in Jane Austen's Novels
By Annie Newman
ane Austen is credited with painting "small cameos" of families in her novels. Yet within these cameos, it becomes clear that Austen had a clear understanding of family dynamics as we consider them today. The relationships between parents and the children, the way in which parents raise their children--in Austen's case, the daughters--generally has a major influence on the marriage choices that these daughters make.
In the widespread view of parenting styles in psychology created by Diana Beaurind in the 1970's, parents could be classified in one of four ways: authoritarian, authoritative, permissive-indulgent, and permissive-indifferent. Austen's novels show parents whose parenting techniques often varied depending on the child. Therefore, some parents may act one way with the heroine of the novel and another way with the other children in the family.
This is a theory that has not been used in published research to examine the parents in Austen's novels. In fact, in the studies of Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility, where the parents play little of an actual role within the novel, past critics have had little to say about the parents of the heroines. The critic who has come the closest is Bernard Paris, who examined character and conflict in Jane Austen's novels. In this paper, only the parenting style practiced with the heroine will be examined.
Authoritarian parentsAuthoritarian parents make decisions unilaterally. They place extreme limits on their children's behavior and rarely allow the child to assist in deciding what should be controlled. Children of authoritarian parents tend to have anxiety problems, are socially incompetent, and have poor communication skills.
In a mild, genteel form, Persuasion's Lady Russell is an authoritarian parent to Anne Elliot. Following the death of Anne's mother, Lady Russell, the late Lady Elliot's friend, took over as Anne's mother figure. Since her father, Sir Walter, does not care for her at all, Lady Russell essentially becomes the only person Anne can turn to for support and love. As the title of the novel would suggest, persuasion is Lady Russell's weapon. If not for her intervention eight years ago, Anne would have married Captain Wentworth. By using her authority as a surrogate parent to Anne, she in effect forbids Anne from marrying him. Lady Russell's reasons for this is consistent with Austen's initial description of her: "She was a woman of sound rather than quick abilities...she was a benevolent, charitable, good woman...most correct in her notions of decorum...she had a cultivated mind, and was, generally speaking, rational and consistent--but she had prejudices on the side of ancestry..." (Persuasion 42).
Captain Wentworth, of course, is not wealthy. He does not come from a noble background even though his name sounds respectable to Sir Walter. In Lady Russell's mind, therefore, Captain Wentworth is not a worthy suitor or future husband for the daughter of a baronet.
As the novel opens, Anne has learned that the social code Lady Russell presented and she conformed to at eighteen is shallow and worthless (Gooneratne 18). She is unhappy with the people in her life, and knows that she could have had something better if she had married Captain Wentworth. At that time, with no one else to guide her, Anne acquiesced in allowing Lady Russell make her decisions for her, but she has since "learned romance" (Mansell 196). Over time, Lady Russell's influence on Anne has lessened, because Anne realizes that she threw away her chance for happiness based solely on Lady Russell's word.
At the same time, Anne doesn't blame Lady Russell for persuading her to turn down Wentworth. Anne realizes that Lady Russell was only trying to protect her from what seemed to be an imprudent marriage (Mansell 210). To Anne, defying Lady Russell then would have been tantamount to defying her mother--a connection Lady Russell has exploited. It is this connection that gives Lady Russell her power over Anne (Paris 161). As a barrier standing between Anne and Captain Wentworth, she is not an evil person. Lady Russell represents a problem for Anne. Lady Russell loves Anne dearly, and she only wants what is best for her. Her past persuasion, however, has caused Anne great unhappiness. When she has the chance for happiness a second time, heeding Lady Russell's advice again would hold her in social bondage (Smith 161). Lady Russell's position as Anne's surrogate mother gives her the power to persuade Anne without giving her much choice in the matter. It is only when Anne is able to become her own person, as her mother did by finding some satisfaction in her life after the mistake she made in marrying Sir Walter (a man who was handsome but would never be her equal in intellect or common sense), that Lady Russell's influence lessens. Fortunately, Lady Russell becomes a parent to Anne too late to have as great an impact her real parents have. Her authoritarian style is therefore muted and only delays Anne's happiness for eight years.
In a limited capacity, Mrs. Norris from Mansfield Park is also an authoritarian--but only with Fanny Price and only when her brother-in-law Sir Thomas Bertram is absent from home. Mrs. Norris is not as genteel as Lady Russell, nor as polite, even though she, like Lady Russell, motivates the opening plot by urging Sir Thomas to bring Fanny to Mansfield Park. She implies at the time that she will care for Fanny as well, but Mrs. Norris is a woman who keeps a close eye on her finances. As long as she has a wealthy brother-in-law to take care of the financial costs, she will not take Fanny into her own home.
Mrs. Norris has been given charge of Sir Thomas' daughters Maria and Julia. After Fanny arrives, it is only natural that she will be given control over her as well. Mrs. Norris' unusual elevation at Mansfield Park, due to her older sister's inattention to her own children. Sir Thomas's warning that Mrs. Norris should make sure Fanny understands that she "is not a Miss Bertram" is taken extremely seriously. Mrs. Norris almost encourages Maria and Julia to look down on their cousin. Mrs. Norris believes that Fanny should consider herself extremely lucky and grateful, and Fanny should always remember that she is 'lowest' and last at Mansfield Park (Paris 46). Fanny feels inferior to all of the family and is terrified of Mrs. Norris because she is the immediate authority figure.
Mrs. Norris tries to control Fanny and others' relationships to her. Any special attention that Fanny receives seems unnecessary to Mrs. Norris. Edmund buys Fanny a pony so she can exercise, and Mrs. Norris scolds his extravagance. When a servant announces that Sir Thomas requested to speak to Fanny in his library, Mrs. Norris loudly insists that a mistake was made, that Sir Thomas meant her. Every time Mrs. Norris puts Fanny in her place, she reinforces her opinion of the role Fanny should fill in the Bertram family. Fanny is given no alternative. Not only would Mrs. Norris not stand for it, but Fanny does not have the courage to change her situation.
Mrs. Norris is selfish and proud without cause. She loves to meddle but does so carelessly, and she believes herself important when she is not, as is revealed when she is banished along with Maria at the end of the novel because Sir Thomas sees her as being a destructive influence on his family. She has direct influence on Fanny during her childhood and early adolescence and causes Fanny to have a sense of inferiority which Fanny does not deserve (Gooneratne 113). Fanny is able to overcome Mrs. Norris' opinions about her when other people begin to realize how important she is. Fanny discovers how much worth she has, not only with Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram but also with Edmund.
The most extreme of Austen's authoritarian parents also comes from Mansfield Park. Sir Thomas Bertram benevolently takes Fanny in and raises her, but Sir Thomas is distant in her life, a figure of authority who terrifies her even more than Mrs. Norris. Sir Thomas is the most authoritarian of the parents with his own children as well. Unlike Lady Russell, who persuades and leaves no alternative to Anne, and Mrs. Norris, who overindulges the Bertram girls but mistreats Fanny, Sir Thomas' behavior toward every child is the same.
Mansfield Park is a model of patriarchal order, exemplifying the spirit of hierarchy and the assumption of male primacy over the female. Sir Thomas is the principle patriarchal figure: grave, seeing only what he wants to see. Although he appears as the guardian of what is good and proper, he reveals that he has ethical flaws (Bush 112-113).
His first defect is in permitting his wife to give authority over his daughters to Mrs. Norris. Lady Bertram not only gives her sister a position of power that she should not have, but also inflates her ego and causes her to believe that she is more important that she is. Yet Sir Thomas is not completely blameless, either. He acknowledges at the end of the novel that he should have spent more time overseeing his children and repents at how they turned out under the improper guidance of Mrs. Norris and the ignorance of their mother.
Sir Thomas also is not outwardly affectionate. He does not encourage his children to be close to him. This reserve, combined with Lady Bertram's indifference, handicaps his children's moral and social education (Bush 114). Sir Thomas can be a thoughtful, sensitive man, but he lacks human sympathy that is apparent to the world outside (Gooneratne 112). Although there is a marked change when he returns from his trip to Antigua, it is too late to change the relationships he has with his children. They are adults and are now indifferent to him.
Another of Sir Thomas' defects is that he is concerned with outward appearances. He married a beautiful woman with little wit or intellect, but as long as she appears to his credit, he does not care. Following his return from Antigua, Sir Thomas simply asks Maria if she's certain she wants to marry Rushworth, and does not concern himself with much otherwise. Maria is marrying a fine name and a great fortune, and Sir Thomas can accept that, as he should. Yet a caring father would be able to see that Maria is reluctant to marry Rushworth and counsel her against it.
His relationship with Fanny changes following his return, yet it is still an authoritarian approach he uses when trying to persuade Fanny to marry Henry Crawford. Sir Thomas berates her for refusing. His disapproval leaves Fanny no doubt of what he wants, yet with her refusal to marry Crawford, Fanny rightly rebels against his wishes. She knows what he does not--that Crawford openly tried to attract Maria even though she was engaged to another man, then left her abruptly when she expected him to marry her.
For all of his flaws, Sir Thomas does learn from his mistakes, although he probably does not learn that his parenting style is partially what caused the problems. He realizes that he was not an effective parent when he sees his children's mistakes. Following Maria's engagement, he realizes that he was too distant a parent. By the time he cared enough to care, his children were too old to be influenced. Tom Bertram has become a wastrel (and only a brush with death changes him), and Maria and Julia are vain and idle. Sir Thomas sees Fanny, her brother William, and her sister Susan as being moral people because they have been exposed to hardship early in life, which has had a positive effect on their lives that has withstood bad parenting (Wiesenfarth 106). His banishment of Maria for eloping with Henry Crawford even though she was married and Mrs. Norris because he sees how destructive she has been to his family, coupled with his embracing of Fanny as a daughter even before she marries Edmund, shows that he is changed. He has become a moral person, even if he will probably always remain an authoritarian parent.
Authoritative parentsAuthoritative parents are nurturers. They allow their children to assist in setting limits and controls on their behavior, and there is much give-and-take within their relationship. Authoritative parents truly love their children. As a consequence, the children of authoritative parents tend to be happier, socially and emotionally well-adjusted, and are more socially responsible and competent.
The first authoritative parent is the late Lady Elliot from Persuasion. She is the only authoritative parent who is solely authoritative and has no leanings into other parenting styles for other children. Jane Austen describes her, "She had been an excellent woman, sensible and amiable...though not the happiest person in the world herself, had found enough in her duties, her friends, and her children, to attach her to life..." (36). She loved all three of her children dearly but was closest to Anne; and thus her death devastates Anne the most.
Lady Elliot kept the family within their income; following her death, all economy disappeared, leading to the present state of financial straits that begins the novel. Lady Elliot also instructed her daughters in good principles, which her daughter Elizabeth more or less ignores and becomes almost as vain as her father. Anne, however, learns a great deal from her mother. Her mother's lessons provide Anne with the strength to mature despite her father, sister, and Lady Russell. Because Lady Elliot has died, however, she can no longer teach Anne her duty or give her advice (Mansell 209). In her place is the less effective Lady Russell.
John Lauber concludes about Austen's fictional parents: "All parental marriages in Austen's novels appear to be, or have been, unequal..." (42). The inequality in most of Austen's novels is most likely to be moral and/or intellectual as with the Elliots.
Mr. and Mrs. Dashwood, in Sense and Sensibility, do not appear to have had an unequal marriage in any way except social status (she had no dowry). As Mrs. Dashwood says to Marianne when the two discuss marriage, "Why should you be less fortunate than your mother?" She wants Marianne and Elinor to marry for love, just as she did.
Austen describes Mrs. Dashwood's character: "In seasons of cheerfulness, no temper could be more cheerful, or possess, in a greater degree, that sanguine expectation of happiness which is happiness itself. But in sorrow she must be equally carried away by her fancy..." (Sense 5). She resembles Marianne most, and her sensibility is cherished and valued by Mrs. Dashwood, which may not be the best for her daughter.
Mrs. Dashwood is an authoritative parent, not only because she dearly loves her three daughters, but also because she does not insist they marry to improve their situation, much as they need to do so. She believes that "difference of fortune should [not] keep any couple asunder who were attracted by resemblance of disposition" (12). At the same time, she does think about money, allowing herself to think about an eligible, wealthy young man marrying one of her daughters even as she professes not to care about money (Monaghan 162).
The best example of Mrs. Dashwood's parenting style is her decision to move to Barton Cottage. She desires to move away from Norland as soon as possible after her son inherits the property in order to get away from his wife, Fanny Dashwood. When Barton Cottage becomes available, her instinct is to write back immediately, accepting the offer; however, she feels it prudent to ask her daughters if they feel it would be best. Even though it is truly only her decision to make, and she wants to say yes, she still takes her daughters' feelings into consideration.
Mrs. Dashwood is not the perfect parent, however. Her plans for improving Barton Cottage are rather impractical (McMasters 87). In fact, if it were not for Elinor's sensible methods in the household, the Dashwoods would have more financial troubles than they have presently. And being more like Marianne, Mrs. Dashwood has a tendency to overlook her elder daughter's feelings. As she comforts Marianne in her heartbreak, Mrs. Dashwood has no inkling that Elinor's heart is broken as well. Of course, Elinor's being a more private person than Marianne contributes to her mother's ignorance of the real situation. Still, it is clear that she loves all of her daughters and wants what is right for them.
As for Mr. Dashwood, we know extremely little about him since he dies at the beginning of the novel. He loves his wife and his children, and he dearly wants to provide for them before his death. He regrets that he will be unable to do this, so as he is dying he makes his son promise to take care of his stepsisters. In the little that is told about him, we can see a resemblance to Elinor. Mr. Dashwood is sensible, intelligent, and concerned about the family's financial trouble.
The last of Austen's authoritative parents, Pride and Prejudice's Mr. Bennet, might seem an unusual choice. Critics have labelled him as unfeeling and generally uncaring about his family. With his four other daughters, Mr. Bennet is a permissive-indifferent parent. His relationship with his daughter Elizabeth is based on respect and love.
With Elizabeth, Mr. Bennet is a concerned, loving parent--even though he jokes with his wife in the beginning that she has only a little more quickness than her sisters. He does not single out any of the others in that first scene, and the only attention he gives his youngest three daughters is to lump them in one category as the silliest girls in England. Jane is a sensible daughter, just like Elizabeth, but she does not have a realistic view of the world. Elizabeth is the child Mr. Bennet shares his amusement with, and he wants only the best for her.
There are two specific examples of Mr. Bennet's concern for Elizabeth's welfare. The first is following Mr. Collins' proposal. Mrs. Bennet insists on Elizabeth's marrying the man and tries to get her husband to talk some sense into her. Mr. Bennet, when presented with the dilemma, calmly says, "An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must become a stranger to one of your parents--your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do" (Pride and Prejudice 98). Mr. Bennet has long realized that his cousin is a fool and that Elizabeth would never be happy with him; therefore, Mr. Bennet will not comply with his wife's wishes despite the financial security such an arrangement would bring for his favorite daughter and the rest of his family.
The other example is following Mr. Darcy's last proposal. Mr. Bennet believes that Elizabeth has hated Darcy from their first meeting, but Mr. Bennet has been unaware of her change of heart. When Darcy asks for permission to marry Elizabeth, Mr. Bennet fears that she is making a grave mistake and marrying for something less than love. In urging her to be sure of her choice, he reveals a side of himself that he has shown only through contempt--his deep dissatisfaction with the woman he married. Once Elizabeth has been able to convince him that she loves Darcy, Mr. Bennet is able to consent more easily than before, saying, "I could not have parted with you, my Lizzy, to someone less worthy" (317). Mr. Bennet frequently indicates that he cares for and guides Elizabeth, and that there is a warm, loving side to him which he does reveal to at least one member of his family.
Permissive-indulgent parentsPermissive-indulgent parents are highly involved with their children, but they place few demands or controls on them. Children of these parents are very spoiled and immature; they do not learn respect for others and have difficulty controlling their behavior.
Mrs. Weston, Emma Woodhouse's governess, has essentially become a surrogate parent to Emma. Of her biological mother, Emma has only some vague memories, but they are good ones. Mrs. Weston steps into the role of mother figure fairly easily, rapidly gaining status well beyond that of a normal governess and staying on with the Woodhouse family long after Emma no longer needs a governess.
Mrs. Weston is fairly indulgent of Emma. She humors Emma's moods and encourages Emma to do things she probably should not do. Therefore, Mrs. Weston must share in the blame for Emma's failings (McMasters 29). At the same time, Mrs. Weston can also be given some credit. If Emma will never be a great reader or a wonderful piano player, she is still a lively person with wit and intelligence, and her manipulations are well-meaning, if extremely misguided. Mrs. Weston has done as well as she could with Emma, considering the type of person Emma is and what kind of father she has.
Mrs. Weston's role has been as a friend and companion to Emma. She is a useful, gentle woman, having a knowledge and interest in the Woodhouse family (Wiesenfarth 111-112). Mrs. Weston is the woman to whom Emma can tell anything. For her many years of service to the family, Mrs. Weston is "rewarded," in a sense, by having Emma find her a husband. Even though she marries and goes to live at Randalls, Mrs. Weston is still involved in Emma's life, since Emma visits her several times a week and, despite having a new confidante in Harriet Smith, tells her what is happening at Hartfield.
Mr. Woodhouse, on the other hand, goes much farther in his involvement in Emma's life, even though he rarely leaves Hartfield. At the beginning of Emma, Austen writes that "she loved her father, but he was no companion to her. He could not meet her in conversation, rational or playful" (Emma 2). He is much older than she is, and practically an invalid. He is "a nervous man, easily depressed...hating change of any kind" (Emma 3). He never believes that people are any different from himself and tries to persuade others to live as he lives.
Mr. Woodhouse, like Mrs. Weston, sees nothing to fault in Emma. He will not hear of anyone criticizing her, not even Mr. Knightley, partially because Emma is his younger daughter and partially because Emma caters to him constantly. Even though Emma is the female head of Hartfield and wisely overrides her father when he tries to regulate what guests eat and what they do. Mr. Woodhouse dictates the lifestyle at Hartfield (Paris 81).
While some might feel that Mr. Woodhouse is not only egocentric (which he is) and an annoyance, something must be remembered: Emma indulges him as he indulges her. She does not think he is egocentric or an annoyance. Emma loves him dearly. The only time Mr. Woodhouse becomes a problem is when Emma realizes that she loves Mr. Knightley. Loving Mr. Knightley means marrying him. Mr. Woodhouse is so against change that Emma's marriage is going to cause him pain.
Mr. Woodhouse's view of marriage is clear: he thinks it is a calamity (Bush 140). Mrs. Weston is "poor Miss Taylor" because her marriage disrupts his household (Wiesenfarth 113). He asks Emma to stop making matches (which she ignores), but not in such a way that suggests deep disapproval. Mr. Woodhouse has certainly not resigned himself to the thought that Emma might one day marry. Although with Emma insisting she will never marry, he need not worry.
The news that Emma wishes to marry Knightley comes as not only a shock, but also a great disturbance to Mr. Woodhouse. He suggests that things remain the same, which is impossible. Emma will not discomfort her father, but she wants to marry Knightley because she understands that things cannot remain the same between them. Austen seems to want the reader to wish for Mr. Woodhouse's death for Emma's sake, although she would never want that (Paris 67-68). In fact, Emma is the one who finally solves the problem by suggesting to her father that he would feel safer from the chicken thieves if there were a younger man in the house. Emma plays to one of her father's weakest spots (his fear of the outside world) to get what she desires.
In some ways, Mr. Woodhouse may seem like an indifferent parent--after all, he is fairly egocentric and does not care about the outside as long as it does not disturb his little world. Yet he cares for Emma, and he is overly involved in her life without placing limits or controls in her. Jane Austen, for all that she satirizes fools and shows them for what they are, is herself indulgent to Mr. Woodhouse. She seems to approve of the way Emma responds to his needs and wishes (Paris 81). Part of the reason might be because Mr. Woodhouse, as the oldest of the parents, demands more attention to his needs because he cannot see to them himself, which reveals a softer side to Emma.
Permissive-indifferent parents. Permissive-indifferent parents are very uninvolved in their children's lives. This can come about for a variety of reasons, but the effects on the children are generally the same. The children lack self-control, are socially incompetent, and do not handle independence well. In some ways, they cause more problems than any of the other types of parents because there is usually a lack of love for the children, and thus the children do not learn how to love.
Most of the parents in Austen's novels are either completely permissive-indifferent or are so in varying degrees. Mr. Bennet is indifferent to the rest of his children and lives in his library, leaving them to their mother's care and their own devices. Except for his dealings with his favorite daughter, Elizabeth, Mr. Bennet only exposes himself as a parent during the unpleasant business of Lydia's elopement (Mudrick 113). His feelings of inadequacy as a parent following that event disappear as rapidly as he predicts they will, indicating that he knows what is wrong with himself but really does not care enough to change.
The Morlands, in Northanger Abbey, are indifferent to their daughter Catherine for a different reason, which is simply that they have no time. Catherine's father is a clergyman, but not a poor or neglecting one as one "might" expect. He is a very respectable man with "considerable independence, besides two good livings" (Northanger Abbey 3). This is basically all we know about Mr. Morland, except that he does not have a tendency to lock up any of his daughters. While none of the other Austen fathers have had this tendency, as a satire of Gothic novels, this novel might be expected to hint that if he were a Gothic father, he would lock them up.
About Mrs. Morland, Austen writes, "Her [Catherine's] mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and what is more remarkable, with a good constitution" (Northanger Abbey 3). The problem with the Morland family is that they are "great" only in size. Mr. and Mrs. Morland have ten children, which does not leave them a great deal of time to spend with any one of them.
In this household, Catherine, the fourth child, grows up to be no one's expectation of a heroine. Mrs. Morland would like for her children to become "everything they ought to be," but simply does not have the time to teach the older children since she has to teach the younger ones. Also, much of her time is spent recovering from childbirth. Therefore, the older children are left to occupy themselves.
Connected to the problem with time is Mrs. Morland's desire to see her daughters succeed in society is not implemented. If they are not interested in something, they do not have to do it. Therefore, Catherine never learns to play the piano, paint, or do anything else that might be considered an "accomplishment," what young ladies are often expected to acquire in order to succeed in society.
Catherine is ill-prepared for Bath society, and part of this is Mrs. Morland's fault. Having lived in a small, rural setting all of her life, Mrs. Morland has no concept of what life in larger towns would be like. Since Catherine's only learning has come from books, and generally not well-chosen ones (usually Gothics novels), it is no wonder that her time in Bath and her experiences at Northanger Abbey turn out to be so disastrous.
Another set of parents whose attention to their children is limited by time is the Prices of Mansfield Park; unlike the Morlands, however, the Prices do not particularly care for any of their children. William is both parents' pride because he has made a name for himself in the navy, and Betsey is her mother's favorite because she is the youngest, but they could care less about the other children.
When Fanny Price returns to her home after eight years of living at Mansfield Park, she is startled by the differences in the two homes. These differences make Fanny realize how fortunate she was in being accepted into the Bertram home. As mistreated as she is by them, things would undoubtedly have been worse if she had stayed at home, as the condition of her sister Susan can attest to. Fanny's father is a drunken idler who is forever doing little and acting uncouth; Fanny's mother is a drudge who indulges her "baby," Betsey, at her daughter Susan's expense (Mudrick 157). Fanny can see that her mother is a "partial, ill-judging parent...who neither taught nor restrained her children." Unlike Mrs. Morland, whose time is at least occupied with her household and teaching her younger children, Mrs. Price simply does not care--except for William and Betsey. Fanny, since she has been away for so long, is regarded as a novelty, but not as one noticed by her mother for very long.
Within the current Price household, there is only one voice of sense--Susan. Susan is the good child of the family amid obnoxious, rambunctious brothers and spoiled sister Betsey; naturally, she is ignored (Paris 31). Susan tries to create order in the house, but there is such an irrational authority in the family that she has no success.
So to the proper Fanny Price, her parents come as a disappointment. Both parents ignore her, and she spends much of her visit eagerly anticipating when she will be able to return to Mansfield Park. Where the Bertrams seemed distant, they are now seen by her as more precious than ever.
If the Morlands and the Prices are both indifferent to all their children because of time, Pride and Prejudice's Mrs. Bennet is indifferent to her children in varying degrees, and only indulgent to Lydia. Most importantly, she is most indifferent to Elizabeth, her least favorite child probably because Elizabeth is her father's favorite.
Mrs. Bennet's life is dominated by two things: the entail which will pass Longbourn on to a distant cousin following her husband's death and getting her daughters married before that event occurs. The two are entwined, of course, but finding husbands for her daughters would be her duty even if there were not an entail. It is the business of her life to get her daughters married (Lauber 42). Since there is an entail, she must marry her daughters off before Mr. Bennet dies or the family will be in major trouble.
Mrs. Bennet is described as a woman of little wit, mean understanding, and little thought beyond her own situation. These are things which would prevent her from attaining her goal, since she never gives her vulgar public behavior a second thought, especially at the Netherfield ball when she can be overheard by Mr. Darcy. Her embarrassing behavior continually lessens her daughters' chances for marrying well.
Mrs. Bennet's relationship with Elizabeth is extremely strained because she is different from her other daughters. Elizabeth is all her mother is not--bright, lively, intelligent, and socially competent. Elizabeth sees her mother for who she really is: a foolish, hypochondrial woman, and Elizabeth loses respect for her as a parent and a person.
Mrs. Bennet has one primary concern, and that is for herself. The marrying of her daughters, seen in this light, has a more ulterior motive. If one or more of her daughters marries well, Mrs. Bennet will have a comfortable place to live after Mr. Bennet's death (Mudrick 98). Also, if she can marry her daughters off well, she will be seen as a successful mother. Since Jane is the oldest, the family's hopes are dependent on her marrying well and then "throwing the girls into the paths of other rich men" (Pride and Prejudice 95). To her mother, Elizabeth will never have her sister's beauty or disposition, and after refusing Mr. Collins, Mrs. Bennet refuses to speak to her. As far as Mrs. Bennet is concerned, Elizabeth threw away her best chance of marrying decently and will not find a better match.
Mrs. Bennet's attitude toward Elizabeth remains fairly constant until the end of the novel. Even in the first chapter, when Mr. Bennet is teasing her about merely writing to Mr. Bingley instead of visiting and putting in a good word for Elizabeth, Mrs. Bennet sees no cause to put Elizabeth forward. Although she is sufficiently indignant about the insult Mr. Darcy pays Elizabeth at the Meryton assembly ball in refusing to dance with her, it is more a blow to her familial pride than to her pride in Elizabeth. All of this combines to make Mrs. Bennet's reaction to Elizabeth's impending marriage to Mr. Darcy even more foolish, as Elizabeth suddenly becomes her mother's favorite child after spending much of her life as her least favorite.
Sir Walter Elliot is arguably the vainest character Jane Austen ever created. This man, whose sole amusement in life is the continual reading of the Baronetage, is described in this way: "Vanity was the beginning and end of his character; vanity of person and situation. He had been remarkably handsome in his youth, and, at fifty-four, was still a very fine man..." (Persuasion 36).
Sir Walter sees himself and his eldest daughter Elizabeth as unchanging in a world where everything around him ages and becomes uglier. Bath, where he takes financial refuge, is the perfect place for him. Bath is filled with social climbers who will respect both him and Elizabeth (Gooneratne 168). And Bath is concerned mainly with barren, meaningless social rituals (Lauber 103).
Sir Walter cares little for Anne or his youngest daughter, Mary. They are plain, they are aging, and they are not a credit to his name or his image, even though Mary has married well. Sir Walter's world has no room for anything that is less than perfect or flattering to him.
Sir Walter's indifference to Anne has been of long duration. It was only Lady Russell's intervention which prevented Anne from marrying. In the end, when Anne finally accepts Captain Wentworth, her father remains completely indifferent to her fate, since the man has some money and a decent-sounding name. Perhaps the most important thing to Sir Walter is that she will no longer be a burden on him.
Sir Walter's neglect extends beyond his younger daughters. Following his wife's death, all economy died with her and not because he grieved for her. Sir Walter hides behind the Baronetage to block out the unpleasantness of the outside world, and his estate suffers for it. Kellynch-hall is his responsibility, and life's challenge to him; by not taking care of it the way he should, he shows that he does not measure up to life's demands (Wiesenfarth 145).
In response to the realization that they cannot continue living the way they have been, Sir Walter decides to retrench, but only after rejecting Anne's suggestion of a strict living. Even when the decision is made to lease Kellynch-hall, Sir Walter is disinclined to lease it to a naval officer because he does not like their looks. He is the ultimate snob, concerned with nothing more than titles, rank, pedigree, and appearances (Lauber 98).
As indifferent as Sir Walter is to Anne, he does pay attention to Elizabeth. This is more than can be said about the most indifferent parent in Austen's novels--Lady Maria Bertram. Lady Bertram cares about absolutely nothing except her dog and seems almost an allegorical figure of indolence personified (Lauber 62). She is a woman of little energy and feeling. Yet she has done her duty. She, the oldest daughter of the Ward family, married well and attempted to find equally good husbands for her sisters. She became Sir Thomas' dutiful wife, giving him two healthy sons and two lovely daughters. She remains beautiful and a credit to him in public. That done, there is nothing left for her to do. She gives control of her daughter's education to Mrs. Norris so she will not be bothered with it, and her sons are the responsibility of her husband. In the patriarchal society of Mansfield Park, Lady Bertram has essentially become a non-being (Smith 113). She is too selfish and self-centered to even enjoy her daughters' social successes. She is generally led by Mrs. Norris in her opinions, and since Mrs. Norris feels that Mr. Rushworth is a worthy match for Maria, Lady Bertram agrees.
Lady Bertram is indifferent to life, including her children and Fanny Price. Yet with Lady Bertram, Fanny probably has her closest relationship with a parental figure. Lady Bertram becomes attached to Fanny and is dependent on her (Paris 48). The relationship may not be completely healthy--after all, Lady Bertram does take shameless advantage of her, but in Fanny's world of authoritarianism, Lady Bertram is a fairly safe harbor and Lady Bertram does have the final word when Mrs. Norris refuses to take Fanny in following her husband's death, saying, "Then she had better stay with us." (Mansfield Park 32). Lady Bertram doesn't care that Fanny isn't a "Miss Bertram." She treats them all the same, much as her husband does.
Like Sir Thomas, Lady Bertram comes to value Fanny by the end of the novel. She does not change, as her husband does, or feel any responsibility toward her children's unacceptable behavior. She does, however, admit that Fanny is a comfort to have around and is reluctant to let her go when Fanny marries Edmund. Of course, what changes her mind is the fact that Fanny's sister Susan will come to stay at Mansfield Park and take Fanny's place.
Given the range of parenting styles, the heroines in Jane Austen's novels mature differently under their parents' tutelage. Some, obviously, mature faster and earlier than others for a variety of reasons. Catherine Morland is the least mature of Austen's heroines as Northanger Abbey begins. As the daughter of two permissive-indifferent parents, much of what Catherine learns comes from books. Occasionally, Catherine does read a classic, but her taste runs more to the Gohics, which tend to have a negative effect on her. She allows her fancy to get the best of her, especially at Northanger Abbey when she imagines that General Tilney, an authoritarian parent, murdered his wife.
Catherine displays many of the symptoms resulting from her parents' indifference to her. She does not deal well with her independence, especially at Northanger Abbey. Her "kidnaping" at the hands of the Thorpes and her brother James is an example of how poor her social skills are. She has made an engagement with the Tilneys, which the others assure her they did not keep. When Catherine sees the Tilneys heading to her house, she tries to insist that John Thorpe go back, and he refuses. Although the rest of the afternoon is ruined for her, she never truly vocalizes her displeasure with the party, nor does she assert herself as she ought. Picturing any other Austen heroine allowing something like that to happen is virtually impossible.
Catherine matures following her expulsion from Northanger Abbey because General Tilney believes her to be poor. It takes Henry Tilney's declaration that he is willing to marry her in spite of his father before she is truly secure in his affection. Henry's father might see the world in terms of money, but Henry can see Catherine is a lovely young woman with an active mind. Henry's love of Catherine causes her to see how truly foolish she has been before.
Marianne Dashwood, the daughter of two authoritative parents, is the embodiment of "sensibility." She is dramatic, dreaming of a grand passion and dying for love, and resembles her mother closely. Marianne, unlike most children of authoritative parents, does not have as much self-control as her sister. Marianne's behavior is open to the speculation of others--she goes off with Willoughby alone, writes him letters when they are not engaged, and has a rather public confrontation with him in London, none of this with her mother's knowledge.
Marianne's maturity comes through her experience and the unconditional love of her authoritative mother. Marianne's illness, which nearly brings about her death, causes her to put things in perspective. Eventually, she chooses to marry a man whom only the year before she rejected for being too old. Yet Marianne's ending has caused controversy. Even though we are told that she, in time, loved Colonel Brandon as much as she loved Willoughby, it does not seem realistic. It raises the thought that Marianne may have "settled" from him instead of marrying for love, as the other Austen heroines do. Yet in marrying Colonel Brandon, Marianne may have found the man who will be the balance to her sensibility.
Emma Woodhouse is the daughter of a permissive-indulgent father, and with an equally indulgent governess, Emma grows up having her own way. While she is not prone to uncontrollable behavior, she does not always have respect for other people, as her continual teasing of Jane Fairfax with her alleged love for Mr. Dixon and her deliberately cruel remark to Miss Bates at the picnic would indicate.
Only one person sees Emma for who she really is: Mr. Knightley. He understands her, and he lectures her when she needs reproof. She certainly never would be lectured by her father or by Mrs. Weston, who see her as being practically perfect. Without him to tell her how badly she behaves at times, as he does following the picnic, Emma would undoubtedly be worse than she is.
Emma realizes that she loves Mr. Knightley after her friend Harriet Smith declares that she loves him. Although the knowledge comes to her suddenly, Emma later realizes that she has always loved him. He has been her only source of honesty, and under his authoritative tutelage as a mentor, she has grown as a person.
Elizabeth Bennet is the daughter of a permissive-indifferent mother and an authoritative father; however, her father's influence blocks her mother's ignorance. Elizabeth is her father's daughter--she sees amusement in life, delights in fools and stupidity, and feels, in some ways rightly, that she is superior to the rest of her family (except her father and Jane).
Elizabeth, however, cannot escape her family, try as she might. Her mother will still plague her at social gatherings by being loud and vulgar. Lydia will still be flirtatious, outrageous, and silly, with Kitty tagging along. Mary will still exhibit her "accomplishments" with embarrassing results. Every so often, even her father will embarrass her. Elizabeth loves her father, but she is not blind to his faults.
The most important thing Elizabeth learns from her parents is a desire not to have a marriage like theirs. Elizabeth wants to marry someone who loves, respects, and accepts her, and while Mr. Darcy may not seem like the best man for her, his education at her hands through her scathing rejection of his proposal changes him so he can accept everything about her. At the same time, he influences and in some ways changes her. Elizabeth takes great pride in her first impressions of people. When Mr. Darcy reveals that her first impressions of Wickham and himself are incorrect, she begins to question whether she has acted rationally in her relationships to both men.
Elinor Dashwood is vastly different from her sister Marianne, and quite possibly a great deal like her father. Elinor is subdued and realistic, practical and economic, but she does have deep feelings. She loves just as much and just as deeply as Marianne.
Elinor displays more characteristics of a daughter of authoritative parents than does Marianne. She always has her emotions under control, unlike her mother and Marianne. She never makes scenes in public, and she would never go off alone with a man, which she scolds Marianne for doing.
Elinor loves her mother but understands her limitations. While Elinor's reserve puzzles Marianne, the reader is never in doubt of Elinor's feelings. Elinor is sensible, but she loves deeply, and her heart breaks just as badly as Marianne's when she discovers that Edward Ferrars is secretly engaged to Lucy Steele. She endures Lucy's knowing taunts and the teasing of her neighbors without outward response.
Elinor benefits from Lucy's greed. When Edward is disinherited, Lucy chooses to marry his brother, Robert. Even though Elinor is then able to marry the man she loves, she is still prudent enough to wait until he can afford to support a family and has a house of his own before she marries him. Although Edward is considered as the weakest of all Austen's heroes, Elinor will probably not have problems in her marriage because she is sensible enough for both of them.
Fanny Price's parental make-up is the most complicated of Austen's heroines. Fanny's real parents and Lady Bertram are permissive-indifferent. Fortunately for her, Sir Thomas and Mrs. Norris are authoritarians.
Fanny is shy and tentative in social situations. She has trouble saying what she truly feels, as the scene with Sir Thomas indicates when they discuss Henry Crawford. She suffers from poor self-esteem from constantly being reminded that she is the "lowest and last," and not a "Miss Bertram." While Fanny may be easily terrified in any number of situations, she is not easily bullied. Appealing as Henry Crawford might seem as a husband by Sir Thomas, she knows that she deserves better.
It is not certain when Fanny falls in love with Edmund Bertram, although it is certainly a natural response since he is the sole nurturer in the Bertram family during Fanny's childhood. Unlike Mr. Knightley with Emma, Edmund cannot improve Fanny's manner. In fact, it is Fanny who improves Edmund. While Edmund is enamored by the beauty of Mary Crawford, Fanny feels she has no chance with him; however, when he is able to see Mary for who she really is and to recognize Fanny's virtues, he falls in love with Fanny and marries her.
Anne Elliot is the most mature of Austen's heroines. Anne is the daughter of an indifferent father and an authoritative mother with an authoritarian surrogate mother. Anne receives the bulk of her learning before her mother's death. Anne is treated as a nonentity by her father and older sister, while her younger sister takes advantage of her. The only person who cares about her is Lady Russell, but even that relationship is deceptive. When she persuaded Anne not to marry Captain Wentworth when Anne was nineteen, Lady Russell did not have Anne's best interests at heart, and while Anne does not blame her, she will not be misled again. If there is one thing her mother's example has taught Anne, it is how unhappy marriage can be between two dissimilar people.
Anne has "learned romance" on her own as a result of breaking her engagement with Wentworth eight years ago. When he suddenly reappears in her life, she unhappily accepts his brusque manner as indicating that he no longer has any feelings for her. When he confesses that he still loves her, she will not be persuaded a second time not to marry.
Unlike the other heroines, Anne is a mature woman at the beginning of Persuasion. She has learned the lessons of life on her own, with little help from her father or Lady Russell. Captain Wentworth has been gone for eight years, and so unlike Mr. Knightley or Edmund Bertram, he has not had as great an influence on the formation of Anne's character.
Jane Austen's heroines have different backgrounds, with a full range of parents. Yet all of them set out to accomplish and succeed at gaining what, in Austen's day, was considered the main purpose for young women. They all marry, and for the most part, they marry well. Most importantly, they marry for love. The Morlands may not have had much to do with Catherine's education, but they do not dissuade her from marrying Henry Tilney. Mrs. Dashwood encourages both of her daughters to marry for love, and Elinor certainly does. Whether or not Marianne does, it is clear that she has learned how dangerous "grand passion" can be. Mr. Woodhouse would rather not have Emma marry at all, but it is clear that she will get her way in the end. Mr. Bennet wants Elizabeth to marry for love and encourages her to do so even though his wife just wants her married. The Prices do not seem to care about Fanny, and by the end of Mansfield Park, she is too important to the Bertram family for them to mind that she will become a Bertram in fact by marrying Edmund. Sir Walter does not care whom Anne marries, and Lady Russell, although undoubtedly disappointed, will probably accept Anne's decision. The parents that these young women have play a major role in the choices that they make when they marry. The men the heroines marry see their future wives for all of the attributes these women acquire from their parents and, in some cases, from the men they love.
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