Although the idea of ‘feminism’ was coined long after Jane Austen’s time, the contributing authors to the Austen-inspired anthology Rational Creatures (pub. Oct'2018) wrote backstories or parallel tales off-stage of canon, remaining true to the ladies we recognize in Austen’s great works—whilst stirring feminism in the hearts of some of her beloved characters. Which “rational creature” are you most like?
Intelligent and quick-witted, the second daughter of an unremarkable country squire, Elizabeth Bennet refuses two advantageous marriage proposals, choosing love and respect over money and security. “Do not consider me now as an elegant female intending to plague you, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart.” —Chapter XIX. She is able to laugh at her own flaws yet is wise enough to admit when she has judged poorly. When the interfering and overbearing Lady Catherine de Bourgh declares her an “obstinate, headstrong girl,” Elizabeth defends herself and is fiercely protective of those she loves…even the man she believes is lost to her forever.
A witty, intelligent, wealthy woman of a small village in Surrey, Emma has always known she has a charmed life. Her matchmaking tendencies and romantic imaginings make her a questionable rational creature, and yet her kind heart, natural care of others, and steady support from the man she loves has bolstered her good sense as she matures. “It is very unfair to judge of any body’s conduct, without an intimate knowledge of their situation.” —Emma, Chapter XVIII.
Lively and fashionable, Louisa Musgrove is an accomplished daughter of a country squire. After she and her sister return from a school at Exeter, she imagines herself in love with Captain Wentworth, Anne Elliot’s former betrothed who has recently returned from sea. “Would I be turned back from doing a thing that I had determined to do, and that I knew to be right, by the airs and interference of such a person, or of any person, I may say? No, I have no idea being so easily persuaded. When I have made up my mind, I have made it.” —Persuasion, Chapter X. Though full of verve, her foolish whims lead her to calamitous consequence, throwing her at the affectionate heart of another.
Timid, shy, and a poor relation of Sir Thomas Bertram, Fanny prefers to remain quietly unnoticed. At Mansfield Park, amidst lust, sloth, greed, and jealousy, she persisted, ever constant in her morals and sensible in her convictions. “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.” —Mansfield Park, Chapter XXXVI. In the end, this mild-mannered, quiet, rational creature triumphs. She found her happiness and married the man she always loved—without having to compromise any of her principles.
After losing her father, home, and the gentleman she loves, Miss Dashwood’s altruism is nothing short of heroic. A model of decorum and grace, she appears cool while everyone and everything around her seems to be at sixes and sevens. Even as her heart yearns for what is now out of reach, this rational creature remains true to her principles by relying just as much on her artistic sensibility as her levelheaded good sense. “I will be mistress of myself.” —Sense and Sensibility, Chapter XLVIII.
Persuaded at nineteen to break off her engagement to a promising yet insignificant young naval officer, this daughter of a baronet remains lonely, overlooked, and undervalued by her family. As she grows older and closer to inevitable spinsterhood, the weight of regret causes this rational creature to vow that if ever applied to by a younger person in similar circumstances, she would offer no such guidance. She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she had learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning. –Persuasion, Chapter IV.
Charming, witty, and handsome, this orphaned heiress has all the makings of a heroine, and yet her rational sensibilities, survival instincts, and questionable values might be found wanting by polite society. “There, I will stake my last like a woman of spirit. No cold prudence for me. I was not born to sit still and do nothing. If I lose the game, it shall not be from not striving for it.” —Mansfield Park, Chapter XXV.
As the young, unmarried daughter of an earl, she learns from those who ought to be teaching her better that one must manipulate the world to achieve one’s desires. Though she later earns the reputation as a practiced seductress, her rational yet selfish instincts effortlessly yield success, even at this tender age. “Lady Susan does not confine herself to that sort of honest flirtation which satisfies most people but aspires to the more delicious gratification of making a whole family miserable.” —Lady Susan, Letter 4.
At first glance, Miss Hetty Bates would not be considered a rational creature. Although universally adored by her neighbours, her rambling and nonsensical speeches make her the object of ridicule by Emma, while her often ironic disclosures unwittingly reveal clues to the intrigues in Highbury. Despite living in genteel poverty, she maintains an outward appearance of cheer and contented independence. And yet: “Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken.” —Emma, Chapter XLIX.
A sensible, intelligent young woman, Charlotte Lucas is Elizabeth Bennet’s most rational friend. However, after marrying the odious, obsequious Mr. Collins, one might argue the sensibility in the act. Has she empowered herself by taking her fate in to her own hands or merely affirmed Regency era women’s limited choices? “Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. This preservative she had now obtained; and at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, she felt all the good luck of it.” —Pride and Prejudice, Chapter XXII.
Rational and wise, sister to Captain Frederick Wentworth, Mrs. Croft is half of one of the few examples of a happy marriage that Jane Austen ever wrote. As a well-travelled and confident woman, she sets the standard of a good navy wife and helpmeet. “...as long as we were together nothing ever ailed me, and I never met with the smallest inconvenience.” —Persuasion, Chapter VIII.
Elegant, rational, and humble, Eleanor is the motherless daughter of a tyrannical father and has lived a lonely existence at Northanger Abbey since her brothers left home. Like a Regency Cinderella, she is a kind-hearted princess who can only hope one day to find her prince. As Miss Austen declared, “I know no one more entitled, by unpretending merit, or better prepared by habitual suffering, to receive and enjoy felicity.” —Northanger Abbey, Chapter XXXI.
When chance throws Penelope Clay, a poor widow with two small children, into the company of Sir Walter Elliot, a widowed baronet, her only rational notion is to charm and wheedle her way into becoming the next Lady Elliot. She befriends Sir Walter’s oldest daughter, and though others stand in the way of her schemes, Mrs. Clay is “a clever young woman, who understood the art of pleasing…” —Persuasion, Chapter II.
A young lady of great feeling, Marianne’s high spirits and spontaneity are dramatically magnified after her father’s death, loss of her childhood home, and by acting the part of a woman wildly in love. Her disappointments, pleasures, and affections have no limits—to the detriment of all in her sphere. After she has been betrayed by a practiced rake, she finds herself at death’s door but has a second chance at love and becoming a rational creature. “I wish, as well as everybody else, to be perfectly happy; but, like everybody else, it must be in my own way.” —Sense and Sensibility, Chapter XVII.
Young, naïve, and in possession of no remarkable skill or gift, a more unlikely heroine there never was. Yet, she has survived a harrowing adventure on the road from Northanger Abbey, found love with a handsome and sensible gentleman, and emerged a rational creature, developing grace and forming her own ideas and judgments. “Her heart was affectionate, her disposition cheerful and open, without conceit or affectation of any kind...” —Northanger Abbey, Chapter II.
Sweet-tempered, well-mannered but unsophisticated, Miss Smith is the daughter of nobody knows who. She became the pet of the clever and rich Emma Woodhouse, who believed that, with proper direction and a little matchmaking, she could increase Harriet’s chances at a more favourable match than a simple farmer. Impressed by the condescension and suggestable to change, Harriet falls in and out of love no less than three times when, at last, she follows her more rational heart full-circle to the man who has adored her all the while—just the way she is. “Her character depends on those she is with; but in good hands, she will turn out a valuable woman.” —Chapter VIII, Emma.
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