1 August 2020 Susannah

Who is charming?

Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice (1915)

I have been thinking about ‘charm’ in literary characters. I think this is, of almost all qualities, the hardest for an author to portray. It is easy to state that a character is charming, but to actually show that charm in action is a very different thing.

Charm is defined as “the power or quality of delighting, attracting, or fascinating others”. We can see some characters charming other characters, but what interests me today is which characters charm the socks off the reader.

We love characters for different reasons – Anne Elliot is admirable and lovable, Dorothea Brooke is moral and good, Jane Eyre is strong and resilient, Becky Sharp and Scarlett O’Hara are feisty and independent, but I don’t feel that any of them charm me. It has been said (and I must admit I cannot remember who said it) that there are only two utterly charming heroines in literature – Natasha Rostova from War and Peace and Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. I love reading about Natasha, but she starts to bore me when she settles down with Pierre and discusses dirty nappies with him (I will always regret that she does not end up with Prince Andre), so I award ‘Top Prize in Charm’ to Elizabeth Bennet. Jane Austen never once tells us that Elizabeth is charming – she just shows that charm in action on every page. No wonder Robert Louis Stevenson wanted to fall to his knees and worship Elizabeth every time she speaks.

Charm in male characters is perhaps even harder to pin down. A google search brings up some astonishing suggestions – Dorian Grey, Count Dracula and Jay Gatsby. James Bond also makes one list. I think Rhett Butler has charm, and Scarlett feels it even when she doesn’t want to, but perhaps with male characters it’s more a matter of charisma or sex appeal – a search for fictional men with charm brings up such words as ‘brooding’, ‘hot’ and ‘dangerous’. I’d be interested to hear from male readers of this newsletter which characters of your own sex you feel display charm.

When it was the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, my way of paying tribute to her novels was to write a little memoir, showing just how reading Jane Austen had changed my life. This memoir, Jane & I: A Tale of Austen Addiction, is now available for Kindle. See links below.

So … is Elizabeth Bennet the only truly charming heroine in literature, or do you have other suggestions for me? And can you add more male names to my so-far list of only one? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

Leave a comment.

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until approved.


Featured image credit- Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice (1915), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112130/
Body image credit- The Booksellers, 2019 Greenwich Entertainment production, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9355194/

Comments (8)

  1. Stef

    How has no one thought of Mary Crawford? I love her, I feel for her because she’s so charming and yet had such bad moral compass. English is my second language, and I wonder if that’s the reason I didn’t get Elizabeth Bennet at the beginning, but Mary Crawford really helped me get Elizabeth, and makes me feel all the more sorry to think that they’d be two peas in a pod had Mary been brought up around people who could have given her a better moral compass.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      She’s such a fascinating character, isn’t she. She certainly charms Edmund and, to some extent, the reader, and I do agree with your point about Elizabeth Bennet. With the right upbringing Mary could have been a really good and lovely and happy woman.

  2. Donald Nairn

    there is an assumption in this discussion that “charm ” is always a positive quality. In Brideshead Revisited the character Anthony Blanche rebukes Charles Ryder for embodying that quality and reflecting it in his art work. The suggestion being that it is a kind of “con” practised widely by upper class Englishmen in the 1930s: “that low dishonest decade”
    The charm of the character madame Merle in Henry James novel Portrait of a Lady is brilliantly evoked to the point of being an element of the plot of the novel. In the sense you propose, I find Bertie Wooster a charming character although he is also a complete idiot. Long John Silver in Treasure Island also projects sinister charm.
    I guess it is hard for a writer to make a character both charming and interesting.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Oh you have given me a lot to think about! Yes, Long John Silver does have charm and is by far the most interesting character in that novel. But you do get the sense that his ‘charm’ can be turned on and off, as he chooses. Elizabeth Bennet’s charm is permanent and an essential part of her nature. And yes, Anthony Blanche’s comment is an interesting one, and charm can be over-rated, or even dangerous. Thanks so much for your comments.

  3. Margaret Debenham

    Susannah, I have been racking my brain ever since your Notes arrived, trying to think of a charming fictional character who could be considered in the Elizabeth Bennet class, and have come up with nothing – there are many lovable characters in fiction, but Lizzie is a truly superior being when it comes to charm; even her flaws are charming, which cannot be said of many other characters, no matter how lovable they may be (Septimus Harding, I’m looking at you!). I am bewildered by the names on that list of male supposed charmers – I find them not even likeable, let alone charming! However I am sure that, under Lizzie’s influence, Mr Darcy became the most charming man in all of England! Your delightful talk on George Eliot and “Middlemarch” (I love Dorothea, but you are quite right – she is too earnest and self-effacing to be charming in the Lizzie sense) did remind me that I find Mary Garth delightful, but she is a relatively minor character and therefore perhaps not as fully rounded as Miss Elizabeth Bennet – perhaps more sweet and feisty than charming? Not sure. So I shall just give up trying to think of another candidate and allow that Lizzie is unmatchable.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Isn’t it hard! The names I found on the web simply had no charm for me at all. I do think that Mr Harding has charm in a very gentle sort of way. I don’t think Mary Garth has charm – I don’t even like her much – she’s way too moral and preaching for me. I think Dorothea is too good for me too. I like my heroines to have a few faults – like Emma. But yes, I think we might have to stick to a list of one – Lizzie Bennet, and then add Mr Darcy after he has been married to her for a few years. Thanks for sharing your speculations, Margaret.

  4. Hi Susannah

    I have two nominations from “Barchester Towers”. The female one is Signora Neroni, who has so much charm that she is able to captivate the odious Obadiah Slope, who certainly is not my male nominee from Barchester! That prize goes to the lovely Mr. Septimus Harding, more properly from “The Warden”, although he does appear in “Barchester Towers”. Mr Harding manages to combine that difficult surprisingly difficult combination of goodness and charm, and is one of Trollope’s great creations in my view.

    My other female nominee would be Irene Forsyte nee Heron from The Forsyte Saga, most particularly in “Man of Property”, the first book of the first trilogy. I would also give an honorable mention to Young Jolyon Forsyte from the same book, although he features more ‘charmingly’ in the second book, “In Chancery”.

    My outsider, although I find it harder to judge male charm, could be Will Ladislaw from “Middlemarch.” I find him the most appealing male character in the whole of Eliot. The prize for whatever the opposite of charm is might well go to Mr. Casubon!

    Finally, though, I have to agree completely with you, Susannah. Elizabeth Bennet wins hands down in the Charm stakes.

    Best wishes

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Hi Chris,
      You always send me such thought-provoking replies, which make me want to immediately sit down for coffee and a chat with you!
      Yes, I do agree about Mr Harding – he charms others in the book and he charms us too! I don’t agree about Signora Neroni – she certainly charms the men, but she doesn’t charm me as a reader. I just find her rather selfish and shallow.
      And I can’t agree about Will Ladislaw either – Eliot describes him as ‘the sort of person who lies on other people’s hearth rugs’ – I find him too much of a lightweight and am far more interested in Dr Lydgate who has much more depth, in my view. I discuss all these things in my new video talk on George Eliot and Middlemarch.
      And yes, I agree about young Jolyon Forsyte, who does have charm, but I find Irene a pain in the neck and she fails to charm me.
      So glad you agree about Elizabeth Bennet as definite winner in the charm stakes.
      Thanks for giving me so much to think about and adding to my list.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *