Having a week short on inspiration, I was delighted to find said inspiration in a post from Jack Caldwell first published in 2011. While we were all discussing who truly qualifies as a villain versus an annoyance or a buffoon, I started thinking about who would qualify in my mind as the most annoying Austen characters. Since this is my list I get to use my criteria, so the characters who qualify I will define as those most likely to move me to homicide if I had to live with them. Also, in order to be annoying (as opposed to villainous) they must have good intentions and not be attempting fraud, larceny, or the taking advantage of young maidens. So who did I come up with?
1) Mrs. Bennet: (Pride and Prejudice) She’s completely wrapped up in her own emotions; her one stated goal in life is to marry off her five daughters, yet her unbridled behavior hurts the girls more than their relative poverty.
2) Mr. Collins: (Pride and Prejudice) Pride and Prejudice has the honor of having two of the most annoying characters in all of Austen’s works. Mr. Collins is both stupid and puffed up in his own consequence, taken up with the status he has gained by his oleaginous behavior towards his patron, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. His only redeeming quality is his susceptibility to manipulation, which his loyal and intelligent wife puts to good use.
3) Mary Musgrove: (Persuasion) Her whiny bids for attention and insistence upon having her claims of higher status noticed are a constant thorn in her in-laws’ sides, particularly annoying since Charles wanted to marry Anne, anyway. Mary certainly doesn’t make it easy for Charles to forget the superior merits of Anne Elliot!
4) Mr. Woodhouse: (Emma) He loves his daughters and enjoys visits from his friends but he is so psychologically impaired that Emma and Knightley must live with him after they marry—how romantic is that? Not!! I think we all want our friends and family to be healthy, but I can’t work up any enthusiasm for a thin gruel instead of a piece of cake (sorry, but I think I would rather die young…).
5) Miss Bates: (Emma) Like P&P, Emma enjoys the benefits of having two very annoying characters. Miss Bates is grateful for the attention of all her friends but her incessant nattering makes Emma crazy. I don’t put her at the top of the list, however, because she is an annoyance that can easily be tuned out when one has had too much of her prattling. She escapes top ranking by not being spiteful, mentally ill, or jealous of others. At least Miss Bates’ mother can’t hear, so they are perfect roommates!
6) John Thorpe: (Northanger Abbey) A pathological liar who won’t stop talking does not make for a fun time. Even sweet little Catherine Morland is driven to rage by his unseemly antics, but he is one of those people whose life is significant as being one that serves as a warning to others. Enough said about the narcissistic, egocentric, and pathological Mr. Thorpe.
7) Lady Jennings: (Sense and Sensibility) Lady Middleton’s vulgar mother drives Marianne Dashwood to rudeness with her constant teasing about first Colonel Brandon and then Willoughby, but redeems herself by her tender care when Marianne is ill over Willoughby’s behavior. Lady Jennings is, at heart a kind and loving person, but she is unable to overcome her vulgar behavior.
8) Juliet Archer suggested Isabella Thorpe (Northanger Abbey): I can do no better than to directly quote her comment: “I can just imagine her – lots of hair flicking (or the Regency equivalent) and trying to catch the eye of every man under 50 in the room, while showering Catherine with insincere compliments that are really intended to show herself to greater advantage. Yuk.” I’m not sure if I would elevate Isabella to the status of “Most Annoying,” but she is certainly in the running. She is insincere, narcissistic, and egocentric, but she does not meet the criterion of making me homicidal when I read her parts of the book.
9) Mary Simonsen suggested to me that she would like to put Emma on the list right next to her father in Annoyance Factor. I agree that she is my least favorite Austen heroine- she is intelligent but very lacking in insight into her own behavior, until the end of the book when she suddenly realizes what a fool she has been. For all the people who love her and try to teach her, she does not benefit from their efforts until she thinks she is going to lose the affection of Mr. Knightley. I did not include Isabella Thorpe because a) superficially her behavior was teenage posing (not that teenage posing is not inductive of extreme irritation) and 2) her intentions were to deceive others, so I would again put her into “minor villain” status.
And what about Mansfield Park? As much as I pondered this book, I could not think of anyone who fit my definition of REALLY annoying. Lady Bertram is too passive to qualify, and I agree with Jack Caldwell that Mrs. Norris is too malignant to be merely annoying, but meets the criteria for a villainess. Give me your thoughts on any other incredibly annoying characters.
Note: These lovely watercolour illustrations are by C. E. Brock and are from editions of Austen’s works published between 1890 and 1910.