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Monday, August 20, 2018

THE ISOLATION OF AUSTEN’S HEROINES | guest post from Lona Manning!

This month, author Lona Manning's thoughts on all things Austen can be found throughout this year's Janeite Convos, but today she's sitting down with us to go a little more in depth with a look at isolation in Austen's leading ladies. Check it out below, and let us know your thoughts in the comments! And make sure to go enter Lona's giveaway for 2 copies of one of her books! 


“A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer,” Austen declares confidently on behalf of her heroine Emma Woodhouse.

Emma is waiting for her friend to finish shopping in the quiet little store on the quiet little street in the quiet little village where she has passed her entire life. So it’s a good thing that she has the capacity to entertain herself, like all Austen heroines.

Being alone with one’s thoughts, even when in the midst of company or on a public street, appears to be a recurring characteristic of Austen heroines, a trait which grows even more pronounced with her later novels.

The least isolated heroine is the youngest. Catherine Morland is so naive that she artlessly reveals her thoughts and emotions to Elinor and Henry Tilney, who can read her like a book. And we suspect that Catherine Morland doesn’t have many, or any, characteristics in common with her creator.

Elinor Dashwood, though loved by her family, must bear her secrets alone while putting up with the histrionics of her sister Marianne, who wallows in solitude and misery, as befits a Romantic heroine.

Elizabeth Bennet is the most fortunate heroine in having a beloved older sister and a father who loves her for who she is. She refuses Mr. Collins and her father stands by her, in contrast to poor Fanny Price, whose uncle pressures her to marry a man she neither loves nor respects.

Fanny is the isolated Cinderella of Mansfield Park. Her closest confidante is Edmund, who has no idea she is in love with him, which makes him pretty useless as a confidante.

How many girls of today would have put up with the restrictions which surround Emma Woodhouse? With the departure of her governess Miss Taylor, Emma is in danger of “suffering from intellectual solitude.” Harriet Smith, (who Professor John Mullan calls “the most sublimely stupid human being in the history of world literature”) is a poor substitute. And, of course, Emma can always call on Miss Bates, just as Catherine Morland “can always go and call on Mrs. Allen.” No wonder Henry Tilney exclaims, “What a picture of intellectual poverty!'

In Persuasion, Austen’s last completed novel, Anne Elliott suffers in silence for years after losing her soul mate, Frederick Wentworth. “No second attachment… had been possible to the nice tone of her mind, the fastidiousness of her taste, in the small limits of the society around them.” It is not only that she cannot find a husband, she also can’t find a companion of the mind in those same small limits.

In an essay for JASNA, Mary Margaret Benson points out that Anne is also “doomed to moral isolation within her family.” Anne has principles, and standards of behaviour, while her father and sisters are consumed by petty vanities. Even amongst a large group assembled for walking, “Anne’s object was, not to be in the way of anybody.” She entertains herself with poetic quotations, trying not to listen to the “mere lively chat” between Captain Wentworth and the Musgrove girls, and trying not to think of the far superior conversations she once had with him.

Charlotte Heywood, Austen’s final heroine in the unfinished novel Sanditon, is the most mentally isolated of all. Away from her large family, Charlotte is paying a visit in a small seaside resort, surrounded by hucksters and hypochondriacs. Unlike the naïve Catherine Morland, Charlotte sees through everyone she meets, but there is no one with whom she can candidly share her feelings and reactions. She derives her greatest pleasure from looking out her window “over the miscellaneous foreground of unfinished buildings, waving linen and tops of houses, to the sea, dancing and sparkling in sunshine and freshness.”

Is this sense of intellectual and emotional isolation, a constant theme throughout Austen’s novels, an expression of Austen’s own feelings and experience? Among her friends and acquaintances, how many shared her sharp wit, her appreciation of the absurd, her intelligence? Let us suppose that she was not a heart-broken spinster, that she was relieved to be spared the constant child-bearing which killed three of her sisters-in-law. But she was probably lonely much of the time for intellectual company.

Yes, she had an invaluable friend in her sister Cassandra, but they were often separated, called upon to visit and nurse various friends and relations. We know she found the social duties of Bath to be boring and irksome and her days in Chawton were filled with family, social, and charitable obligation as well. She spent too much of her life obliged to converse with people like Lady Middleton, “who had nothing to say one day that she had not said before.” One must suspect that ignorant know-it-all’s like Mrs. Elton and rambling bores like Miss Bates also came under her observation. Her portrait of Mrs. Allen must surely be drawn from life: “[her] vacancy of mind and incapacity for thinking were such, that as she never talked a great deal, so she could never be entirely silent; and, therefore, while she sat at her work, if she lost her needle or broke her thread, if she heard a carriage in the street, or saw a speck upon her gown, she must observe it aloud.”

All of her heroines, to some extent or another, are forced to put up with listening to people who are boring or vulgar or both. Austen’s genius turns their suffering into comedy. And she rewards them as she could not reward herself--by giving each of them a soul-mate, a hero who “gets” them.

A new statue of Jane Austen in Basingstoke show her striding along briskly. Apparently the sculptor, Adam Roud, decided to capture a moment when someone says “Good morning” to her and she returns the greeting. But she does not break her stride. She is sufficient unto herself. She is storing up ideas in her lively mind for a quiet hour when she can return to her little writing table.


Lona Manning is the author of A Contrary Wind: a variation on Mansfield Park, and the recently-released sequel, A Marriage of Attachment. She is also a contributor to Dangerous To Know: Jane Austen’s Gentlemen Rakes and Rogues and the forthcoming short story anthology Rational Creatures.

1. Benson, Mary Margaret. “Mothers, Substitute Mothers, and Daughters in the Novels of Jane Austen,” Persuasions #11, 1989, pps 117-124


  1. I never thought about them that way, but you make a good argument for it being true, Lona. :)

  2. "Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right...."

  3. Super thought provoking piece—thanks for that. Karen M Cox has described secondary character Eleanor Tilney as a Regency era Cinderella? What do you think?

    1. Especially in that Jane Austen, with a wave of her magic wand, gives Eleanor the HEA that she deserves. I look forward to reading more about Eleanor and the man she loves; I always wanted more of that back story.

  4. Insightful essay! One of Austen's many points of genius is her ability to create a heroine who is set apart without being on the periphery of society. Austen's heroines are quite different, for example, from a character like Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (perhaps Fanny is closest?). Don't get me wrong; I love Jane Eyre! But there is something stunning about characters like Emma Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennet -- these sparkling, clever women who are firmly part of their social milieu, yet somehow able to see (or come to see) the weaknesses of their own social circle. I'm all for writers like the Brontes, who subvert the system by showing the injustices of society, but I have the greatest admiration for Austen, who teaches us how to live in the world while also remaining true to ourselves. Thanks for this thought-provoking piece, Lona!

    1. Very good point about Austen's relation to the society around her! And good comparison to an outsider like Jane Eyre.

  5. You certainly have a keen insight into Austen's heroines. If not for your informative article, I would not have look at it that way, Lona. There are many layers and analysis of Ms Austen's novels that I've yet to discover. I'm delighted that this has opened my eye to view the books in a critical manner and not just the surface only. Thank you.

  6. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Luthien84! You might enjoy a book by John Mullan, "What Matters in Jane Austen." it is enjoyable reading -- not dry or academic -- and it's filled with interesting insights.

    1. Oh, thanks for the recommendation, Lona. I have the book in my reading list but haven't had the time to read it yet.

  7. Very interesting. I never thought of the heroines that way, but it makes a lot f sense. Thank you. I will have to read the book you suggested to Luthien84..."what matters in Jane Austen"


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