First off, Austen often seems reticent when it comes to physical descriptions, but I think, in the end, she actually delineates her heroines perfectly, deftly capturing both their inner and outer beauty. There are really so many snippets it’s astounding, so in the following I shall confine myself to a pointed few.
From Pride and Prejudice: "Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her (Lizzy) to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticize. But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing; and in spite of his asserting her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness."
And of course there is good, sweet, loving Jane whom everyone considers beautiful inside and out.
From Sense and Sensibility: “(Elinor) had a delicate complexion, regular features and a remarkably pretty figure. Marianne was still handsomer. Her form, though not so correct as her sister’s, in having the advantage of height, was more striking; and her face was so lovely, that when in the common cant of praise she was called a beautiful girl, truth was less violently outraged than usually happens. Her skin was very brown, but from its transparency, her complexion was uncommonly brilliant; her features were all good; her smile was sweet and attractive, and in her eyes, which were very dark, there was a life, a spirit, an eagerness which could hardly be seen without delight.”
Anne in Persuasion has “an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding…” Regarding her love story: “He (Wentworth) was, at that time, a remarkably fine young man, with a great deal of intelligence, spirit and brilliancy; and Anne an extremely pretty girl, with gentleness, modesty, taste, and feeling.” When she arrives in Bath -- just beginning to taste happiness again -- her gracious, gentle spirit shines radiantly through, beautifying her entire being. Even her father notices it; and Wentworth can’t look away.
And we have this glowing description of Emma in an early conversation between Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston: “Oh! You would rather talk of her person than her mind, would you? Very well; I shall not attempt to deny Emma’s being pretty.” “Pretty! Say beautiful rather. Can you imagine any thing nearer perfect beauty than Emma altogether—face and figure? …Such an eye!—the true hazel eye—and so brilliant! Regular features, open countenance, with a complexion! Oh! what a bloom of full health, and such a pretty height and size; such a firm and upright figure. There is health, not merely in her bloom, but in her air, her head, her glance. …She is loveliness itself. Mr. Knightley, is not she?” “I have not a fault to find with her person,” he replied. “I think her all you describe. I love to look at her; and I will add this praise, that I do not think her personally vain. Considering how very handsome she is, she appears to be little occupied with it, her vanity lies another way.”
One of Emma’s tremendous struggles is her stopping and starting, her unwillingness to see something through -- her unconquered reading list, her unfinished sketches, her dilatory music practice. Now (looking at these) I don’t think Austen’s making a point that all young ladies need to pass some arbitrary bar of accomplishment (for instance, witness Lady Catherine’s shock over Lizzy’s list of accomplishments in P&P). The trouble in Emma’s case is in a lack of diligence. And that is tremendously important. Important enough that Austen highlights it (or the lack of it) with many of her feminine characters (Lydia, Georgiana, etc.) and with every single one of her heroines from Catherine to Anne.
And so we come to the inner character of our heroines. Now, with some of her quieter heroines, there’s also just the slightest possibility that they might occasionally seem like wall flowers... passively observing everything going on around them. But, while true strong integrity may not seem glamorous at times, ultimately it never goes unnoticed. And when strict adherence to solid principles and gentleness are combined, it’s a red-hot combination. Other characters may or may not like it, but they can't ignore it.
“Elinor, this eldest daughter whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counselor of her mother… She had an excellent heart;--her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them…” Sense & Sensibility
“As soon as her eagerness could rest in silence, he was as happy to tell as she could be to listen, and a conversation followed almost as deeply interesting to her as to himself, though he had in fact nothing to dwell on but Fanny’s charms.—Fanny’s beauty of face and figure, Fanny’s graces of manner and goodness of heart were the exhaustless theme. The gentleness, modesty, and sweetness of her character were warmly expatiated on, that sweetness which makes so essential a part of every woman’s worth in the judgment of man, that though he sometimes loves where it is not, he can never believe it absent. Her temper he had good reason to depend on and to praise. He had often seen it tried. Was there one of the family, excepting Edmund, who had not in some way or other continually exercised her patience and forbearance? Her affections were evidently strong. To see her with her brother! What could more delightfully prove that the warmth of her heart was equal to its gentleness?—What could be more encouraging to a man who had her love in view? Then, her understanding was beyond every suspicion, quick and clear; and her manners were the mirror of her own modest and elegant mind. Nor was this all. Henry Crawford had too much sense not to feel the worth of good principles in a wife, though he was too little accustomed to serious reflection to know them by their proper name; but when he talked of her having such a steadiness and regularity of conduct, such a high notion of honour, and such an observance of decorum as might warrant any man in the fullest dependence on her faith and integrity, he expressed what was inspired by the knowledge of her being well principled and religious.” Henry Crawford speaking of Fanny in Mansfield Park
Strong minded and romantically passionate, Austen’s heroines are yet all dutiful to authority. The key and very interesting point being that it’s to the right and proper God-given authorities. Lizzy’s a good example. She defies Lady Catherine: “I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me”; yet, for all his failures as a father, she’s on pins and needles regarding Mr. Bennet’s permission. Anne submits (and does not blame) her father and Lady Russell for their initial hard counsel regarding her engagement, and then later (rather than just running off together or something equally terrible) Captain Wentworth and Anne solicit her father’s blessing once again. It’s very worth noting that it’s only her practically perfect heroines (i.e. Anne and Fanny) who justly and appropriately go up against their immediate authority figures. It’s a weighty and fearsome thing, never to be taken lightly, and it seems long years of genuine obedience generally have to be in place first.
The above actually ties into our next point, being that we, as human beings, tend to very easily get self-centered and self-absorbed -- the quick and bitter fruits of which being deeper blindness, selfishness, and ingratitude. Marianne is a prime example:
“Long before I was enough recovered to talk, I was perfectly able to reflect. I considered the past; I saw in my own behavior since the beginning of our acquaintance with him (Willoughby) last autumn, nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself, and want of kindness to others. I saw that my own feelings had prepared my sufferings, and that my want of fortitude under them had almost led me to the grave, My illness, I well knew, had been entirely brought on by myself, by such negligence of my own health, as I had felt even at the time to be wrong. Had I died,--it would have been self-destruction. I did not know my danger till the danger was removed; but with such feelings as these reflections gave me, I wonder at my recovery,--wonder that the very eagerness of my desire to live, to have time for atonement to my God, and to you all, did not kill me at once. …Whenever I looked towards the past, I saw some duty neglected, or some failing indulged. Every body seemed injured by me. The kindness, the unceasing kindness of Mrs. Jennings, I had repaid with ungrateful contempt. To the Middletons, the Palmers, the Steeles, to every common acquaintance even, I had been insolent and unjust; with an heart hardened against their merits, and a temper irritated by their very attention. ...But you (Elinor),--you above all, above my mother, had been wronged by me. I, and only I, knew your heart and its sorrows; yet, to what did it influence me?—not to any compassion that could benefit you or myself.—Your example was before me: but to what avail?—Was I more considerate of you and your comfort?—No;--not less when I knew you to be unhappy, than when I had believed you at ease, did I turn away from every exertion of duty or friendship; scarcely allowing sorrow to exist but with me, regretting only that heart which had deserted and wronged me, and leaving you, for whom I professed an unbounded affection, to be miserable for my sake.”
“Here ceased the flow of her self-reproving spirit; and Elinor, impatient to sooth, though too honest to flatter, gave her instantly that praise and support which her frankness and her contrition so well deserved. Marianne pressed her hand and replied,
“You are very good.—The future must be my proof. I have laid down my plan, and if I am capable of adhering to it—my feelings shall be governed and my temper improved. They shall no longer worry others, nor torture myself. I shall now live solely for my family. You, my mother, and Margaret, must henceforth be all the world to me; you will share my affections entirely between you. From you, from my home, I shall never again have the smallest incitement to move; and if I do mix in other society it will be only to shew that my spirit is humbled, my heart amended, and that I can practice the civilities, the lesser duties of life, with gentleness, and forbearance. As for Willoughby—to say that I shall soon or that I shall ever forget him, would be idle. His remembrance can be overcome by no change of circumstances or opinions. But it shall be regulated, it shall be checked by religion, by reason, by constant employment.”
There is the lesson of humility: Marianne learns it, along with Catherine, Lizzy, and Emma. True beauty is inseparably bound together with strength of character and true tenderness of heart -- knowing and acknowledging and facing up to faults and tenderly receptive to correction, which can be raw and stinging and hurt tremendously at times, but yet yields wondrous fruit.
And (even if they seem to have the humility lesson down) all of Austen’s heroines still have struggles. As included at the end of the quote from Marianne above, trying to run from a problem, to flee to different surroundings, is absolutely useless (witness the experience of Elinor, Marianne, Anne, Fanny in Portsmouth, even Jane Fairfax). This isn’t to say moving, or changing situations, can’t be extremely healthy and helpful and broadening at the very least. But when all is said and done, and the dust settles, we’re still the same people. And our problems have to be faced and dealt with head-on. And sometimes it’s a long struggle. And sometimes it comes over and over. It can be discouraging. So here we can see the call to action. To action and diligence (again!) and perseverance.
And here I think Austen highlights something incredibly beautiful. Along this road of ups and downs and twists and turns of life, we have friends. Friends and mentors; both new blossoming friendships and those that are tried-and-true. And each one is precious.
Austen’s heroines don’t isolate themselves. They’re friendly, even when it’s awkward (or simply frightening to take that first step). There are highly important sister friendships (which I’ve written on before here) and sometimes the mentor relationship is all tied in with the sister relationship: Jane/Lizzy/Mrs. Gardiner, Elinor/Marianne, Eleanor Tilney/Catherine, Mrs. Weston/Emma/Harriet, Anne/Lady Russell and Fanny/Susan, even Fanny and Miss Crawford, to a certain degree (not in the mentor sense, but in the ‘pushing yourself to be friendly because it seems to be the right thing to do sense’).
Some of the friendships have serious bumps in the road, but (perhaps with the exception of Miss Crawford) they’re all worth it. The time -- the occasional hurt -- the love that has to be poured out over and over. It’s all worth it.
And true friendship (in the family or otherwise) calls for loyalty -- in which every last one of Austen’s heroines provide stunning examples. ‘Tis true that standing on one’s principles (as discussed above) sometimes necessitates a hard break in a relationship (i.e. Fanny being sent to Portsmouth, Catherine breaking communication with the Thorpes, etc.), but, in the general course of events, fierce loyalty is of prime importance and is an awe-inspiring gift. The kind of loyalty that loves without question and yet would fight any number of battles with you to keep you on the right path.
So there are some of my thoughts on Austen's lovely heroines...
What think ye? I'd love to hear! :)