March 2022 meeting: Women of a certain age – in Austen (2)

May 17, 2022

As noted in the first post in this two-part series, our March meeting was devoted to discussing “women of a certain age”. The first post focused on the definitions, and the contributions of members who looked at the topic more broadly. This post contains the contributions of those who chose to explore particular characters.

It’s important to reiterate that these characters were chosen according to some different understandings of “women of a certain age”.

Mrs Smith (Persuasion)

Many of Austen’s older women, said our member, suffered from a “malady imaginative”, but Mrs Smith’s illness was real. Mrs Smith is not technically middle-aged, by our generally agreed definition, but she was three years older than Anne Elliot, and, because of her experience, she seems much older. However, our member’s main point was that Mrs Smith, by her definition of the topic as being older women who drive the plot, is a significant plot device in Persuasion.

Greenfield writes of Mrs Smith in Sensibilities, likening her to that other important Smith, Harriet Smith in Emma. Both Smiths challenge the judgement of the heroine, and are more than just “objects of patronage” for their heroines. Our member argued that Mrs Smith exposes how callous Mr Elliot could be, but she could also be manipulative. She’s savvy, resilient, complex, and has an “elastic” mind, said our member. She keeps readers uncertain about her true motives. She had married for money, and it’s only on Anne’s second visit to her sick bed that Mrs Smith reveals all she knows about Mr Elliot. Is she sincerely Anne’s friend, or using Anne for her own advantage? She doesn’t expose Mr Elliot’s full perfidy until she ascertains that Anne does not plan to marry him.

Nonetheless, argued our member, Mrs Smith is an interesting friend, because she lets Anne see the fault of her own choices. Unlike Lady Russell, she doesn’t interfere, but she encourages Anne. Women of a certain age, concluded our member, did have powers of persuasion, and in Mrs Smith’s case she helped Anne clarify her decision. She plays a similar plot role in terms of the heroine’s change of mind as the Gardiners do in Pride and prejudice.

Our member didn’t have time to research her fully, but argued that Mrs Churchill, another (much) older woman, plays an important role in driving the plot of Emma.

Miss Bates (Emma)

Jane Austen, Emma

Jane Austen creates no female over the age of 30 who are marriageable (with the exception of Lady Susan), said another member, and Miss Bates is the only older spinster in Austen’s novels who is a main character. She represents a subset of society, a subset that Austen, herself, and her sister Cassandra, also belonged to.

Miss Bates is introduced in Ch. 3 of Emma, with “she was a great talker on little matters”. She’s in the middle of life, needing to make her money last, which was Austen’s own world. Then we don’t meet her again until Ch. 19 when we are told of Emma’s reluctance to visit her. Emma sees Miss Bates and her mother as “tiresome”, and has a horror of “falling in with the second rate and third rate of Highbury” who regularly visit the Bateses – which of course tells us more about Emma than those women. And yet, Emma and Miss Bates have a few things in common: both care for aged parents, both are unmarried, and both seem happy.

Miss Bates is a great talker and on Emma’s visit she talks for 5 pages inspired by Jane Fairfax’s letter. Norton asks how readers react to her: do we find her “amusing or delightful” or does the sight of page/s devoted to fill us with “gloom”. These questions determine whether we share Emma’s reaction to her. Emma is exasperated by her and shows little tolerance or empathy, and yet others in Highbury, including Mr Knightley, show remarkable kindness to Miss Bates. 

Norton discusses how Austen presents Miss Bates – the use of double dashes to convey the frenetic nature of her speech. He also suggests we try to imagine being her, and read her speeches aloud.

Our member did disagree with Norton’s statement that readers are amused by Emma’s witticism about Miss Bates at Box Hill. She argued that most readers, like Mr Knightley, are appalled.

Miss Bates is more than a comic element, but plays an important role in the plot: she reveals significant pieces of information, particularly regarding Jane and Frank.

Beyond this, Norton argues that Miss Bates is important to Austen’s deepening vision of humanity, to her dealing with women with compassion.

Mrs Jennings (Sense and sensibility)

Book cover

Mrs Jennings, said our member, plays a useful role in Sense and sensibility. She is always where the action is or she makes effort to know what’s going on (going so far as to ask her servants to obtain information from the servants of others). She’s generous and good-hearted, but a gossip, so she keeps the plot moving along, like Miss Bates. However, she can get “the wrong end of the stick” at times, such as putting Colonel Brandon and Elinor together.

She appears in at least 25 of the 50 chapters. She sees through affectations like Fanny Dashwood. She’s described as “cheerful, agreeable”, but Marianne finds her boring, interfering. But, proposed our member, this reflects more on Marianne’s character than on Mrs Jennings’.

She’s wealthy, and she’s never invisible. Things don’t bother her. Having married off her daughters satisfactorily, she is keen to do the same for the Dashwood girls.

Mrs Norris (Mansfield Park)

Mansfield Park

Our member who chose Mrs Norris started with her name. Doody suggests that “Norris” might derive from the French for “north” or Nourrice (nurse). Mrs Norris is harsh as the north, and, ironically, un-nurturing. “Norris” is also the surname of John Norris, a cruel pro-slavery delegate portrayed by Thomas Clarkson, who was a leading writer for the abolition and whom Austen read.

Barchas refers to an article by Kathleen Fowler, who argues that “Jane Austen plants for us an emblem for the entire novel” in the moor park apricot tree, which is praised by Mrs Norris and judged as “insipid” by Dr Grant. Fowler argues that Austen uses plants to help delineate characters: the Misses Bertram make artificial flowers while the life-draining Mrs Norris dries roses.

The moor park apricot discussion (Ch. 6) also serves to reveal character of he two Grants and Mrs. Norris, who discuss it. This discussion, for example, raises the issue of taste and discernment. Mrs Grant says that Dr. Grant cannot even recognise the genuine article. But he is not alone, because, repeatedly, characters fail to recognise “the natural taste” of real fruit: the Bertrams and Crawfords fail to recognise Fanny’s virtues; and Fanny fails to recognise real strength and “natural” behaviour in her Portsmouth family.

Mrs Norris gets it wrong all the time, not only about the nature and taste of the apricot. She:

  • takes the credit for engineering Maria’s engagement to a man she does not love (Mr Rushforth) while missing what is going on between Maria and Henry Crawford
  • promotes the theatricals, not appreciating (unlike Fanny and Edmund) that Sir Thomas would disapprove
  • is cruel, particularly to Fanny, but also the Mansfield Park servants
  • is mean (and the examples abound), but it is epitomised in her refusal to have Fanny live with her and her spending as much time as possible at Mansfield Park to save money
  • is a sycophant, obsequious, particularly to Sir Thomas
  • is a snob, and emphasises the difference between Maria and Julia, and Fanny

Our member wondered what modern personality disorder we could ascribe to her: passive aggressive?mid-life crisis? relevance deprivation syndrome (which she experiences twice, first after the death of her husband, and then when she is banished with Maria).

Does she have any redeeming qualities? Blogger Sarah Emsley shares the thoughts of George Justice (from Arizona State University). He says:

We learn in the novel’s first paragraph that Mrs. Norris was the older sister of Lady Bertram and, subject to the marriage market of her time, had to watch her younger sister marry first (and marry well) and eventually find “herself obliged to be attached to the Rev. Mr. Norris, a friend of her brother-in-law.” The double passive of “found herself obliged” and “to be attached” signals the novel’s latent sympathy with the character. Mrs. Norris is characterized both explicitly and in the action of the novel as having a “spirit of activity.” Therefore, being put in the position of being acted upon in the single most important life moment that society imposed on young women of her social class—marriage—is not a punishment of her but the signal moment shaping the narrative of Mrs. Norris’s life. Mrs. Norris is female activity repressed by patriarchal society.

Justice continues to suggest that as the active spouse of a clergyman, she would have had plenty to do, the most important of which would probably have been raising children, but Mrs. Norris is dealt another blow by life: she had no children. Austen writes of her frugality, suggesting that

Had there been a family to provide for, Mrs. Norris might never have saved her money; but having no care of that kind, there was nothing to impede her frugality. (Ch. 1)

So, says Justice, Mrs. Norris’ ill-judged encouragement of Lovers’ vows can be understood in terms of her having “clawed her way to significance through assuming a role in the economy of Mansfield Park”. She is “a middle manager, a factory floor shift supervisor despised by both the owner … and the workers …”. With Sir Thomas absent, and no-one taking charge, she does, he argues,

the best she can. Like many middle managers … she can only act on her best understanding of the intentions of her superiors in relation to those she is managing—who are, at best, resentful, and at worse filled with enmity and contempt.

So, he says, we could see her as “a victim of an unjust society: widowed, ill-educated, and requiring patronage to maintain her human dignity”. What does it say about us, he asks, if we’d rather she be Miss Bates, who is “powerless and ridiculed, existing solely on the basis of charity”? Looking at her this way, he suggests that “Mrs. Norris, given her limited opportunities, is as hard-working as any of Austen’s female characters”.

Another member saw some redeeming qualities, suggesting her economising is a positive quality in a woman managing on her own.

Academic Moira Ferguson also hints at Mrs Norris’s affection for Maria as a redeeming feature, but she also likens Mrs Norris to the role of “overseer”.

Perkins explores how the idea of slavery plays out in Mansfield Park. The article makes interesting reading, finding analogies between the institution and practice of slavery, and the treatment of people, and particularly Fanny, at Mansfield Park. For example, as the master of Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram has ultimate responsibility for years of humiliation and pain inflicted upon Fanny by her authorised overseer, Mrs. Norris, even if he didn’t fully intend this evil. Mrs Norris, who has little power herself, seems to relish this role of subjugating someone below her on the ladder. Sir Thomas leaves his plantations under an overseer.


March 2022 meeting: Women of a certain age – in Austen (1)

April 4, 2022

When a member suggested that we devote a meeting to “women of a certain age”, it felt inspired. There are, after all, so many women of a certain age in Austen – or, are there? As it turned out, there were various viewpoints among the members about the definition of the phrase, resulting in a couple struggling to find many at all. It resulted in a more fascinating meeting than we had, perhaps, expected.

For this reason, I’ve decided to cover this meeting over two posts. This post will focus on definitions and the ideas of members who looked at the topic more generally, while the second post will look at the specific characters that other members explored.

So, who are “women of a certain age”?

The Oxford English dictionary (OED) describes “a certain age” as a time “when one is no longer young, but which politeness forbids to be specified too minutely: usually, referring to some age between forty and sixty (mostly said of women).” 

Interestingly, Australian journalist Julia Baird wrote an article in 2015 titled “What does women of ‘a certain age’ even mean?” She quotes writer William Safire who sourced the origin of the phrase in English to Connoisseur magazine in 1754: “I could not help wishing that some middle term was invented between Miss and Mrs to be adopted, at a certain age, by all females not inclined to matrimony.” She also writes that ‘the distinctly odd poet Byron referred to such women – usually thought to be spinsters – in 1817: “She was not old, nor young, nor at the years/Which certain people call a certain age,/Which yet the most uncertain age appears.” But in 1822, he nastily called women of “a certain age”, “certainly aged”.’

The closest we found Austen herself coming to considering this age was through Elizabeth Elliot who, in the opening chapter of Persuasion, feared that, at the age of 29, she was reaching “the years of danger”.

However, some members didn’t see this phrase as age-defined, seeing it, instead, in terms of behaviour and role.

Our remote member sent in her ideas. She didn’t accept dictionary definitions as relevant, because she felt that whenever she’s seen the phrase used “it was not the transliteration but the translation that mattered. The inference, the sly knowing look, the wink, from one man to another”. She has never seen it used ‘politely’, and it’s always been used by a male. “Think”, she wrote, “of old Charles Boyer movies. Or Maurice Chevalier. A sort of ‘watch out’ scenario”.  So, for her, the term applies to an unmarried woman past her youth who CAN BE SEEN to be actively presenting herself as still young enough to marry. In other words, she wrote, the key is the DEGREE of her effort, AGE is less important than ATTITUDE. A “woman of a certain age” she felt “must have the faintest whiff of the predator”. Consequently, you would not, she wrote, see Miss Bates as a woman of a certain age (which, of course, surprised the member who had chosen just this character as her example!)

Of the characters she felt relevant to her definition, she thought Jane Austen was sympathetic to Anne Elliot, Miss Taylor, Charlotte Lucas, Mary Crawford and to a lesser degree Élizabeth Elliot, but was scathing of Miss Steele, Miss Bingley, Mrs Elton and Mrs Clay. And, she added, Austen definitely raised her eyebrows at the worldly wise femme fatale Lady Susan.

Another dissenting member was thinking of women in their 60s upwards. She initially thought about Mrs Dashwood, Aunt Gardiner, Mrs Bennett and couple of others, but she then realised they were too young.  Even Mrs Dashwood, with oldish daughters, is only 40. Even “the delicious Mrs Thorpe” had to be excluded by her calculations. So, she rethought …

A third member focused on the idea that “older women always get to drive the plot”. She noted that older women are expected to behave a certain way, they are not expected to marry. So, her focus was on the role they played, rather than on specifically defining these women in terms of age, which resulted in her including older and younger women in her thinking.

For the rest of us, our concept of women of a certain age aligned closely with the OED. They are older than young, but younger that old, so, more or less middle-aged. By this understanding Miss Bates would be a woman of a certain age, but not Mrs Bates. These members found many women of a certain age, but most chose just one to focus on: Mrs Norris, Mrs Jennings, Miss Bates and Mrs Smith. These will be covered in the next post.

Introducing women of a certain age

One member was interested in how women of a certain age are introduced in the novels. After re-defining her original older-age definition, she came up with 21 women meeting the criterion. Unfortunately, she did not have time to finish her research and analysis. However, her initial findings included that several of these characters are first introduced to us through others, like Emma’s Mrs Churchill and Sense and sensibility’s Mrs Ferrars. Similarly, Pride and prejudice’s Lady Catherine de Burgh’s character is given to us long before we meet her. Northanger Abbey’s Mrs Allen, on the other hand, is given a long intro by the author, before we see her with, or hear about her from, others.

Other women she was researching included Sense and sensibility’s Mrs Dashwood, Mrs Jennings and, Mrs John Dashwood; Emma’s Mrs Bates; and Persuasion’s Lady Russell and Mrs Croft.

This seemed like an interesting line of enquiry which we hope she will continue.

Childless women of a certain age

Another member decided that rather than choosing an individual character, she’d look at a subset, those women of a certain age who are childless. In Jane Austen’s time, women were expected to marry and have children, but clearly – given Jane’s own life – that did not always happen. Women who did not have children could, though, take on the role of a mother in other ways, the two main ones being:

  • Adopt children of economically challenged relations: the Knights adopted Jane Austen’s brother Edward, just like Mrs Churchill does Frank in Emma
  • “Babysit” or mother the children of relations (during “lyings in”, when mothers were nursing or ill, for widowers): Jane and her sister Cassandra did this, as Anne does in Persuasion.

One commentator commented that in Austen’s family, “barren” women were among the most powerful people in the family, Mrs. Knight and Mrs. Leigh-Perrot, because they were the family’s richest persons.  

Austen, as we know from her letters, appreciated the challenges of motherhood, and of childbearing in particular. In Letter 151, Austen wrote to Fanny of her Aunt Sophia who had just had her 18th, “I wd recommend to her and Mr D. the simple regimen of separate rooms.” And in letter 151 to Fanny, she says that Anna Lefroy “has not a chance of escape; … Poor Animal, she will be worn out before she is thirty. – I am very sorry for her. – Mrs Clement too is in that way again. I am quite tired of so many children. – Mrs Benn has a thirteenth–.”

When we look at married or widowed women in Austen there are a quite a few who are childless, including several “younger” childless women, like Mrs Grant (MP), Mrs Smith (Persuasion), and the newly marrieds, Mrs Elton (Emma) and Charlotte Lucas (P&P). We don’t know why they don’t have children, or whether some still will. But, given the lack of contraception at the time, for those who don’t, it’s unlikely to have been an active choice but more low fertility.

From the “women in a certain age” category, there are a surprising number of childless married or widowed women: Mrs Phillips (P&P), regarding whom children are never mentioned; Mrs Norris (MP); Lady Russell and Mrs Croft (Persuasion); and Mrs Allen (NA). Unmarried childless women of a certain age, on the other hand, are fewer, with Miss Bates (Emma) being the most obvious.

Blogger Eliza Shearer looks at some childless women, categorising them:

  • Childless or child-free (and happy): Mrs Croft
  • Moral authority (in place of parents): Lady Russell and Mrs Norris
  • Fill a void: Mrs Grant (married to a much older man) acts as “parent” to younger half-sister Mary Crawford

She doesn’t discuss Mrs Allen, Miss Bates, for example, and, by our definition, Mrs Grant is not yet “a certain age”. However, Shearer concludes that Austen

certainly sees through the accepted narrative of what women without children should feel or behave like. Austen does not allow her pen to pigeonhole her characters because of a biological issue, making them sad or happy or mean or caring just because they have or don’t have children. Instead, she paints them as exactly what they are, individuals with their aspirations, desires, hates and fears”. In other words, the gamut of humanity.

Hazel Jones argues that

none of the childless married women in Jane Austen’s fiction voices any regrets about a lack of offspring. Mrs Smith must have experienced nothing but relief that she had escaped a greater weakening of her health. Mrs Allen spends her time and money on clothes instead, and Mrs Croft, the happiest married woman in all of Jane Austen’s fiction is able to accompany her husband wherever he goes. It is not easy to imagine Mrs Norris as a sexual being at all …

Again, our age-related definition would not have Anne’s friend Mrs Smith as yet, being of a certain age, but our next post will include a member’s argument for her being included in this category.

Chamberlain argues that if Austen is “more interested in the “happily” than the “ever after,” perhaps it’s because—in a time before reliable birth control—she resisted the new child-centred focus of marriage”. Chamberlain quotes the childless Crofts as an example, arguing that Austen “was far less sanguine than her contemporaries … about the ability of happy marriages to produce happily married children. After all, her most content and companionate marriage—that of the Crofts, in her final novel, Persuasion—is notably childless. Admiral and Mrs. Croft spend their days helping each other drive around the countryside in a carriage that Austen rather firmly describes as meant for only two.”

Both Jones and Chamberlain single out Mrs Croft/the Crofts as the happiest marriage in Austen, but there is another example of happily married couple, one with children, Pride and prejudice’s Gardiners.

The main point, we found – and this will be discussed more in the next post – is that Austen did not stereotype her women characters by age or childlessness. Mrs Norris is a thoroughly unlikable woman of a certain age while Mrs Croft is the exact opposite. Lady Russell is different again. She meddles – as does Mrs Norris – but from a generous place and she shows herself open to change. Mrs Allen is different again to all of these. And so on … watch out for our next post.


  • Chamberlain, Shannon. “What Jane Austen thought marriage couldn’t do”, in The Atlantic Monthly, October 2019
  • Jones, Hazel. Jane Austen and marriage. London: Continuum, 2009
  • Shearer, Eliza. “Childlessness in Jane Austen”, in Eliza Shearer blog, 17 April 2018

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 fiancée, 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.