Below is a look at the fictional heroines created by Jane Austen in the six published novels written by her. So, without further ado . . .
JANE AUSTEN’S HEROINE GALLERY
Elinor Dashwood – “Sense and Sensibility” (1811)
Elinor Dashwood is the oldest Dashwood sister who symbolizes a coolness of judgement and strength of understanding. This leads her to be her mother’s frequent counsellor, and sometimes shows more common sense than the rest of her family. Elinor could have easily been regarded as a flawless character, if it were not for her penchant of suppressing her emotions just a little too much. Ironically, none of the actresses I have seen portray Elinor were never able to portray a nineteen year-old woman accurately.
1. Joanna David (1971) – She gave an excellent performance and was among the few who did not indulge in histronics. My only complaint was her slight inability to project Elinor’s passionate nature behind the sensible facade.
2. Irene Richards (1981) – I found her portrayal of Elinor to be solid and competent. But like David, she failed to expose Elinor’s passionate nature behind the stoic behavior.
3. Emma Thompson (1995) – Many have complained that she was too old to portray Elinor. Since the other actresses failed to convincingly portray a nineteen year-old woman, no matter how sensible, I find the complaints against Thompson irrelevant. Thankfully, Thompson did not bother to portray Elinor as a 19 year-old. And she managed to perfectly convey Elinor’s complexities behind the sensible facade.
4. Hattie Morahan (2008) – She gave an excellent performance and was able to convey Elinor’s passionate nature without any histronics. My only complaint was her tendency to express Elinor’s surprise with this deer-in-the-headlights look on her face.
Marianne Dashwood – “Sense and Sensibility” (1811)
This second Dashwood sister is a different kettle of fish from the first. Unlike Elinor, Marianne is an emotional adolescent who worships the idea of romance and excessive sentimentality. She can also be somewhat self-absorbed, yet at the same time, very loyal to her family.
1. Ciaran Madden – Either Madden had a bad director or the actress simply lacked the skills to portray the emotional and complex Marianne. Because she gave a very hammy performance.
2. Tracey Childs – She was quite good as Marianne, but there were times when she portrayed Marianne as a little too sober and sensible – even early in the story.
3. Kate Winslet (1995) – The actress was in my personal opinion, the best Marianne Dashwood I have ever seen. She conveyed Marianne’s complex and emotional nature with great skill, leading her to deservedly earn an Oscar nomination.
4. Charity Wakefield (2008) – She solidly portrayed the emotional Marianne, but there were moments when her performance seemed a bit mechanical.
Elizabeth Bennet – “Pride and Prejudice” (1813)
Elizabeth is the second of five daughters of an English gentleman and member of the landed gentry. She is probably the wittiest and most beloved of Austen’s heroines. Due to her father’s financial circumstances – despite being a landowner – Elizabeth is required to seek a marriage of convenience for economic security, despite her desire to marry for love.
1. Greer Garson (1940) – Her performance as Elizabeth Bennet has been greatly maligned in recent years, due to the discovery that she was in her mid-30s when she portrayed the role. Personally, I could not care less about her age. She was still marvelous as Elizabeth, capturing both the character’s wit and flaws perfectly.
2. Elizabeth Garvie (1980) – More than any other actress, Garvie portrayed Elizabeth with a soft-spoken gentility. Yet, she still managed to infuse a good deal of the character’s wit and steel with great skill.
3. Jennifer Ehle (1995) – Ehle is probably the most popular actress to portray Elizabeth and I can see why. She was perfect as the witty, yet prejudiced Elizabeth. And she deservedly won a BAFTA award for her performance.
4. Keira Knightley (2005) – The actress is not very popular with the public these days. Which is why many tend to be critical of her take on Elizabeth Bennet. Personally, I found it unique in that hers was the only Elizabeth in which the audience was given more than a glimpse of the effects of the Bennet family’s antics upon her psyche. I was more than impressed with Knightley’s performance and thought she truly deserved her Oscar nomination.
Jane Bennet – “Pride and Prejudice” (1813)
The oldest of the Bennet daughters is more beautiful, but just as sensible as her younger sister, Elizabeth. However, she has a sweet and shy nature and tends to make an effort to see the best in everyone. Her fate of a happily ever after proved to be almost as important as Elizabeth’s.
1. Maureen O’Sullivan (1940) – She was very charming as Jane Bennet. However, her Jane seemed to lack the sense that Austen’s literary character possessed.
2. Sabina Franklyn (1980) – She gave a solid performance as the sweet-tempered Jane. However, her take on the role made the character a little more livelier than Austen’s original character.
3. Susannah Harker (1995) – I really enjoyed Harker’s take on the Jane Bennet role. She did a great job in balancing Jane’s sweet temper, inclination to find the best in everyone and good sense that Elizabeth ignored many times.
4. Rosamund Pike (2005) – She gave a pretty good performance as the sweet and charming Jane, but rarely got the chance to act as the sensible older sister, due to director Joe Wright’s screenplay.
Fanny Price – “Mansfield Park” (1814)
Unfortunately, Fanny happens to be my least favorite Jane Austen heroine. While I might find some of her moral compass admirable and resistance to familial pressure to marry someone she did not love, I did not admire her hypocrisy and passive aggressive behavior. It is a pity that she acquired what she wanted in the end – namely her cousin Edmund Bertram as a spouse – without confronting his or her own personality flaws.
1. Sylvestra de Tourzel (1983) – She had some good moments in her performance as Fanny Price. Unfortunately, there were other moments when I found her portrayal stiff and emotionally unconvincing. Thankfully, de Tourzel became a much better actress over the years.
2. Frances O’Connor (1999) – The actress portrayed Fanny as a literary version of author Jane Austen – witty and literary minded. She skillfully infused a great deal of wit and charm into the character, yet at the same time, managed to maintain Fanny’s innocence and hypocrisy.
3. Billie Piper (2007) – Many Austen fans disliked her portrayal of Fanny. I did not mind her performance at all. She made Fanny a good deal more bearable to me. Piper’s Fanny lacked de Tourzel’s mechanical acting and O’Connor’s portrayal of Fanny as Jane Austen 2.0. More importantly, she did not portray Fanny as a hypocrite, as the other two did.
Emma Woodhouse – “Emma” (1815)
When Jane Austen first created the Emma Woodhouse character, she described the latter as “a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like”. And while there might be a good deal to dislike about Emma – her snobbery, selfishness and occasional lack of consideration for others – I cannot deny that she still remains one of the most likeable Austen heroines for me. In fact, she might be my favorite. She is very flawed, yet very approachable.
1. Doran Godwin (1972) – She came off as a bit haughty in the first half of the 1972 miniseries. But halfway into the production, she became warmer and funnier. Godwin also had strong chemistry with her co-stars John Carson and Debbie Bowen.
2. Gwyneth Paltrow (1996) – Paltrow’s portryal of Emma has to be the funniest I have ever seen. She was fantastic. Paltrow captured all of Emma’s caprices and positive traits with superb comic timing.
3. Kate Beckinsale (1996-97) – She did a very good job in capturing Emma’s snobbery and controlling manner. But . . . her Emma never struck me as particularly funny. I think Beckinsale developed good comic timing within a few years after this movie.
4. Romola Garai (2009) – Garai was another whose great comic timing was perfect for the role of Emma. My only complaint was her tendency to mug when expressing Emma’s surprise.
Catherine Morland – “Northanger Abbey” (1817)
I have something in common with the Catherine Morland character . . . we are both bookworms. However, Catherine is addicted to Gothic novel and has an imagination that nearly got the best of her. But she is also a charmer who proved to be capable of growth.
1. Katharine Schlesinger (1986) – I cannot deny that I disliked the 1986 version of Austen’s 1817 novel. However, I was impressed by Schlesinger’s spot on portrayal of the innocent and suggestive Katherine.
2. Felicity Jones (2007) – She did a superb job in not only capturing Catherine’s personality, she also gave the character a touch of humor in her scenes with actor J.J. Feild that I really appreciated.
Anne Elliot – “Persuasion” (1818)
1. Ann Firbank (1971) – Although I had issues with her early 70s beehive and constant use of a pensive expression, I must admit that I rather enjoyed her portrayal of the regretful Anne. And unlike many others, her age – late 30s – did not bother me one bit.
2. Amanda Root (1995) – Root’s performance probably created the most nervous Anne Elliot I have ever seen on screen. However, she still gave a superb performance.
3. Sally Hawkins (2007) – She was excellent as the soft-spoken Anne. More importantly, she did a wonderful job in expressing Anne’s emotions through her eyes.