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The Truth about Beauty in Austen’s Novels

What is Jane Austen’s philosophy of female beauty, and what purpose does it serve for theme, character, and plot development?  The topic is an essential element of each of her novels because of their focus on young women and men immersed in the marriage market.  For example, as Pride and Prejudice opens, beauty is front and center as Mrs. Bennet discusses with her bemused husband the necessity of his visiting the wealthy new occupant of Netherfield Park.  While acknowledging that she once “‘had my share of beauty,’” Mrs. Bennet makes it clear that, of their five daughters, Jane’s looks make her the rich man’s obvious choice (4).  Rejecting decisively her husband’s suggestion of “‘my little Lizzy,’” she states baldly:  “‘I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane’” (4).1

Such a brutal assessment of one’s child’s physical assets can be a shock to modern readers.  But Mr. Bennet’s immediate call on Mr. Bingley after this scene suggests that he is exquisitely aware of the tenuous hold his wife and five daughters have on a home and that the beauty of one of those daughters could be the salvation of all.  The entirety of the couple’s discussion of marriage and beauty in this initial passage is uncomfortably colored by the reader’s growing awareness that Mrs. Bennet’s former beauty led Mr. Bennet to marry her, only for him to realize later that she “was a woman of mean understanding . . . and uncertain temper” (5).

Mr. Bennet unkindly teases Mrs. Bennet that “‘Mr. Bingley might like you the best,’” but then that a woman with five daughters “‘has not . . . much beauty to think of’” (4).  Fortunately for Mrs. Bennet, not only does her husband quickly pay a visit to Mr. Bingley, but that same man’s return visit in “a few days” is spurred by hopes of meeting those daughters “of whose beauty he had heard much” (9).  The centrality of beauty in attracting a marriage partner is why Mrs. Bennet, while visiting an ill Jane at Netherfield Park, repeats her boast of Jane’s attractions directly to Bingley himself.  For her it’s not enough to publicly advertise “‘Jane’s beauty’”:  she must ruthlessly assert by comparison that the neighboring Lucas sisters “‘are not handsome’” and repeat twice that Charlotte Lucas in particular is “‘very plain’” (44). 

Austen’s writing has been termed “scarcely visual at all” (Wiltshire 19).  But her narrator almost always provides a brief assessment of the attractiveness of central characters as they appear; Darcy, for example, is first described as being “tall,” with “handsome features” (10).  Besides giving readers a more specific image, what purpose does a character’s looks serve for Austen?  The aim of this article is to interrogate Austen’s philosophy of beauty, and in doing so to examine why it is usually the second-tier female beauty that Austen suggests is the ideal marriage partner.  While the Regency period was “remarkable in its concern with masculine appearances” (Sturrock), my focus will be principally on females.  Austen was out to reshape the cult of beauty, to suggest that beauty was not a young woman’s most valuable asset.  Thus, with the possible exception of Emma, her principal females are not raving beauties.  She was also intent on reshaping the novel, a goal that included crafting “heroines who were more plausible, imperfect, and individualized than the sentimental ideal” (Bander, “Performing” 29).  Part of that imperfection, of course, included physical imperfection.

In rethinking beauty, Austen affirms an idea later explored in John Keats’s 1820 poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which contains the ambiguous phrase, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”  The urn imagines a sexual pursuit, and while the lovers frozen on the urn will last forever (“For ever panting, and for ever young”), the poem’s speaker points out that real lovers will lose that beauty (“old age shall this generation waste”).  A central truth about beauty for both Keats and Austen is its fleeting nature; it won’t last long, but love must.  Austen’s characters must carefully interrogate beauty as they negotiate the marriage market; though fleeting, it can too often mislead. 

In her novels, beauty is a practical way to describe a character’s looks, but more importantly it is a method of defining character.  When the narrator tells us that for Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park, “beauty and wealth were all that excited her respect,” we know her as a static, selfish character (332).  And when Austen’s protagonists focus too much on looks, even while noting other facets of that person such as charm, the novels suggest that their perception is unreliable and shallow.  For Austen, morality and intelligence trump beauty.  So while beautiful and also charming characters such as Mary Crawford populate the novels, without intelligence and morals they won’t, by novel’s end, be chosen. 

Austen is often more expansive on looks in her letters than in her novels.  Writing to her sister, Cassandra, she often tartly describes the surface attractiveness (“prettyish”), or lack of it (“scarcely any teeth”), of the people she meets when traveling (20–21 November 1800; 29 May 1811).  In her novels, Austen is principally interested in the emotional lives of her characters, and that is one reason she often skips detailed descriptions of people, dress, and estates.  “She has command over our vision, and any description of the surround is irrelevant. . . . [W]hat we are being afforded are views of character,” the novelist Eudora Welty observed of Austen’s writing (9).  Beauty is part of character in Austen; it is not dichotomized as good or bad—it’s under analysis, as it was for Edmund Burke and William Gilpin, two writers whose aesthetic philosophies Austen was aware of (Gentile; H. Austen “Biographical” 7).  While Austen’s absorption of and use of Gilpin’s landscape aesthetics in Mansfield Park is well known, her artistic response to culturally circulating ideas of personal beauty has not received such sustained analysis.2 

In his 1755 Dictionary Samuel Johnson describes beauty as “[t]hat assemblage of graces, or proportion of parts, which pleases the eye.”  But in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Edmund Burke rejects the idea that beauty is “at all an idea belonging to proportion” (129).  He defines beauty as linked to “those qualities in bodies by which they cause love, or some passion similar” (128).  Burke refuses to give a definitive definition of beauty but argues for its instantaneous charge upon being viewed, whether in humans or in nature.  Thus, what strikes us immediately as beautiful isn’t something we use “reasoning” to admire (129).  He separates love from lust, because he doesn’t believe that those we may lust after are necessarily those who are what society would call beautiful.  Thus, he observes what is made flesh in Austen’s novels:  one can “have a strong desire for a woman of no remarkable beauty” (128).  In Austen’s universe, the most lasting attractions occur when the observer is looking, in Shakespeare’s words, “not with the eyes, but with the mind.”  An intellectual interest in a woman must be provoked before her unique beauty is discerned.  Burke’s admiration of beauty (separate from the sublime, which generates terror) is precisely what Austen warns against (86).  For Austen, a principal focus on beauty in the choice of a mate is something to be feared. 

In order to determine Austen’s own philosophy of beauty we can look at the characters whom she marks off as exceptionally attractive—and those whom she doesn’t.  It is usually the second-tier beauty that Austen makes her heroines, those whose intelligence and moral actions combine in a synergistic effect to render them beautiful to the leading male protagonist.  And that, Austen suggests, is how it should be.  Thus, Elinor Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny Price, Anne Elliot, and Catherine Morland are all “almost pretty” (NA 15), but don’t at first compel men towards them, as a Marianne Dashwood or a Jane Fairfax does.  Darcy sharply comments to his friend Bingley at the assembly room party that, “‘You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room’” (11).  Bingley’s response, that “‘she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld’” but that one of her sisters is “‘very pretty,’” acknowledges the truth for him of Darcy’s observation (11).  At novel’s start, Darcy is in agreement with Bingley and Mrs. Bennet that Jane is the prettiest of the elder daughters and thus the only one worth pursuing. 

In a sustained analysis of Austen’s unique approach to female connoisseurship in her first three novels, Natasha Duquette argues that Elizabeth Bennet, Marianne Dashwood, and Fanny Price all evidence “an Austenian balance of mind and heart in their connoisseurship” (75), bypassing “flashy surfaces” (76).  And while Duquette principally focuses on these women’s relationships with art and landscape in the progression of their “visual imagination[s]” (85), she posits that Austen rejects the “claimed objectivity of Enlightenment detachment” in contemplating aesthetics, for a “warm, subjective response” (74).  It is this same holistic and subjective response to female attractiveness that Austen seeks in the men who pursue her leading women, even as they take complex routes to get there. 

Austen frequently uses beauty as a central plot point and element of a character’s arc.  It is precisely Darcy’s lack of initial attraction to Elizabeth that provides the novel’s built-in tension as he moves from disdain, to admiration, to love.  After he “scarcely allowed her to be pretty” at their next meeting at Netherfield, he is agreeably struck by a face, “rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes” (23).  Austen’s pairing here of intelligence with beauty, even while Darcy is arguing with himself by enumerating Elizabeth’s failures of “symmetry” and fashionable “manners,” suggests Elizabeth is his best match (23).  Darcy’s internal fight continues while Elizabeth remains at Netherfield nursing her sister Jane.  But Carolyn Bingley’s inane attempts at flirtation with Darcy (“‘You write uncommonly fast’” [47]), only highlight Elizabeth’s conversational acumen (“‘I always delight in . . . cheating a person of their premeditated contempt’” [52]).  Finally, Darcy is forced to admit Elizabeth “attracted him more than he liked” (59).  Like the poetic persona of Keats’s “Ode” contemplating the urn and coming to the final realization that “Beauty is truth,” Darcy’s continued contemplation of Elizabeth reveals the truth about her character and what he finds beautiful. 

Elizabeth’s own “multilayered complexity,” most evident in her spirited verbal sparring with Darcy after his first proposal and her later defense of herself with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, allows her to realistically recognize beauty’s secondary place in Darcy’s pursuit of her (Duquette 74).  Near novel’s end, in her flirtatious request for him to explain when, exactly, he fell in love with her, she teasingly points out, “‘My beauty you had early withstood’” (380).  While Elizabeth playfully posits her failings of character as inducements to love, he responds that his love was kindled by “‘the liveliness of your mind’” (380).  For Austen, that should always be the essence of attractiveness.  In a culture that deemed women of lesser intelligence than men, Austen centers female intelligence as the beating heart attracting the richest man in the county.  “‘Happiness in marriage,’” for Austen is not, as Charlotte Lucas would have it, “‘entirely a matter of chance’” (23) but rather of spirited, companionate intelligence. 

Confident self-possession is a prerequisite for Austen’s heroines’ happy endings.  Austen pushes against the culture’s valorization of beauty as the essence of attraction while expanding its definition to include ethical behavior guided by intelligence.  Darcy’s aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh tries to direct his attentions towards her daughter, Anne, declaring her to be a “‘true beauty,’” but since Miss De Bourgh rarely speaks and Darcy thus can’t observe her degree of intelligence, we know that Austen would never allow her to win Darcy’s hand (67). 

For those females less than “handsome,” there is often a triggering event that causes their inner beauty to emerge and become evident.  In Persuasion, while Anne Elliot had been a “very pretty girl,” as a woman, “her bloom had vanished early” (6).  Stephanie M. Eddleman has written perceptively about how Austen, unlike most authors of her period, gives us several sympathetic portrayals of “older” women in her novels; in her late twenties, Anne Elliot qualifies.  Eddleman argues that in Anne and a few other female characters such as Lady Susan, Austen showed “awareness and resistance” to the cruel, compressed age of supposed attractiveness for females (121).  Youth is not a necessary element in Austen’s philosophy of beauty. 

Without female intelligence, a shared moral code, and a willingness to be active not passive, any marriage will eventually founder.  Captain Wentworth’s attraction to Anne Elliot is renewed—and his idle interest in Louisa Musgrove broken—when Anne confidently takes control after Louisa’s accident on the Lyme breakwater.  Anne’s suggestion of a surgeon “seemed to rouse” Captain Wentworth, and his “eyes were . . . turned towards her” (110, 111).  As Eddleman has noted, it is Anne’s mind that re-attracts Wentworth (123).  One of Austen’s truths about beauty is that a confident woman is a beautiful woman.  Elizabeth Bennet has that confidence at the novel’s start, enough to repeat Darcy’s put down of her to friends with “great spirit,” treating it as comic (12).  Other “prettyish” Austen females, such as Anne Elliot and Fanny Price, must slowly gain that confidence. 

Mansfield Park begins, like Pride and Prejudice, with a focus on female beauty and marriage.  The three Ward sisters are all considered equally “handsome,” but Maria’s elevation to “a baronet’s lady” is the best match of the three since “there certainly are not so many men of large fortune . . . as there are pretty women” (3).  Yet none of these three handsome women achieves a happy marriage, with Miss Ward “obliged to be attached” to the Rev. Mr. Norris, Miss Frances making a lowly “untoward choice,” and Maria’s lethargic boredom as a wife and mother speaking for itself (3). 

Austen knows that attractiveness can breed a type of immediate trust by other characters that can be deceptive.  Despite his father’s obviously bad choice of a wife, Edmund is instantly enraptured by the vivacious and “remarkably pretty” Mary Crawford (41), whose “beauty did her no disservice with the Miss Bertrams” (44).  Edmund, at the penultimate hour, comes to the realization that, concerning Mary, he had been “deceived” and that concerning Fanny Price he had been blind (459).  The “pictures of perfection” that made Austen feel “sick & wicked” (23–25 March 1817) were not only those who claimed moral virtue but those who show physical perfection accompanied by inner malice.  Mary has charm and beauty but lacks the ethical north star that Austen’s philosophy of beauty requires. 

Mr. Rushworth’s engagement with beauty does not end in an equally fortunate manner:  “Mr. Rushworth was from the first struck with the beauty of Miss Bertram, and being inclined to marry, soon fancied himself in love” (38).  Maria Bertram’s beauty ensnares him, leading him to marry a woman who neither loves nor respects him and whom he will eventually divorce on grounds of adultery.  In Austen’s world, first impressions are not to be trusted, especially when they concern physical attraction alone. 

If, as Louis Menand writes, “all of Austen’s novels are about misinterpretation, about people reading other people incorrectly,” then certainly “reading” someone as your perfect mate based on his or her beauty is one of her implied warnings.  Austen knew—how well she knew—that her characters needed some kind of money to live on, and she also knew that they need something besides physical attraction for their relationships to thrive.  These characters will be talking to each other until they die; what will they have to say?  In Sense and Sensibility, it is Marianne Dashwood’s initial disdain for Colonel Brandon, including his “old” appearance (37), that provides the tension in her quest for romantic happiness.  But when, near novel’s end, she finally realizes Brandon has the moral center Willoughby lacks, she agrees to marry him. 

Emma, admittedly, does not fit into this taxonomy of “prettyish” beauty for Austen’s heroines.  But I would argue Emma is described as “handsome” in that perfect opening sentence listing her several attributes because it makes her downward spiral, the plot’s key trajectory, even more dramatic.  Her beauty adds to her privilege, which is precisely what she needs to lose, or at least acknowledge, to achieve the self-awareness Austen ultimately demands of her heroines.  While tellingly admitting to Emma’s former governess Mrs. Weston early in the novel that “‘I love to look at her,’” Mr. Knightley immediately qualifies his remark by stating Emma “appears to be little occupied with [her beauty]; her vanity lies another way’” (39).  But Emma’s desire for power, the “vanity” to which Mr. Knightley refers, partly, even if unconsciously, stems from a sense of her own beauty.  Miss Bates, whom she viciously and publicly crushes, is described as having neither “beauty or cleverness,” making her an easier target for Emma (21). 

The nature of beauty has confused scientists as well as these young Regency unmarrieds.  While Charles Darwin believed that beauty in the animal kingdom was principally about sexual selection, not survival or natural selection, many if not most scientists up to the present day disagree (Jabr).  In The Evolution of Beauty, ornithologist Richard O. Prum seeks to “elevate beauty to a mainstream subject of scientific concern,” and comes definitively down on the side of Darwin (13).  He notes that “the evolutionary dynamics of mate choice are essential to understanding ourselves” (14).  And while Austen was a novelist, not a scientist, her uses of beauty in the choice of a mate are necessary to understanding her characters. 

In his study of the subtle links between Austen and Darwin, Peter Graham analyzes the different types of marriages in Austen as they relate to partner selection.  He points to Austen’s most famous pairing, Darcy and Elizabeth; since Darcy has silently rejected a financially advantageous match with his cousin, Graham states that he “has clearly followed the imperatives of sexual selection” (129).  Although Graham is correct, Darcy’s route to that “selection” of Elizabeth is not straight but winds through a series of encounters as he develops a growing admiration of her mind. 

What individual characters find that attracts them to a mate is ever revealing.  Austen is suspicious that a shiny surface might indicate that little lies beneath.  In the centuries following Austen’s death, women have fought, among other goals, to greatly expand the definition of female beauty as well as to minimize its role in a woman’s self-worth and professional success.  Austen worked in her novels to achieve the former and certainly herself achieved the latter.  To return to Keats’s words, “[s]he cannot fade.”  Like the figures in that Grecian urn, Austen has achieved immortality because great art is what lasts—and what is truly beautiful.


1“Handsome” was commonly used to describe attractive women in Austen’s period and later, but current usage applies it most frequently to males. 

2See Elaine Bander’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Reading Character in Sense and Sensibility,” for a discussion of, in particular, Marianne’s and Elinor’s confusion of male looks with character.

Works Cited
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  • Austen, Henry.  “Biographical Notice of the Author.”  Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1969.  3–9.
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  • Jabr, Ferris.  “Beauty and the Beast: How the Extravagant Splendor of the Animal Kingdom Is Prompting Scientists to Rethink Evolution.”  The New York Times Magazine 9 Jan. 2019: 22+.
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