Throughout her illustrious literary career, Jane Austen created some of the most popular and enduring characters. In addition to inspiring later works, her novels have been reimagined and modernized countless times (notable examples include the 1995 film Clueless, which is based on Emma, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), and have been adapted into numerous miniseries and movies. Still, nothing can compare to the originals. Here is a ranking of Jane Austen’s seven novels.
Note: This list consists of Austen’s completed works, so Sanditon and The Watsons are not included. Also not included is Love and Friendship [sic], which Austen wrote as a young teenager.
Photo: João Silas
7. Lady Susan
This lesser-known novel is written in epistolary form, and is one of Austen’s earliest works (written around 1793), though it was not published until 1871. The novel focuses on the scheming title character, who enjoys manipulating the other characters as she attempts to marry off her young daughter. While the story is entertaining, Austen had not yet mastered her social commentary and satirical tone, and the epistolary form causes the characters to seem more one-dimensional.
6. Mansfield Park
This is perhaps Austen’s most serious novel; her satire is darker and the plot centers on a character who is mistreated and neglected by nearly all of her family members, especially because she is from a lower social class than the aristocratic cousins with whom she is sent to live. Morality is a major topic in this novel, and some of the characters are crueler or more openly villainous than in her other works. Unfortunately, Mansfield Park lacks a very compelling protagonist and male lead. Fanny Price is extremely passive, and her romantic interest spends most of the novel infatuated with someone else. Readers who want a definitive happy ending would probably prefer Austen’s other novels.
5. Northanger Abbey
A parody of the Gothic novels that were popular at the time, Northanger Abbey also has a naive and impressionable young protagonist. Over the course of the novel, the readers witness Catherine Morland’s character progression, as she learns about the people and social conventions of wealthy British society--and realizes that her imagination sometimes gets carried away by the Gothic novels she reads. The plot and character descriptions display Austen’s humor, but the purpose of the novel was clearly to satirize Gothic tropes and heroines, rather than make all the characters three-dimensional. Catherine is likeable, and Henry Tilney is a charming romantic interest, but they are not Austen’s strongest or most engaging protagonists.
4. Sense and Sensibility
Sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are the leads in this novel, which begins with the financial and social challenges they face after their father dies, and their brother does not provide them with their full inheritance. The sisters are close, but have contrasting personalities (which are represented by the title). Elinor is older, and is more pragmatic and reserved, while Marianne is more openly emotional and romantic. Both are compelling characters, and it is easy to sympathize with them, but unfortunately, the male leads do not add much personality. Austen is very practical in her novels by showing how--due to the limited opportunities available to them--marriage was necessary for most women to have financial stability. This is most apparent in Sense and Sensibility, because the ending is more realistic than romantic. Colonel Brandon is compassionate and likeable, but much older than Marianne, and Edward Ferrars is unfortunately dull. After all of the sisters’ disappointments, an ending that assures their future happiness would be more rewarding.
The title character drives the plot of this novel, and she is Austen’s most unapologetically self-assured female protagonist. Unlike Austen’s other heroines, Emma Woodhouse is wealthy and therefore does not feel any pressure to marry. Because she does not need to find a husband, Emma entertains herself by matchmaking for the other people in her village, though the results are usually not what she expects. After some of her schemes go awry, Emma (with some help from her older neighbor, George Knightley) recognizes the consequences of her meddling and occasional arrogance. With several subplots and important side characters, Emma is consistently entertaining and has a satisfying ending.
Austen’s last completed novel, Persuasion is also inherently different than her other novels. The story is about Anne Elliot--her oldest female protagonist--who was persuaded years earlier to break off her engagement with Captain Wentworth because he did not have enough money. The plot begins when Anne and Wentworth meet again over seven years later, with Anne’s family now struggling financially due to her father’s extravagance, and Wentworth now a successful naval captain. The novel is about second chances, and the valuable perspective and experience that can be gained from growing up. Anne and Captain Wentworth are Austen’s most mature protagonists, and the subjects of social and familial obligation are prominent themes in the novel, especially because the ending reflects the feelings of uncertainty in England at the time by reminding the readers that Wentworth could be called away to another war at any time.
Pride and Prejudice
If Persuasion is about second chances, Pride and Prejudice is about first impressions (which was the novel’s original title). Although Austen described it as “too light, and bright, and sparkling,” her most famous novel is also her best. The plot centers on the Bennet family, and the importance of finding suitable husbands for the five daughters, none of whom can inherit the family estate because it was entailed to a male heir. The novel is led by Elizabeth Bennet, Austen’s most dynamic heroine, who--along with Mr. Darcy--learns the consequences of rushing to judgment, and becomes a humbler person and better judge of character over the course of the novel (though she always retains her witty remarks and energetic personality). Austen expertly handles themes such as wealth and social class with her trademark sarcasm and humor. Plus, even though Elizabeth and Darcy are the most well-known, Pride and Prejudice has more than one significant storyline, and well-developed side characters that support the plot. Out of all her male leads, the readers know the most about Darcy because Austen reveals his thoughts, and we see events from his perspective when he writes a long letter to Elizabeth. Overall, Pride and Prejudice is the perfect example of Austen’s writing style, satirical descriptions, and memorable characters.
Erin Azzopardi is a twenty-two-year-old senior at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. She is majoring in English and minoring in French Studies. When she isn't studying, you can find her listening to music, reading, or watching her favorite shows. Her future goals include traveling and becoming a published author.