Did Jane Austen write evil characters?
While working on Caroline Bingley, I’ve asked myself this repeatedly, and I’ve already opined about Caroline’s nature here. In many sequels, Caroline seems to be characterized as evil, but was this what Jane Austen intended? Did she intend any of her antagonists to be villains? She didn’t write ax murderers, child molesters, or dog kickers, after all. Certainly, the antagonists got in the way of our hero and heroine, but were they evil? Or were they products of Regency society and its limitations?
- Caroline Bingley: She wanted Mr. Darcy for herself, and she wanted to conceal her originals in trade. She was snotty and snide, and much like the heroine Emma, she did not bother to hide her opinions of others whom she believed to be beneath her status. But was she evil? No, she was responding as polite society taught her: with gossip and condescension.
- Mr. Darcy: An antagonist? Sure. He was the originator of the plan to separate Charles and Jane. He stepped between our hero and heroine, but he soon saw his error and repented. Evil? No way.
- Wickham: he was a dissolute manipulator, and probably closest to a true villain in P&P. But consider the limitations placed on him. He grew up in the splendor of Pemberley almost as a son, but as an adult, his only options were to join the military, join the church, or practice law. Or he could marry well. If one were raised in luxury without a care in the world, it would be awfully tempting to take the easy way out. Still, his limitations do not excuse his lazy behavior, but they do explain it.
- Mr. Frank Churchill was an antagonist in Emma. He was the crux of almost all the problems in the book, but was he evil? No, he was a lot like Wickham. He responded to the limitations placed on him by his aunt, but he did not always make wise choices.
- Mr. Elliot in Persuasion was creepy, but again, not evil. As with all Regency people, he too was preoccupied with money and status, and as a lazy person, he also took the easiest course: marriage to Anne for money while conducting affairs for love. Was his decision moral? Nope. Was it evil? I’ll leave that to you to decide.
- Mr. Willoughby, Miss Steele…I could go on with the other antagonists, but you get the point. They weren’t cartoons. They were real people with real motivations and flaws.
One of the best aspects of Jane Austen’s writing was her characterization. There are no stock “bad guys” who thwarted heroes just to take pleasure in hurting them. Her antagonists were well-developed, and they had back-stories and motives of their own, and when you get right down to it, their motives greatly resembled those of all people in Regency society–the quest for money, security, and status. These characters just made poor choices about how to attain those things.