There is no shortage of moral tales in Jane Austen’s six completed and published novels. After all, she was the daughter of an Anglican minister and lived an upright life. Although I’ve already written about the characters that best examples of the 7 deadly virtues, this time we’ll focus on which characters best exemplify their opposing virtues. Warning: Spoilers ahead.
Character: Colonel Brandon (Sense and Sensibility)
Colonel Brandon is an honorable man and (clearly) the antithesis of lust. His lost long love conceives a child out of wedlock and he takes her in after her death. The young woman he later falls in love with, Marianne Dashwood? He challenges the man (John Willoughby) who nearly sullies her reputation through improper actions and flirtations to a duel. Instead of using his wealth and social status to get what he wants, he loves from afar. He makes himself readily available to anything she may need without expecting anything in return. Even after Marianne gets over Willoughby and gives to look at Colonel Brandon in a different light, he does things properly, always wanting the best for Marianne. Talk about self-control AND propriety! Cue thousands of Janeites swooning across the globe.u
Honorable Mention: Fanny Price (Mansfield Park). George Knightley, Mrs. Anne Weston (nee Taylor), and Jane Fairfax (Emma).
Character: Captain Harville and Mrs. Harville (Persuasion)
Although Captain and Mrs. Harville are secondary characters, you can’t help but wish more people like them existed in real life. This lovely couple lives in a small home near the sea, in Lyme, with their children. They’ve even welcomed Captain Benwick into their home; the man who was set to marry Captain Harville’s sister but was left a depressed, broken man upon her death. Even with a full house, they have no qualms about giving up their space, time, and resources when Louisa Musgrove sustains her head injury. Mrs. Harville, who has medical training, offers up her time to help nurse Louisa back to health. And it’s not just Louisa who stays with them but also most of her family. All this for people they had just met.
Honorable Mentions: Colonel Brandon and Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility). Anne Elliot (Persuasion). Mr. Weston, George Knightley, Colonel Campbell, and Miss Bates (Emma). Mr. and Mrs. Allen (Northanger Abbey). Sir Thomas Bertram (Mansfield Park).
Character: Mr. Woodhouse (Emma)
Did I just pick Austen’s resident hypochondriac for this virtue? I did, indeed! Yes, his overzealous preoccupation with health is the best example when he takes it too far but it’s his anxiety that actually helps him do everything in moderation. He advises people against eating too many sweets (or eating too much in general). If he hears of someone being exposed to inclement weather (whether real or imagined), he becomes anxious that they take care of themselves. Even physical activities (dancing and walking/hiking) should be done in moderation; you don’t want to overexert yourself! While he does go overboard due to the hypochondria, his motives come from a good place and he genuinely cares about his acquaintances, no matter what their state in life may be.
Honorable Mentions: Jane Fairfax and Mrs. Anne Weston (Emma). Sir Thomas Bertram (Mansfield Park).
Characters: Mr. Weston (Emma).
Sure, he’s another secondary character but Mr. Weston leaves an impression. When the beginning of a snowstorm sends everyone in an anxious tizzy about being unable to get to their homes in time, he invites them all to stay at his home. No, it doesn’t matter that the house is not big enough for such a large party. When, at the prompting at his son, Frank Churchill, he is persuaded to hold a ball, he doesn’t spare expenses. He wants everyone to enjoy themselves. He always has a kind word to say about everyone and is genuinely happy for everyone else’s good fortunes.
Honorable Mentions: Anne Elliot and Captain and Mrs. Harville (Persuasion). Colonel Brandon and Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility). George Knightley, Colonel Campbell, and Miss Bates (Emma). Mr. and Mrs. Allen (Northanger Abbey). Sir Thomas and Edmund Bertram (Mansfield Park).
Character: Fanny Price (Mansfield Park)
Fanny Price should be the poster child of meekness in Austen’s literary world. She is treated poorly by practically everyone, especially her Aunt Norris. Still, she doesn’t let any of that make her bitter or harden her heart. She accepts all (unwarranted) anger and reproaches quietly, choosing to turn the other cheek. This is a big reason why she’s consistently listed as the least favorite Austen heroine but it’s also why she’s one of my personal favorites. It’s one thing to react in anger (which is the easy thing to do). It’s another to cultivate patience and understanding, even when the other person doesn’t “deserve” such kindness.
Honorable Mentions: Anne Elliot (Persuasion). Elinor Dashwood and Colonel Brandon (Sense and Sensibility). Miss Bates and Mr. Weston (Emma).
Characters: Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy (Pride and Prejudice) and Captain Frederick Wentworth (Persuasion).
Yes, I know; they both characters display an awful lot of pride (and prejudice, in Mr. Darcy’s case) in their respective novels but, hear me out! Both of these men start the stories being extremely proud men. Mr. Darcy is a wealthy gentleman who doesn’t seem to have his equal in social status. Captain Wentworth returns, after several years at sea, as a wealthy man with a better social position than he once had. Both men feel the sting of having been rejected by the object of their affections and allow that anger to feed their pride. It isn’t until they realize how wrong they are – and how they could lose the one thing they value over their wealth and status: love – that they try to make amends.
While both write letters explaining how their pride prompted their actions, showing contrition and remorse, their following actions are different. Mr. Darcy, no longer caring about what his wealthy relations think about the “improper” match between himself and (socially and financially “inferior”) Elizabeth Bennet, fixes his errors. He reunites his good friend, Charles Bingley, with the love of his life (and Elizabeth’s sister), Jane Bennet. He even pays his archnemesis, George Wickham’s, debts in order to save the Bennet’s reputation when the youngest daughter, Lydia, runs away with him. Captain Wentworth similarly uses his influence and contacts to help Anne’s friend, Mrs. Smith, rightly claim the property her late husband left her.
Honorable Mentions: Anne Elliot (Persuasion). Fanny Price (Mansfield Park). Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility). Catherine Morland (Northanger Abbey).
Character: Anne Elliot (Persuasion)
Poor, Anne. She is mistreated by her family yet she still does her duty. When her family is forced to downsize due to her coxcomb father and sister’s overspending, she takes care of “taking leave” with everyone in her village. When her dramatic, hypochondriac sister, Mary, asks her to stay with her, she does so without an argument. When Mary’s son dislocates his shoulder, it’s Anne, not Mary, who volunteers to miss a family dinner in order to stay with the child. When she’s scolded by her father for keeping a scheduled visit her penniless friend instead of having dinner with a wealthy relation, she takes it in stride, knowing what the honorable thing to do truly is. Every time she’s forced to do something she wishes not to partake in, she does it because she knows it’s her duty. It’s her prudence that also helps her distinguish between what is her obligation and what is just a caprice on someone else’s side.
Honorable Mentions: Edward Ferrars and Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility). Jane Fairfax (Emma). Edmund Bertram (Mansfield Park).
Whether you’re a fellow Janeite and have read all her novels or are an Austen newbie, it would be a good idea to read her novels and see which other life lessons you can learn from them. Who knows, it may even help you on our spiritual journey.