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Ranking Jane Austen’s Heroines From Worst to Best

It is a truth universally acknowledged that some of Jane Austen's heroines are better than others.
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Although she gained little recognition for her work during her lifetime, Jane Austen’s six published novels are now considered classics. Her sharply observed portraits of manners and marriage in Regency England have been adapted dozens of times and fueled the imagination of readers for over 200 years.

But which of Austen’s heroines is best? Let’s rank her leading ladies from worst to best.

Honorable Mention: Charlotte Heywood

Sanditon was left unfinished at Jane Austen’s death in 1817. Unfortunately, the surviving fragment of the novel is little more than the first act. It introduces a large cast of characters in the fledgling resort town of Sanditon, including Charlotte Heywood. It appears that she is the heroine of the story, and most Austen scholars believe that Sidney Parker would eventually be the romantic hero.

Since Austen was not able to finish Sanditon due to her failing health, it’s hard to say where Charlotte might have ranked among her heroines. Andrew Davies adapted the seaside melodrama as a TV series for Masterpiece in 2019, drawing on the manuscript for the setting and characters.

Onscreen Portrayal:

  • Rose Williams, 2019- (Ongoing TV Series)

Emma Woodhouse

Emma (2020)
Focus Features

Jane Austen admitted that Emma was a problematic character, writing in a letter, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Emma Woodhouse has every possible advantage in life, including beauty, brains, and wealth. She’s also spoiled and convinced that she knows better than everyone, and her constant meddling in other people’s affairs causes no end of grief for those in her orbit.

After nearly destroying the happiness of her closest friends, Jane Fairfax and Harriet Smith, Emma finally learns the error of her ways. She eventually marries Mr. Knightley, who is her neighbor and sixteen years her senior. He’s also the only person in the novel not to be entirely charmed by Emma and call her out when she behaves badly. Without Mr. Knightley’s steadying influence, Emma might have remained immature and headstrong.

My favorite adaptation of Emma is, of course, Clueless. Amy Heckerling’s 1994 film follows the major beats of Jane Austen’s novel, but the candy-colored 90s setting (and the guileless performance by Alicia Silverstone) make the story a little more palatable.

Major Onscreen Portrayals:

  • Doran Godwin , 1972 (Miniseries)
  • Gwyneth Paltrow, 1996 (Film)
  • Kate Beckinsale, 1996 (TV Movie)
  • Romola Garai, 2009 (Miniseries)
  • Anya Taylor-Joy, 2020 (Film)

Marianne Dashwood

Marianne Dashwood
Sony Pictures Releasing

Unlike Austen’s other novels, Sense and Sensibility gives equal weight to two heroines. The Dashwood sisters follow very different paths, embodying the qualities of “sense” (Elinor) and “sensibility” (Marianne). While the elder sister is all duty and restraint, the younger is a free spirit who does not care for society’s conventions. Ultimately, the two sisters discover that a balance between the two qualities is the best way to be.

Marianne is a bit of a brat, to be honest. Her carefree attitude nearly ruins her when she falls for the rakish Willoughby. She’s the kind of overly dramatic friend who would constantly text you about her love life and never listen to any of your advice. After Willoughby breaks her heart, she begins to see that the loyal Colonel Brandon could offer her something more lasting and stable than a passionate affair.

The dynamic between Marianne and Colonel Brandon is similar to Emma and Mr. Knightly. Both men are much older than their eventual wives, and both women are immature for their ages. Marianne’s behavior wouldn’t seem out of place in a modern YA novel, so perhaps the moral of the story is that teenagers have always been extra.

Major Onscreen Portrayals:

  • Ciaran Madden, 1971 (Miniseries)
  • Tracey Childs, 1981 (Miniseries)
  • Kate Winslet, 1995 (Film)
  • Charity Wakefield, 2008 (Miniseries)

Catherine Morland

Northanger Abbey is a satire of the Gothic novels popular during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. These books were popular–if somewhat scandalous–and featured over-the-top plots with swooning heroines and mustache-twirling villains. They were often set in spooky old buildings and featured supernatural elements such as ghosts and curses.

Austen had clearly read plenty of Gothic literature, including The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole and The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe. She pokes gentle fun at the sensationalist genre in Northanger Abbey. This was the first novel she completed, although it was published posthumously.

Even though Catherine suffers from severe “main character syndrome,” believing that it’s her destiny to be caught up in a Gothic romance, she’s not so bad. Her overactive imagination nearly ruins her romance with Henry Tilney, and she eventually realizes that real life is just as interesting as her favorite novels. She’s less spoiled than Emma and not quite as reckless as Marianne. Catherine is sheltered and naive, but her heart is in the right place.

Major Onscreen Portrayals:

  • Katherine Schlesinger, 1987 (TV Movie)
  • Felicity Jones, 2007 (TV Movie)

Fanny Price

Mansfield Park (1999)
Miramax

Mansfield Park is a divisive novel, with some critics praising it for tackling unusually dark themes and others puzzling over what to make of the heroine. Fanny Price is not much fun compared to Austen’s other leading ladies. She has a strong–even inflexible–moral code. Even Jane Austen’s own mother disliked Fanny, calling the character “insipid.” Others saw Fanny as a satire of the “wholesome” female characters in popular literature. She disapproves of seemingly everything and everyone, especially her fun-loving, wealthy cousins with whom she is sent to live as a child.

Okay, but… the Crawfords are awful people. And as a “poor relation,” Fanny cannot afford to make a single misstep. Her life at Mansfield Park depends on being so unobjectionable that her family has no reason to throw her out. And worse than that, the Crawfords continually put her down and make sure she knows her place.

Modern readings of Mansfield Park point out how it critiques the rigid class system in Regency England. Unlike the more privileged heroines of her other novels, Austen’s most misunderstood main character simply can’t afford to be outgoing or naive. Even after being deceived by Henry Crawford, she remains true to herself. Fanny Price is the most “grown-up” of Austen’s heroines.

Major Onscreen Portrayals:

  • Sylvestra Le Touzel, 1983 (Miniseries)
  • Frances O’Connor, 1999 (Film)
  • Billie Piper, 2007 (TV Movie)

Elinor Dashwood

Elinor Dashwood
Sony Pictures Releasing

The other heroine of Sense and Sensibility is Elinor Dashwood, the eldest sister of the Dashwood family. After her father dies and they are forced out of their home by her older half-brother and his odious wife, Elinor has little choice but to hold it together for her family. While Marianne is off canoodling with a rake, Elinor is quietly, helplessly in love with Edward Ferrars. When she discovers that her new friend, Lucy, had formed a secret engagement to Edward when they were much younger, Elinor and Marianne clash over whether it is better to follow your heart or your head.

Even though Elinor is younger than Emma, she is much more mature. Her apparent lack of emotion is due to her keen understanding of how the Dashwoods’ reduced circumstances impact their social standing. Like Fanny Price, Elinor knows that if she puts a foot out of line, it could jeopardize her entire family. Falling in love with Edward is a disaster on multiple levels–he’s the elder brother of Elinor’s hateful sister-in-law and he’s caught in an engagement that society’s rules will not allow him to break.

Throughout the novel, Elinor performs emotional labor for her mother, sisters, and friends. She eventually gets a version of a happy ending when Edward is disinherited after his engagement to Lucy is made public. Lucy drops him and marries Edward’s younger brother, who is now the heir, leaving Edward and Elinor free to marry. Colonel Brandon is able to offer the couple a home and an income on his estate. We don’t get to see the dynamic between the sisters once Marianne is the mistress of Delaford and Elinor is, essentially, her employee. We can hope that Elinor finds happiness as a clergyman’s wife, but she remains the poorest of Austen’s heroines even after her marriage.

Major Onscreen Portrayals:

  • Joanna David, 1971 (Miniseries)
  • Irene Richard, 1981 (Miniseries)
  • Emma Thompson, 1995 (Film)
  • Hattie Morahan, 2008 (Miniseries)

Anne Elliot

Persuasion
Sony Pictures Classics

Persuasion features Jane Austen’s oldest heroine and her most bittersweet romance. Anne Elliot is twenty-seven and unmarried when the story begins–in other words, an old maid. Her family is forced to rent out their grand home and move to cheaper lodgings to make ends meet. Their new tenant just so happens to be the brother of Captain Wentworth, the man that Anne was persuaded not to marry seven years earlier.

Both Anne and Wentworth are older and wiser the second time they meet. Like Austen herself when she wrote Persuasion, the characters have seen enough of life to know that time is short. No longer the naive young woman whose friends and family thought she could do “better” than a Navy officer, Anne now knows her own mind. And Wentworth, having earned fame and fortune due to his wartime service, is able to overcome his bitterness at being rejected once he realizes how rare it is to get a second chance at happiness.

Persuasion was the last novel that Austen completed in her lifetime. Anne is wholly unlike the heroines of her other novels, who were usually between 19 and 21. There’s a wistfulness to the story, a melancholy meditation on what might have been had Anne and Wentworth made different choices. It’s hard not to wonder how much of their feelings were drawn from Austen’s own life, and Anne seems like the closest thing to a stand-in for the author in her work.

Major Onscreen Portrayals:

  • Daphne Slater, 1960 (Miniseries)
  • Ann Firbank, 1971 (Miniseries)
  • Amanda Root, 1995 (Film)
  • Sally Hawkins, 2007 (TV Movie)

Elizabeth Bennet

Elizabeth Bennet is by far the most popular and enduring of Jane Austen’s heroines, and Pride and Prejudice remains the author’s most beloved book. Even though she was created over 200 years ago, there’s something modern about Lizzie. She’s sassy, even snarky. The Bennets feel like a modern dysfunctional family, with all their squabbling and drama. The story is one that feels at home in any era or culture.

While I’m partial to the Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth miniseries from 1995, all the many adaptations of Pride and Prejudice highlight Elizabeth Bennet’s wit and fearlessness. Her family’s position is respectable, if not especially wealthy, which gives Lizzie more freedom to be outspoken than Fanny Price. She’s just 20 years old, so she lacks Anne Elliot’s hard-earned wisdom, but she is not as immature as Emma.

What I like best about the romance between Elizabeth and Darcy is that they help each other become better people. They both learn to be less judgmental after Darcy’s first, disastrous proposal. They are equally matched–true soulmates. And as Darcy points out, Pemberley is far enough from Lizzie’s mother that they can live happily ever after.

Major Onscreen Portrayals:

  • Greer Garson, 1940 (Film)
  • Celia Bannerman, 1967 (Miniseries)
  • Elizabeth Garvie, 1980 (Miniseries)
  • Jennifer Ehle, 1995 (Miniseries)
  • Aishwarya Rai, 2004 (Film, Bride and Prejudice)
  • Keira Knightley, 2005 (Film)
  • Ashley Clements, 2012-2013 (Webseries, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries)