March 2016 meeting: Jane Austen’s Bad Girls

March 30, 2016

Eliza de Feuilide

Prepared by member Cheng

How delicious it was to have a legitimate reason to discuss other women’s flaws: our group seized the topic of Jane Austen’s Bad Girls with the same nicety, discrimination and fine feeling of the Bingley sisters. And how quick came the reasons for disapproving what we disliked!

DEFINITIONS : as in bad behaviour or character:

  • sinful, corrupt, vicious, and evil
  • lacking or failing to conform to moral virtues
  • bad form = want of breeding
  • offending intentionally against the right
  • spiteful, ill-tempered, intending or intended to give pain

One member’s list was particularly refined: those who

  • don’t behave to an acceptable standard : Lydia Bennet, Marianne Dashwood
  • make a bad impression : Mrs Elton
  • are morally objectionable : Isabella Thorpe, Mary Crawford, Lucy Steele
  • are disagreeable or unpleasant : Caroline Bingley, Mrs Ferrars, Lady Catherine
  • injure or harm others : Caroline Bingley, Lydia Bennet, Fanny Dashwood, Lady Catherine, Mrs Jennings
  • are a bad influence on others : Mrs Norris, Lady Russell


This was far more hotly debated – each of us had different views on their many levels of badness – they were not all utterly, totally and completely rotten. All Jane Austen’s characters are very real three-dimensional people. Even the universally despised Mrs Norris was capable of affection for her disgraced niece, Maria Bertram and shared her loss of status and exile.

Inevitably we had each employed our own subjective criteria:

  • for one, it was the propensity for wounding, manipulating and controlling [Fanny Dashwood, that most deliberately nasty of tormentors and the often overlooked Mrs Churchill who, despite being off stage, still selfishly exerted her power.]
  • for another, there were three degrees of badness: those who were simply tiresome and unpleasant [Miss Steele, Mary Musgrove, Elizabeth Elliot, Julia Bertram, Lady Middleton and that embryonic bad girl, Betsy Price]; those who thoughtlessly caused others distress [Lydia Bennet, Maria Bertram, Mary Crawford, Lady Catherine de Bourgh]; and those who knowingly hurt others [Mrs Norris, Lucy Steele, Fanny Dashwood, Mrs Ferrars, Caroline Bingley, Isabella Thorpe, Mrs Elton, Mrs Clay.]

From these few disparate examples it is easy to understand that this was an afternoon full of light-hearted argument and laughter. However, we did all manage to agree that to be a truly bad girl you needed a dash of malice.


ECONOMICS – POVERTY. Jane Austen wrote in a letter that

Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor – which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony.

Women were so dependent on marriage, and this is behind most of the bad behaviour in the books. Prime examples are Lucy Steele and Isabella Thorpe.

Isabella had a staunch defender in a member who found her a comic character, merely silly, superficial and irritating, who indulged “in exaggerated feelings of ecstatic delight or inconceivable vexation on every little trifling occurrence.” Yet our member also admitted that she was indeed a false friend and fiancĂ©e, an unprincipled gold-digger and a manipulative little flirt.

Poor, mean girls are foils to the innate goodness of the poor decent girls – Catherine Morland, the Dashwood sisters, Jane Fairfax, Harriet Smith and Elizabeth and Jane Bennet.

RICH OR COMFORTABLE MEAN SNOBS are unkind and cruel, apparently by nature, such as Lady Catherine, Fanny Dashwood, Mrs Ferrars and Caroline Bingley. Mrs Norris, of course, remains forever “the most hauntingly horrible of the author’s horrible characters”  (Kingsley Amis, 1957), though even a rich ‘good’ girl like Emma was capable of an unkind act to an old friend.

GIRLS LACKING A MORAL COMPASS whose moral principles and judgment were swayed by self-regarding impulses – Lydia Bennet, Marianne Dashwood, Mary Crawford. These girls provoked the liveliest discussion.

Edmund Bertram says of Mary

No, hers is not a cruel nature. I do not consider her as meaning to wound my feelings….. She was speaking only as she had been used to hear others speak, as she imagined everybody else would speak. Hers are not faults of temper…… Hers are faults of principle, Fanny; of blunted delicacy and a corrupted, vitiated mind. (Mansfield Park)

Both Mary and Elizabeth Bennet are intelligent, witty, socially adroit and charming – the line between them is thin and rests on a moral compass.

Lydia graphic

Shmoop Editorial Team. “Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.” Shmoop. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.

As to Lydia, she displays a “wild giddiness”, “wild volatility”, “exuberant spirits” and “all too natural ….high animal spirits”. She delights in unladylike behaviour. Silly, self-indulgent, self-willed with a “disdain for all restraint”, she disregards duty, honour and gratitude in order to seek her own instant happiness. Austen distinguishes between the Bennet sisters by using the word ‘fun’ only in association with Lydia, not Elizabeth. Lydia often uses fun to describe her own disgraceful behaviour. A relatively new noun in Austen’s day, ‘fun’ connoted cheating and clowning and earned Samuel Johnson’s condemnation as a low cant word. Lydia seems to take life as little more than a joke and is the counterbalance to her sisters. Elizabeth says of her “She has never been taught to think on serious subjects….she has been given up to nothing but amusement and vanity. She has been allowed to dispose of her time in the most idle and frivolous manner.” (Emily Auerbach, Searching for Jane Austen)

In Jane Austen’s moral universe these girls could be regarded as ‘teaching aides’ to reveal the dangers of poor parenting and the subsequent lack in one’s children of moral principles and conscience.

Jane Austen, Lady SusanAnd now to LADY SUSAN who really is in a class all her own, a “glittering serpent, wily dragon, a fabulous monster and a thoroughly bad human being”, according to Dom Nicholas Seymour.

Shallow, corrupt, self-centred, self-assured, Lady Susan sweeps onward, duping the more eligible men in her world and enraging her female relatives enormously. She is a strange and very clever compound of the repellent and the fascinating – a puzzling enigma. Does she believe her own fabrications? Her desire to have unquestioned power over others, to control and manipulate, results in her ensnaring Reginald de Courcy in a fortnight. Our sympathies are for her poor daughter whom she pities as a laughing-stock for showing genuine affection for another. What a woman! How we long to see the new film (Love and friendship)!

ELIZA DE FEUILIDE was an interesting contribution by a member who thought her perhaps a prototype for some of Jane Austen’s characters in both her juvenilia and later works. When Eliza stayed at Steventon, she suggested and acted in at least four plays that the family performed. All were amusing romantic intrigues with fascinating female leads uncannily similar to herself. Lady Susan may possibly have emerged from Eliza’s encouraging Jane Austen in reading French literature and plays – and even from observing the flirtatious Eliza in action. The worldly and sophisticated Mary Crawford certainly has a ‘French’ style not encountered in any other of Austen’s ladies.

Mansfield Park

Vintage ed. (used by permission of The Random House Group Ltd)

Then we came to the matter of GOOD GIRLS WHO BEHAVE BADLY UNINTENTIONALLY – Catherine Morland, Marianne Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, Lady Russell and Mary Musgrave. However, we didn’t really explore this variation on our theme beyond noting that the difference between them and the unquestionably bad girls is that it’s the heroines who grow up, who realise how regrettable their own behaviour has been. They feel remorse and embarrassment and resolve to reform. Jane Austen leaves us guessing just how successful they will be.

Fanny Price is probably the least understood of all Austen’s leading ladies. Kingsley Amis said that she “lacks self-knowledge, generosity and humility.” This quote inspired a Fervent Friend of Fanny to declare that of all the heroines Fanny Price has the least to regret – years of exposure to the constant harassment and psychological abuse of Mrs Norris created a Pearl beyond Price. Through Aunt Norris she developed fortitude and self-control and matured to overcome adversity with patience and perseverance. So take that, Kingsley Amis!


It is a sad fact that people find goodness boring. And it is the Bad Girls who created some of the most memorable moments in English literature – often hilariously comic or chillingly reprehensible.

Jane Austen was perfectly able to see with absolute clarity the defects of the world she used. (Mark Schorer, in Ian Watt ed., Jane Austen : A Collection of Critical Essays.)

Her flawed bad girls provide a moral contrast to her imperfect good girls. They add emotional complexity to the narrative and become integral to the plot. They engage the reader’s sympathy for the good girls through their very ordinariness. They are the same unpleasant, exasperating people we have to deal with in our everyday 21st century lives; they are timeless.

An extremely good-hearted and interesting meeting was rounded off with our usual games of quotes and quiz.