4 percent each. I admire a lot of things about MP, especially the large cast of characters, but I don’t think Austen quite pulls off the multiple story lines. I always felt that Northanger was a nice first try, though I’ve gained more respect for it in recent close readings. When Austen gets away from the Gothic schtick, the writing in NA is, to me, better than that in S&S. I suggest that S&S was a more complete story in its original form of a novel-in-letters but that Austen did little in the way of revision beyond converting it to a direct narrative. On the other hand, NA seems much “younger” in some ways and limited by the Gothic framing device. Yet in other places, the writing is far crisper and more advanced than what seems to be the slightly more old-fashioned form in S&S.
Here’s a shock: The favorite heroine was Elizabeth Bennet (58 percent) over Anne Elliot (24 percent). Liz is the only heroine who goes toe to toe with every antagonist. I often wonder why Austen never came back to a similar strong lead character. No one else gets more votes than Elinor Dashwood’s 7 percent. Emma Woodhouse, whom I thought would poll higher, gets only 5 percent. Emma is strong, but she was born into a superior position. I feel a certain bemusement that Fanny Price would slightly outpoll Catherine Moreland, 3 percent to 2 percent. Fanny may have ramrod moral fiber, but Catherine’s a whole lot more interesting. Janeites feel no sympathy for the sensibility-laden Marianne Dashwood at 1 percent.
No surprise, either, for favorite hero: Fitzwilliam Darcy, 51 percent. Given the strong second position of Persuasion, it’s surprising that only 17 percent voted for Frederick Wentworth. I would have picked George Knightley as my leading man, but he polled only 14 percent. I guess a man’s being perceptive, kind, and hard-working doesn’t do it for the ladies (96 percent of survey respondents were female). Henry Tilney manages 10 percent and Colonel Brandon, 5 percent. I like Henry’s sense of humor, but he also does a lot of mansplaining to the ladies. I’m not sure I want to meet the 1 percent each who voted for Edward Ferrars and Edmund Bertram as the leading males. Austen must have liked them, but there’s no reason for anyone else to. I’ll qualify that by pointing out Edmund’s kindness to Fanny early on. But he’s oblivious to her feelings when it matters. His purloining of her horse for Mary Crawford is downright cruel. Edmund seems to marry Fanny because she’s the only female within sight at the end.
In the category of favorite bad boys, the top three were predictable: 33 percent chose Wickham; 28 percent, Willoughby; and 16 percent, Crawford. The rest of the list is puzzling. Frank Churchill, who polled 10 percent, is not a bad boy in the sense of an evil person with superficial charm. He’s an honest charmer and insensitive jerk. Flirting with another woman to disguise an engagement is not in the same league as seducing young women. William Elliot, on the other hand, is manifestly evil, yet he pulled fewer votes at 7 percent. Six percent went for General Tilney, who’s not a charmer or a boy. The General is nasty stuff, but Austen leavens him subtly by showing his continuing grief for his late wife. Catherine Morland misunderstands this as guilt over his having done away with her.
Here’s a survey question I’d have never thought of: Worst Parents. Sir Walter Elliot of Persuasion is the runaway winner at 54 percent. It’s sad to see Mansfield Park get all the other votes: 16 percent for Mr. and Mrs. Price and 15 percent for Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram.
I take exception to the votes against Sir Thomas. He takes in Fanny (and later her sister), he helps her brother get into the Navy and even pays to outfit him. It’s true that Sir Thomas angrily banishes Fanny to Portsmouth for rejecting Henry Crawford. But Sir Thomas doesn’t know she loves Edmund. He fears she is giving up a good man in Crawford and possibly the best offer she may ever receive. He thinks she’s being obstinate when she’s being true to her own beliefs. Fanny’s unpleasant stay at Portsmouth does teach her to appreciate Mansfield Park. Her absence, meanwhile, teaches Sir Thomas to appreciate Fanny.
Another fun category was four comic characters who delight us. P&P brings home the prize here, with Mrs. Bennet at 74 percent and Mr. Collins at 70 percent. The other two were Admiral Croft at 56 percent and Miss Bates at 50.
It’s understandable for Mrs. Bennet to lead the list. Being crass, she’s unintentionally funny. But she has also, I think, received more bad press than she deserves. Austen gives both sides of the story with her synopsis: “She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married.”
Unlike her husband, who seems content with whatever may happen with his brood, Mrs. Bennet is desperate to see them settled in a decent home. She lacks the natural joy of Jane or the intelligence and class of Liz, but she’s trying to take care of her children the only way she knows how. We sympathize, even as we chuckle.
The Admiral is another puzzler. He has his amusing moments. He can navigate a 74-gun battleship around the world but can’t manage a one-horse gig on a country lane. Yet he is not a comic character. He’s a very wise one. Along, no doubt, with his wife, Sophy, Admiral Croft is a shrewd observer of people. His conversation with Anne Elliot on the streets of Bath is not that of a man oblivious to her situation but one very much aware of her feelings for Wentworth, and his for her. He lets Anne know she’ll get another shot at her man:
“Poor Frederick!” said he at last. “Now he must begin all over again with somebody else. I think we must get him to Bath. Sophy must write, and beg him to come to Bath. Here are pretty girls enough, I am sure. Do not you think, Miss Elliot, we had better try to get him to Bath?”
I have no idea if JASNA plans to update the survey. It’d be interesting to see if the responses have changed significantly over the last decade. About 4,500 people participated, a huge turnout. Janeites love their Austen characters, and love to offer their views on them.
The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, which traces love from a charming courtship through the richness and complexity of marriage and concludes with a test of the heroine’s courage and moral convictions, is now complete and available from Amazon and Jane Austen Books.