Forget Keira Knightley, Gemma Arterton and Lily James: for many people, Jennifer Ehle will always be the ultimate on-screen Elizabeth Bennet.
And while Ehle hasn’t courted celebrity since she played Lizzy Bennet in the 1995 TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (starring, of course, opposite Colin Firth’s legendary Mr Darcy), she has nevertheless enjoyed a steadily successful acting career. Her most recent film, the indie movie Little Men, received rave reviews – and she’s also appeared in blockbusters including Fifty Shades of Grey, Zero Dark Thirty and The King’s Speech.
Now, Ehle, 46, has shared her career advice for younger women – particularly those who might want to pursue a creative profession themselves.
Watch the trailer for Jennifer Ehle's latest film, Little Men:
It’s a piece of wisdom Ehle said she was taught by her mother, the Golden Globe-winning English actress Rosemary Harris.
“She would always say the happier you are, the better your work will be,” Ehle told the Telegraph. “It’s easy to think you must suffer and tie yourself in knots and be neurotic.”
Despite turning down a role in Game of Thrones in order to spend more time with her family, Ehle added that she wants her children to understand that “it’s OK to love your work, to give nurturing and attention to that.”
Jane Austen’s 20 most memorable characters
Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice
“There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”
Funny, clever, charming and unafraid to speak her mind, Elizabeth is the ultimate heroine. Just ask Helen Fielding.
While her sister Lydia is an outrageous and obvious flirt, she’s an intellectual tease, unwilling to yield to Mr Darcy’s heartthrob status. She is also guilty of pride and prejudice - though not as much as Darcy.
Fitzwilliam Darcy, Pride and Prejudice
“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess,' said Darcy, "of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”
Mr Darcy is respectable, handsome, rich and alluringly hard-to-please. He has the pick of swooning high society types but puts his inconvenient love for Elizabeth before a socially advantageous match and allows our heroine to break down his stuffy pride (and prejudices).
Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Pride and Prejudice
“There are few people in England I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.”
An upper class nightmare who makes Downton Abbey’s Dowager Duchess look like a liberal hippy. Lady Catherine believes her privilege trumps all else and uses her entitled, domineering manner to warn Elizabeth off her precious nephew Darcy. As a perfect, outrageous caricature of aristocracy, it is all the more satisfying that she fails in her attempt to dominate our headstrong heroine.
Mrs Bennet, Pride and Prejudice
“Nobody can tell what I suffer! But it is always so. Those who do not complain are never pitied.”
She's overbearing, ridiculous and willing to marry her daughter off to the repulsive Mr Collins, but Mrs Bennet hasn't got it easy. She married young for lust, but was ultimately landed with a disinterested husband and is tasked with rearing five daughters in a time when marrying up is the only option women have to make money.
George Wickham, Pride and Prejudice
"Mr. Wickham was the happy man towards whom almost every female eye was turned."
He is also a cad and a bounder dressed as a gentleman. Only Darcy has the cut of his gib - and he’s right to be less than impressed. As well as a vicious gossip-spreader, George attempts to elope with 15-year-old girl Georgiana Darcy for her dowry, before successfully running off with 16-year-old Lydia Bennet, whom he marries for cash.
Mr Collins, Pride and Prejudice
“It is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long."
Desperate to get his hands on one of the Bennet girls - any one of the Bennet girls - is the odious, impenetrable Mr Collins, who hurls multiple proposals at the sisters, hoping one will stick. He also declares that Lydia’s death would have been preferable to her eloping.
Marianne Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility
“I could not be happy with a man whose taste did not in every point coincide with my own. He must enter in all my feelings; the same books, the same music must charm us both.”
Marianne is a hopeless, self-indulgent romantic who veers from ecstatic, all-consuming happiness to miserable self-neglect over the unsuitable man she has pinned her hopes on. She is, however, capable of self-improvement and learns invaluable life lessons from her practical and generous older sister, Elinor.
Elinor Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility
“Sometimes one is guided by what they say of themselves, and very frequently by what other people say of them, without giving oneself time to deliberate and judge."
While her younger sister unleashes her frustrations on the piano and stomping walks in the rain, thoughtful Elinor keeps her romantic concerns firmly under her sensible Regency bonnet to focus on her family’s practical problems. She also sacrifices her feelings with people she cannot bear, adopting a mask of politeness where her sister cannot.
Captain Frederick Wentworth, Persuasion
“Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you.”
The brooding Captain Wentworth is a brave, self-made man - and possibly the greatest letter-writer ever. His love for Anne and his pain over her rejection of him is apparent eight years on. Now that’s commitment.
Anne Elliot, Persuasion
"Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story … the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything."
A more worldly and complex Austen heroine, Anne has known and lost true love and is a woman whose character is fully shaped and self-aware. No longer under the influence of her vain, upwardly mobile mentors, she is given a second chance with her one true love, Captain Wentworth. Rather than feeling bitter over the time they lost, she is glad to marry him when she has the strength of character to not be persuaded otherwise.
Sir Walter Elliot, Persuasion
"I shall not easily forget Admiral Baldwin. I never saw quite so wretched an example of what a sea-faring life can do; but to a degree, I know it is the same with them all: they are all knocked about, and exposed to every climate, and every weather, till they are not fit to be seen. It is a pity they are not knocked on the head at once, before they reach Admiral Baldwin's age."
Yes, Sir Walter is expressing support for involuntary euthanasia based on how pretty people look. Austen’s comic treatment of upper-class snobbery is not confined to mature ladies, as Sir Walter proves. He is consumed by appearances – mesmerised by his own good looks and dependent on how his privileged social standing is seen by others.
Lady Susan Vernon, Lady Susan
“[He is] just old enough to be formal, ungovernable and to have the gout - too old to be agreeable, and too young to die."
Not all Austen’s protagonists are morally sound, well behaved romantics. In her only epistolary novel she presents us with a vicious anti-heroine in the shape of Lady Susan Vernon. A beautiful 30-something widow, she is charming and manipulative towards anyone she can make use of, is unforgivably cruel to her teenage daughter and treats men like objects of convenience.
Isabella Thorpe, Northanger Abbey
“By the by, though I have thought of it a hundred times, I have always forgot to ask you what is your favourite complexion in a man. Do you like them best dark or fair?"
Gold-digging, lad-mad Isabella is so oblivious to people’s feelings that when she discovers her fiancé James Morland is poorer than she thought, she launches a painfully obvious charm offensive on the affluent and handsome Frederick Tilney right under the nose of her betrothed. A low-level villainess, her superficial, insincere manner provides much comic relief - and she is only 17 after all.
Catherine Morland, Northanger Abbey
"I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible."
Gothic novel superfan Catherine is a simple, innocent soul who is wronged by her disingenuous friend Isabella, Isabella’s boorish brother and the snobbish General Tilney. Still, she is not just some simpering doormat but a thoughtful, down-to-earth character whose sparkling personality blooms in the presence of love interest Henry. She learns her whimsical delusions are the result of too much fantasy fiction and emerges a stronger character who is finally able to see through the charming Isabella. An accessible heroine.
Fanny Price, Mansfield Park
“Why is not it settled? He is blinded, and nothing will open his eyes; nothing can, after having had truths before him so long in vain. He will marry her, and be poor and miserable. God grant that her influence do not make him cease to be respectable!”
Austen’s most divisive character, Fanny is shy, poor and steadfastly virtuous. At a young age she was sent away by her mother to live with her cousins and is treated with indifference by most of her family her whole life. Her cousin Edmund is the only one to show her affection – and she falls in love with him. Consumed by her secret affection, she rejects the wealthy Henry Crawford, much to the disapproval of her family. Luckily for Fanny, Edmund’s infatuation with Henry’s sister Mary diminishes when he learns of her dubious moral outlook and our complex heroine eventually lands her man.
Mrs Norris, Mansfield Park
"I hope you are aware that there is no real occasion for your going into company in this sort of way, or ever dining out at all; and it is what you must not depend upon ever being repeated."
Mrs Norris is an outwardly respectable parson’s wife, but behind closed doors she is more like Cinderella’s wicked stepmother. She does her favourite (wealthy) nieces no favours by spoiling them and is so prejudiced against those of a lower social standing she is unjustifiably cruel towards Fanny. To drive her unsavouriness home, Austen has her engaging in needless petty theft from her own family at Mansfield Park.
Maria Bertram, Mansfield Park
"Being now in her twenty-first year, Maria Bertram was beginning to think matrimony a duty; and as a marriage with Mr. Rushworth would give her the enjoyment of a larger income than her father's, as well as ensure her the house in town, which was now a prime object, it became, by the same rule of moral obligation, her evident duty to marry Mr. Rushworth if she could."
Maria approaches life like a child who insists on their own way, whether it's good for them or not. She indulges the repugnant Mrs Norris to keep her on side, she flirts to get a rich husband, then carelessly obeys her attraction to the caddish Henry Crawford. Neither she nor Henry are very nice people and when he runs away with her - the changes his mind – she is a fallen woman who learns a harsh lesson.
Mary Crawford, Mansfield Park
“Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices I saw enough. Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.”
Stylish, charming and funny, society lady Mary has a wry take on the ways of the world and does not profess to be good or virtuous. Despite this, she is attracted to do-gooding wannabe clergyman Edmund, who falls hopelessly under her spell, then mercilessly ditches her when he finds her morally lacking.
Emma Woodhouse, Emma
“I always deserve the best treatment because I never put up with any other.”
Emma is charming and brimming with an infectious enthusiasm for her good-natured, if meddlesome schemes. She’s also naïve and spoiled and Austen takes us on an enjoyable journey as our charismatic heroine gains self-awareness and grows up.
George Knightley, Emma
“If I loved you less I might be able to talk about it more.”
The ultimate Mr. Nice Guy, George loves Emma dearly and endeavours to help and guide her, without being patronising. He rightly jumps to the defence of Miss Bates when Emma is rude to her and gives the object of his affection space to decide whether she wants to be with Frank Churchill. Pretty flawless.