You’re the Worst: 5 Despicable Jane Austen Villains
We love to hate these Jane Austen jerks.
In a letter to her sister, Cassandra, Jane Austen remarked: “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” This delightfully misanthropic attitude carries over to Austen’s fiction, where she brings to life a variety of highly disagreeable characters, many of whom elicit what William Hazlitt called “the pleasure of hating.”
When it comes to creating characters who make you want to bludgeon them with the book in which they exist, Austen is second to none. Here are five hate-worthy Jane Austen villains for the ages:
Lucy Steele (Sense and Sensibility)
A lethal combination of good looks, small intellect, endless obsequiousness, and huge ambition, Lucy Steele is out for Lucy Steele—and no one else. When she senses that her secret fiancée, Edward Ferrars, has a thing for Elinor Dashwood, she plays on Elinor’s sense of honor to keep her separated from Edward, slowly breaking Elinor’s heart in the process. When it turns out that Edward won’t be inheriting the family fortune, she dumps his ass, seduces his self-centered brother Robert, and manages to ingratiate herself with the Ferrars brothers’ snobbish mother.
Although Elinor and Edward happily end up together, it’s Lucy who makes out like a bandit. As the narrator of Sense and Sensibility puts it with almost grudging admiration: “The whole of Lucy’s behavior in the affair, and the prosperity which crowned it, therefore, may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, an unceasing attention to self-interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience.”
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Mr. George Wickham (Pride and Prejudice)
Mr. Wickham is that charming sociopath we all knew and sort of had a crush on at one point or another in our lives, until it became painfully clear that they were self-serving narcissists with a skewed view of the world and their place in it. A spreader of lies and a “seducer” of suspiciously young girls (Georgiana Darcy is 15 when she almost gets roped into eloping with him; Lydia Bennet is 16), Wickham’s dubious punishment is getting paid off to marry Lydia. There’s no doubt he quickly runs through the money with which Darcy has bribed him. But, as a man in early 19th-century England, Wickham still has way more freedom and rights than his flighty young wife, Lydia.
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Mrs. Norris (Mansfield Park)
Unrelenting in her abuse of passive heroine Fanny Price, Mrs. Norris is duplicitous and ingratiating. She heaps insults on Fanny and forces her to work, while lavishing Fanny’s wealthier, socially “superior” cousins with mostly undeserved praise. But her hypocrisy and double-dealing only get her so far. As her relationship with the Mansfield Park family declines, “it ended in Mrs. Norris’s resolving to quit Mansfield and devote herself to her unfortunate Maria…where, shut up together with little society, on one side no affection, on the other no judgment, it may be reasonably supposed that their tempers became their mutual punishment.”
Although Austen acknowledges that Maria Bertram is in part the victim of society’s double standards (she cheats on her husband and has no choice but to become a social pariah; Henry Crawford, her partner in cheating, is unsullied), she shows no sympathy for Mrs. Norris’s well-deserved downfall.
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Mr. and Mrs. Elton (Emma)
The Eltons aren’t as actively terrible as some of Austen’s other worst characters. After Mr. Elton gets rebuffed by Highbury’s wealthiest bachelorette, Emma Woodhouse (and finds out during his rebuffing that she intended for him to marry her attractive but much less wealthy and possibly born-out-of-wedlock friend, Harriet), he sets out to find himself an heiress who will appreciate his greed.
Yes, our sense of Mrs. Elton is colored by Emma’s negative perspective, through which it’s filtered: “the quarter of an hour quite convinced her that Mrs. Elton was a vain woman, extremely well satisfied with herself, and thinking much of her own importance; that she meant to shine and be very superior, but with manners which had been formed in a bad school, pert and familiar; that all her notions were drawn from one set of people, and one style of living; that if not foolish she was ignorant, and that her society would certainly do Mr. Elton no good.” But the Eltons also indict themselves by their actions, snubbing and subtly insulting both Emma and Harriet for daring to imagine that Harriet would be a suitable match for Mr. Elton.
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The Thorpe Siblings (Northanger Abbey)
Another terrible couple (of sorts), Isabella Thorpe and her brother, John Thorpe, wreak subtle havoc on the life of Northanger Abbey’s unassuming heroine, Catherine Moreland. Isabella Thorpe isn’t a frenemy on par with Lucy Steele, but she does accept a proposal from Catherine’s brother, James, only to break it off when a wealthier man appears interested—and then begs Catherine to help get her back with James when that prospect falls through.
Meanwhile, John Thorpe is as obnoxious as they come—he’s boastful, aggressive, and loves nothing more than talking about how awesome his carriage and horses are (spoiler alert: they’re not that awesome). He also gets Catherine in trouble by lying not once but twice about the size of her inheritance.
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Who’s the worst? Vote for your worst favorite Jane Austen villain below!