During the Victorian era, women of our society were portrayed as very graceful and poised beings. ‘Society’ does not take into account the larger subset of poor and working class people (In literary fiction, this is due to various reasons). Meanwhile, the gap between the poor and the rich grew ever wider, and filled up with the middle class, made up of clerks who’d gotten semi comfortable jobs after emigrating to London.
Women in the upper class society were expected to be effeminate, charming, and beautiful. They read novels and took long walks in the morning, curtsied and danced in balls. However, many novels considered infamous at the time, were riddled with dark and fantastical twists, and even more fantastical characters. Women with abilities and beauty almost superhuman often appeared in these stories. They could sometimes be brash and stubborn creatures (uncharacteristic of ordinary Victorian era women), as we read in the novel Wuthering Heights. They could have a quick temper, they would also sometimes be involved in adultery (this occurred a great deal more in gothic fiction than we think).
In that respect, Austen’s characters were quite conventional—at least at first glance. They were ordinary human beings, they attended balls and understood gaiety. They all expected to have husbands at some point in their lives (This is not in opposition to feminism, as we’ll see, Jane Austen was clearly an ardent feminist). There was, in fact, a stark difference in the way they went about it. Their uniqueness lay in their ability to reject rich suitors—to choose according to their tastes, to marry for love.
It would be a mistake to say that Austen’s characters were ‘unconventional’—they were only ‘unconventional’ in the sense that they mimicked reality more truthfully than other novels of that time.
Her characters had personality, they were real people. They had wit and charm, like ordinary Victorian women. They belonged to the rich or middle classes—authors often wrote about rich aristocrats to gather the readers’ interest.
Austen perfected many characters in many ways—each with their own unique hint of flavour. Elizabeth, the well-known heroine of Pride and Prejudice, was smart and a quick judge of character (though that may have failed her when it came to the surly Mr. Darcy). She had sarcastic wit, and a calculating nature. She was a well-developed character, not an unconventional one. She may have been a reflection of Austen herself, who is rumoured to have a similar temper.
Catherine, the main female lead of Northanger Abbey, was meek, excitable, and even a bit foolish. She learned lessons along the way, as she met new people—she was humble enough to recognise that she may not have been as intuitive as she liked to be, and so developed intuition, along with a keen sense of responsibility.
Austen’s characters were not cookie-cutter, that’s for sure, but they were no aliens either. They were very human, and adored by her readers.