Mean Girls in Jane Austen’s Books

Mean Girls in Jane Austen’s Books

Most of my readers are not aware that my husband and I have a non-profit organization for teens. It is a long story how it all came about and that is not the focus of this blog, so I will just put a link to our website here and an article that was written about it and move on. (www.teenenrichment.org

Mrs. Dashwood and Fanny Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility, 1995

The reason I mentioned it now is that being part of this organization brought me into contact with many talented young writers who were searching for a writing group where they could learn and share their talents. Through a series of events that I now realize God set in motion a decade earlier, I became the coordinator of the Riverside Young Writers. The blessings of working with these kids and bringing in speakers to open their eyes to possibilities have been overwhelming.

One of these beautiful, bright young ladies was invited by one of our speakers to write a blog and she chose to discuss The Evolution of Strong Female Characters: From the Classics to Today’s Young Adult Fiction ( I cannot tell you how tickled I was when she focused a good portion of her blog on Jane Austen, listing her as one of our “Founding Writer Mothers”.

With that in mind, a recent discussion about feminism with my Darcy-in-training son, and watching some of the teen dramas with my fifteen year old Elizabeth-like daughter made me start thinking about women, real and fictional, and how we treat each other. (As my son pointed out, men don’t “slut shame”; they have no problems with a girl who is easy.)

Though many things have changed since I was in high school, one always seems to remain the same: the way girls treat each other. When I first started playing with this topic, I immediately zeroed in on Caroline Bingley of Pride and Prejudice, Fanny Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility, and Mrs. Elton of Emma.

Caroline Bingley and Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice, 1995
Mrs. Elton, Sense and Sensibility, 2009

Who could deny that these “ladies” mastered the ability to undercut any woman who dared to consider drawing the attention of one of their gentlemen, whether brother or imagined suitor? But when I sat down with a list of characters from each book, I found myself having difficulty putting the women in categories of guilty vs. innocent of affronts to women-kind. Sure there is Jane Bennet who will only find the good in others, but even Lizzy admits uncharitable thoughts regarding Mary King following Lydia’s description of her as “a nasty little freckled thing”.

Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice, 1995

“Elizabeth was shocked to think that, however incapable of such coarseness of expression herself, the coarseness of the sentiment was little other than her own breast had harboured and fancied liberal!” (Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 39)


Mr. Willoughby and Marianne Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility, 1995

It does not surprise us when Marianne Dashwood displays an “invariable coldness of her behaviour towards (the Steele sisters), which checked every endeavour at intimacy on their side” (Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 22), but would we want our daughters to treat others in this manner?

Though I rarely admit it in public, and will probably hear about it for saying it here, I am not a fan of Emma. The only adaptation that I watch on a regular basis is Clueless.

Emma, 1996, and Cher from Clueless, 1995

In reading passages to find examples for this blog, I zeroed in on why Emma has always been a struggle for me. I don’t like her. Emma Woodhouse is the queen bee, the Regina George (Mean Girls), the Heather Chandler (Heathers).

Rachel McAdams as Regina George in Mean Girls, 2004
Poster from Heathers the Musical based on the 1988 movie, Heathers

She is the one who thinks it is her place to decide what and who all the other women around her should be. Okay, I will allow that she is not as cruel as some of the examples I have mentioned, but she is no saint either. Her own creator had this to say of her:

“The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.” (Emma, Chapter 1)

And Mr. Knightley seemed to always be correcting her, reminding her to think of others.

“Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do: a privilege rather endured than allowed, perhaps, but I must still use it. I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance. How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?—Emma, I had not thought it possible.” (Emma, Chapter 7)

In attempting to draw this blog to a close, I was at a loss. Mean girls will always exist, sometimes within ourselves. I suppose that all we can do is try to pay more attention to what we say and how we say it, and to encourage our daughters to be more accepting of each other. Jane Bennet might sound naïve at times and be a bit too trusting, but perhaps a page from her book is the best place to end.

“I (Jane) would not wish to be hasty in censuring anyone; but I always speak what I think.”

“I know you do; and it is that which makes the wonder. With your good sense, to be so honestly blind to the follies and nonsense of others! Affectation of candour is common enough—one meets with it everywhere. But to be candid without ostentation or design—to take the good of everybody’s character and make it still better, and say nothing of the bad—belongs to you alone.” (Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 4)

Jane an Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice, 1995


Who is your favorite Austen mean girl?

16 Responses to Mean Girls in Jane Austen’s Books

  1. It is not true that men don’t slut-shame women. If a girl is putting out but not to a particular guy, they’re the worst.

  2. Great post, Bronwen. I totally agree about Emma. Clueless is the only version where the actress is young enough, and clueless enough, that I can forgive her behavior. Otherwise, Emma is simply annoying. We should all be more like Jane Bennet. Just think what a nice world we could live in 🙂 And, you know, I think Jane Bennet is happier than most people. When you stop to think about it, who wouldn’t want to always like everyone and see everyone as good? Of course, you could argue that she can only be that way due to luck and the protection afforded her by society, so there is that. Still, something to aspire to 🙂

    • In the past I have considered Jane Bennet naive, but while I was writing this I decided she was just plain nice and what’s wrong with that? Thanks for the comment. 😉

  3. Fanny Dashwood is my favorite Jane Austen character to despise–her arrogance and self-centered disregard for anyone’s interests but her own (and her family’s) and her manipulation of her weak husband are so awful–it’s so much fun to hate her! 🙂 Emma is obnoxious, no question, both on the page and on the screen.

    • Fanny Dashwood is just about my favorite Jane Austen character. I love how she keeps at her husband, chipping away. It’s very entertaining 🙂

      • That is one of the best scenes. “Oh, I don’t think he meant for you to do that …” What a truly manipulative person. As I said in another comment, I love how Lucy Steele got the best of her.

  4. I bet in her younger days Mrs. Norris was a mean girl… she is a holy terror as an older lady. I bet she ran roughshod over her sisters. Interesting post. Thank you for sharing these thoughts and especially your work with young teen writers.

  5. Nice post! I agree we should be careful what we say and how we say it. Like you said mean girls will always exist.

    • It is sad that we have to conciously think before we speak for fear of hurting someone. Unfortunately my filter is not always firmly in place, but I have learned to apologize quickly and try to make reparation. I just pray I’m not as bad as some of the characters I mentioned. Lol

  6. My favorite mean girl is Caroline Bingley who does her best to diminish Elizabeth in Mr. Darcy’s eyes but fails miserably. Although I do enjoy Emma, I have always hated how she treats Miss Bates and one of my favorite scenes is when Mr. Knightley dresses her down for her behavior.

    • Austen was good at giving a setdown. I wish she had been more direct with Miss Bingley or someone had reminded her of her ties to trade. It always seemed like Darcy’s and Elizabeth’s comments went over her head.

  7. I am not fond of Elizabeth Elliot, but I remind myself Anne permitted her eldest sister’s manipulations. Anne Elliot was a bit of a milquetoast. Sometimes I think she did not deserve the likes of Captain Wentworth.
    I love to discover a means for a bit of revenge on Caroline Bingley in my various stories. Even so, I occasionally allow her a few moments of sympathy, for the lady was in an untenable position, with so many expectations placed upon her to assist her family’s upward mobility by marrying well.
    Like you, “Emma” is not one of my favorite tales. Gwyneth Paltrow’s portrayal of the title character did nothing to increase my love of the character, although I will admit to enjoying looking upon Jeremy Northam in Regency dress.
    I suppose as I taught high school for 40 years, I have witnessed too many “mean girls” berating others, and I know some people simply feel entitlement. They never change. Even at my 25 year class reunion (we are coming up on our 55th reunion in 2020) the same “mean girls” from our high school class were making fun of one of the former “nerds” who had lost weight, had a major makeover (and likely some cosmetic surgery), and had snagged a wealthy husband. Although we were 25 years removed from the classroom, they still could not permit the woman a bit of happiness. It was very sad. I did my best Elizabeth Bennet impression and attempted to warn them against such behavior, but I hold no delusions I was successful.

    • I love this! I agree, though Persuasion is one of my favorites, Anne is a bit bland, but I hold out hope that her happiness with Wentworth increased her spiritedness.
      Our class only had 2 reunions (the results of electing cheerleaders as class officers), but I imagine our reunions would be much the same. Uh oh, did I just say that? See, the filter slips sometimes. 😉

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