Liz Kay is a founding editor of Spark Wheel Press and the journal burntdistrict. She’s most recently the author of Monsters: A Love Story, and joins Signature to offer a highly scientific list of Jane Austen novels ranked in order of the palpable loathing felt in their plotlines.
It’s possible that I watched too much “Moonlighting” as a child because it turns out I like my sexual tension heavy on the tension. Add in a sharp, funny narrator and a good dose of cultural criticism and I’m sold. In other words I like to read Jane Austen, though not all of her novels completely hit the mark and some of them are, sadly, not even remotely hot.
Here, I rank the novels of Jane Austen in order of sexiness (defined, of course, by how much the characters hate each other at the opening).
The only good loathing in this book is mine for it. It would be hard, actually, to put into words how much I despise Mansfield Park and I say that as someone who so loves the work of Jane Austen that I’ve read the book a number of times and will very likely read it again. Still. As a love story, it’s the least sexy book of all time. Fanny — stupid, naïve Fanny — is slavishly devoted to her older cousin Edmund who has “formed her mind” through many years of instruction that began when she was a child. Though Edmund quickly falls in love with someone else, Fanny is unable to stop herself from thinking about him and his (get this) moral center. The book is almost untenable but for the appearance of the delightful Henry Crawford who pursues Fanny essentially as a prank. He’s a womanizer and a liar, but he ultimately falls in love with Fanny, though they’re apparently not supposed to end up together. The book is basically a tragedy.
I adore this novel. Adore it. It’s smart and funny and boasts the sharpest narration of her oeuvre. As with all of Austen’s novels, there’s a match being made, but while there’s a bit of teasing flirtation and the usual misunderstandings that crop up along the way, the pairing of Catherine and Henry Tilney is not revving anyone’s engines. There’s just nothing sexy about it as their relationship grows out of a quick mutual affection. This would normally be a flaw — mutual affection — but it’s not sentimental or cloying and really not the focus of the book.
Fair to Middling Sexiness
Sense and Sensibility
There’s some definite sexiness to this novel, which follows two sisters, one who makes good decisions (Elinor) and one who does not (Marianne). You can guess for yourself which sister’s story is any fun at all. There’s an early accident in which Marianne falls and injures her ankle and the dashing (but ultimately untrustworthy) Willoughby carries her home in the rain, which is pretty fantastic. Eventually, there’s some tension between Marianne and Willoughby though it unfortunately comes after he’s broken her heart and not before. The novel gets bonus points for Colonel Brandon, who is a template for the patiently sexy older man every book should offer at least one of. And Marianne has some contempt for Brandon in the beginning which is always a good indication that a couple belongs together.
Hands down the finest of Austen’s novels, it’s only a little above average in sex appeal. Again, we have the patiently sexy older man in Mr. Knightley, and he’s slightly hotter than Colonel Brandon in that while Colonel Brandon can see no fault in Marianne, Knightley sees many faults in Emma and he likes to tell her about them. Still, their relationship is founded in a sort of mutual admiration that is frankly a drag.
Pride and Prejudice
I know you were expecting this to be at the top, but it’s not. We’ll get to that. This is a wildly sexy novel in that Darcy and Elizabeth dislike one another outright, and in fact Darcy’s initial admiration for Elizabeth seems to begin out of spite for another woman. Is Darcy just a misogynist? you might ask, to which I would answer, Probably. The loathing culminates in the most hateful proposal in English literature and a flat refusal by Elizabeth. Eventually, they work through all of that, but the extent of the anger at the core of their love story is delightful. Still, not the sexiest though, the honor of which goes to Persuasion.
This is not the best of Austen’s novels by a long shot but it is absolutely the hottest because it opens long after our heroine, Anne, has already broken Frederick Wentworth’s heart. In her youth (which twenty-seven-year-old Anne has long since lost her grip on) she’d been convinced by meddling family members that the mostly penniless Wentworth wasn’t a good enough match for her, and so Persuasion opens years after an abruptly broken engagement. Wentworth has returned having made his fortune, and he proceeds to pursue the attentions of other women just to piss Anne off. Wentworth hates Anne so very much that he can barely stand to look at her except for the obvious fact that he can’t stop looking at her. Is it awkward that their utter estrangement forces the novel to progress through overheard conversations and the unwitting interferences of their many friends? Sure. Like I said, it’s not her finest novel, but it’s pretty damn sexy nonetheless.