Your Favorite Jane Austen Characters

C. E. Brock / Hugh Thomson / Katie Martin / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last week I asked readers to tell us about their favorite characters from Jane Austen’s body of work. Janeites responded with praise for characters ranging from Pride and Prejudice’s Lydia Bennet to Lady Susan’s Susan Vernon—characters who made them laugh or cry, or gave them strength, or taught them something about themselves.

Like me, and Jane Austen herself, many readers loved Emma Woodhouse despite—or even because of—her evident flaws. “Emma is rich, pretty, and thinks more of her matchmaking abilities than she should,” Kristina Gregerson summarized. “But,” she added,

she is also a devoted daughter, a loving friend, and above all is someone who is willing to own up to her mistakes and attempt to right them. Emma is a heroine you root for as she not only finds love (as any great Austen heroine must), but also as she matures from an often inconsiderate girl to a sincere and kind young woman.

Katrina Toth-Green was similarly impressed by Emma’s maturation, writing:

There’s something about Emma Woodhouse’s growth that I think is incredibly realistic, even now. She wants to be empathetic and wants to live out her values of love, sympathy and caring, but doesn’t know how. She’s young and just trying to figure out how to be the best she can be. but like most of us, she has to experience the worst of herself first. She struggles with the fact that the best people in your life aren’t always those who make you feel good about yourself, but it’s those who make you into a better person despite how hard it is to confront your flaws and mistakes. Her transformation highlights that admiration is worthless if in the end your actions don’t reflect your values. Emma has been one of my favorite books for years and the more I read it, the more I love this character.

Leah not only enjoyed Emma’s complexity, but has also drawn wisdom from her experiences. “I’ve always related to the flawed character of Emma,” she wrote. “As a young teen, I learned from Emma and her mistakes and flaws, and as a young adult I still benefit from reading the novel.”

Other readers similarly opted for characters they could identify with. Maeve, writing from Connecticut, cringed my way through Northanger Abbey” with its heroine, Catherine Morland:

Catherine is a dramatic, gothic-novel-loving teen who is desperate for drama and tries to turn her own life into a ghost story, offending and upsetting her friends in the process. Throughout my teens I did my best to make my life something in between a fantasy novel and a Sofia Coppola movie—I can relate.

She’s funny, outgoing, and magnificently stupid. But Catherine, in her ridiculousness, just wants to make life a fun story. She is the angsty suburban girl who invites you to join her book club with a message written in invisible ink. I would join in a heartbeat.

Laura Fox, in contrast, related to the self-contained and sensible heroine of Sense and Sensibility, Elinor Dashwood. “I identify very much with Elinor,” she wrote:

On the surface, she has it together, she’s in control, she keeps her family together, and she acts like she has no need for romance. But underneath, she is a deeply emotional person. To me, she is Jane Austen’s most complex and human character. We all exist in layers and are neither sense nor sensibility, but a mixture of both.

Meanwhile, Sarah found herself identifying with Pride and Prejudice’s love interest more than with its plucky protagonist:

I always saw myself as more of a Mr. Darcy than an Elizabeth Bennet. We’re both more reserved, and people can mistake our standoffishness for arrogance. But Mr. Darcy gets the chance to prove what he is really like, and now people often think of him as the ideal romantic hero. That gives this small female grad student a great deal of comfort.

But many more readers favored Elizabeth, praising her humor, her intelligence, her independence, and, to borrow a word from Dawn in Arizona, her backbone. “She is smart, witty, charming, and loyal,” wrote Isabel Jijon. “She taught me not to take life so seriously, and especially not to take myself so seriously.”

Sharon Carnes expanded on her favorite of Lizzy’s character traits:

I have always admired her self-respect: a self-respect that wasn't entirely vain or selfish. The self-respect that would not allow her to marry her intellectually inferior cousin, just to have a home, or save her family. Her self-respect that gave her the fortitude to reject Darcy's marriage proposal, though, again, it would have secured her future. Her self-respect that gave her the courage to speak her mind among men and women who outranked her socially and economically.

Renee Pellissier holds Lizzy in similarly high regard. “Though she is the obvious choice,” she wrote, “I can’t choose anyone but her.” She explained:

Eliza was a superhero of her time, doing the riskiest thing a young woman could do—expect more. A beautifully flawed, elegantly complex character, Lizzy Bennet never fails to move and inspire me.

But, even if Renee saw her as “the obvious choice” and Rebecca Bird noted that “it’s become almost cliché to choose her as a favorite character,” the most popular selection among our readers was not Lizzy. It was, instead, the reserved and long-suffering heroine of Persuasion, Anne Elliot—a result not unlike the conclusion of Persuasion itself, in which Anne, while not the flashiest, loudest, or most obvious choice for courting and marriage, earns a happy ending through her own enduring goodness.

Responders admired her maturity, her fortitude, and her kindness, and felt for her heartbreak and rooted for her happiness. And to many, she seemed a hopeful figure: older than other Austen heroines, and hurt by her own misjudgment, but able to take responsibility for her past and forge a better and more loving future for herself.

Naomi explained:

She may be Austen’s most hopeful character. Without the native strength of Emma or Lizzy, her quiet character withstands her own youthful mistake to triumph in the end. Since most of us blow it to one degree or another in our twenties, Anne represents that painful journey to self-knowledge and courage that most of us experience.

Meredith went into even more depth, writing:

I first read Austen’s Persuasion when I was a junior in high school. I had already read Pride & Prejudice and Emma, but there was something about Anne that spoke to the insecure, malleable teenage girl that I was. I understood how she could be persuaded by someone she had a close relationship with to make a decision she later regretted. I was impressed at her subtle strength in accepting both that she was mistakenly guided by someone else and that forgiveness from the person she hurt (Captain Frederick Wentworth) might not be in the cards. My favorite moments are where her knowledge and maturity show to those around her from arguing about the misconception of women being less faithful in memory than men, being the only one to keep a cool head in the face of a tragic accident, and staying true to a former classmate who, according to her snob of a father, wasn't worth the time of day. Anne Elliot was someone I truly identified with, and I hoped to grow into a similar strength of character over time. I would like to think that I have.

But perhaps my favorite response came from Anne fan Traci McKay, who attested that the Persuasion heroine “is perfection,” enjoyed “watching her get her groove back,” and concluded with this simple and hopeful message for Anne:

Go on, girl. Get it.