“[Anne] could imagine Mrs. Clay to have said, that "now Miss Anne was come, she could not suppose herself at all wanted;" for Elizabeth was replying in a sort of whisper, "That must not be any reason, indeed. I assure you I feel it none. She is nothing to me, compared with you..."What a low opinion to hold of one’s sister, especially when that sister is the incomparable Anne Elliot, giving preference to a conniving lady of questionable repute instead! This is a case where I feel more pity for the insulter than the insultee, for her statement does far more to illuminate her own limitations than injure Anne.
And now for the main event! I ranked insults based not only upon their degree of venom, but also their significance to the plot. I am sure many will disagree in my choices, and I am all anticipation to hear the opinions of others while defending mine own.
Number Five: Miss Elinor Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility
“We must wait, it may be for many years. With almost every other man in the world, it would be an alarming prospect; but Edward's affection and constancy nothing can deprive me of I know."This was a hard choice to make, as there were so many options. The scenes in which Elinor and Lucy Steele are tete-a-tete consists of one take down after another, and all under the guise of friendly confidence. I chose this one because I think it is Elinor’s best hit, and therefore the most thoroughly satisfying. Who could have imagined how bitchy our dear Elinor could be behind her veneer of strict civility! The insult stings all the more because of its inherent truth. Lucy has sought to disturb Elinor’s peace of mind, jealously guarding her territory, and our heroine throws that insecurity right back in her face. It is an exceedingly eloquent example of “I’m rubber and you’re glue…”
"That conviction must be every thing to you; and he is undoubtedly supported by the same trust in your's. If the strength of your reciprocal attachment had failed, as between many people, and under many circumstances it naturally would during a four years' engagement, your situation would have been pitiable, indeed."
Number Four: Mrs. Norris, Mansfield Park
Aunt Norris gets credit for being one of the most vile of Austen's creations, and this quote is perhaps one of the most hateful things any Austen character ever says. However, her bad disposition minimizes its impact, for we expect nothing better from her, and while we know Fanny Price feels the sting of these words exceedingly, I wonder if the worse part of the situation is not the slight, but rather having to endure Mary Crawford’s condolences afterward. More salt is rubbed into the wound when Edward holds this display of sympathy up as an example of Mary’s superiority. Poor Fanny!
Number Three: Mr. Henry Tilney, Northanger Abbey
“Miss Morland, no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much that they never find it necessary to use more than half."This is actually one of my favorite quotes in all of Austen and much more in keeping with my first thoughts regarding this post. I would love to put it in the number one slot, but as it is meant purely in jest and with no intention of wounding anyone, Mr. Tilney will have to content himself with the bronze. I really think no further explanation is required, except to note how horribly this would rankle had it been written by a man.
Number Two: Emma Woodhouse, Emma
"Oh! very well," exclaimed Miss Bates, "then I need not be uneasy. 'Three things very dull indeed.' That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan't I? (looking round with the most good-humoured dependence on every body's assent)--Do not you all think I shall?"In a novel about a woman learning her own limitations, this moment marks a climax. Without the infamous outing to Box Hill, we must wonder how Emma and Mr. Knightly’s relationship could have progressed – would he still have fled to London, and if not, could he have so misconstrued her response to news of Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill’s engagement? Would she ever have been humbled enough to be worthy of Mr. Knightly, if not confronted with this glaring example of her own bad taste? On top of that, it is by far the meanest thing any of Austen’s heroines ever says. All this make it a strong contender for number one, and it was only beaten out by the fact that it is less pivotal to the plot than the winner. That being said, who is the most insulting person in Austen?
Emma could not resist.
"Ah! ma'am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me--but you will be limited as to number--only three at once."
Number One: Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice
"She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.”Badly done, Mr. Darcy! But without these words (and Elizabeth Bennet’s overhearing of them), the entire tension of the plot would be null and void. I am particularly aware of this as I wrote an entire novel, First Impressions, based upon the fact, and I am not afraid to use this opportunity to for a little shameless self-promotion . Besides, how appropriate that the most constant criticism the book has received is its lack of tension! What better argument for this insult's paramount importance? Let me conclude with one final thought: were Mr. Darcy not so very repugnant in the beginning, would we be able to love him so desperately by the end? And if we can universally agree on this truth, is there anything conceivable that might have been done to redeem Mrs. Norris?
Alexa Adams is the author of First Impressions: A Tale of Less Pride and Prejudice; the sequel, Second Glances, will be coming out soon, but while you wait, you can occupy yourself with the excerpt I'll be posting this weekend (and, ya know, a giveaway of First Impressions... ;P )