Is it perhaps a bit too easy. Austen reduced Mrs. Bennet to a caricature within the first three pages of Pride and Prejudice. And it worked, too, because no matter how much we, as readers, claim to love ‘complex’ characters, it appeals to our carnivorous nature to have an ignorant character for whom we can feel guilt-free contempt and who will be morally ripped apart for our reading pleasure. Austen dutifully, and one feels – with pleasure – offered us up her ignorant mothers.
It was this history of gentle, encouraging fathers and ignorant, dismissible mothers that made me start within the first few pages of Persuasion. Gone is a fine father – now we have a vain, arrogant, and financially irresponsible Sir Elliot, while a dead mother’s place is filled in by a sensible Lady Russell who is looking out for our heroine’s interests. That, of course, means only one thing – Lady Russell is looking out for Elizabeth marital prospects. No longer is the necessity of marriage mocked. We are made aware of uncertain and humiliating position of an unmarried woman, of ceaselessly belittling subjugation to various family members and their individual fortunes. No longer is the mother (or in this case a mother stand-in) offered up to us for easy consumption.
Why the change? One can’t help but wonder whether the change in Austen’s personal circumstances – her family’s plunge into relative poverty, followed by a death of her father, and then an uneasy series of moves that finally landed her, with her mother and sister, onto a cottage estate of one of her brothers - made her feel that the necessity of marriage, and a mother’s role in it, is not a trivial concern.
It is hard for us, born so late, and living in this century, to imagine a time when a woman of social standing couldn’t just “get a job.” It is hard to think that women’s marriages were their livelihoods, just as we now think of careers in medicine or law. It feels ugly to think about, and hard to make light of. And while Austen never abandoned the idea of a happy marriage as an obligatory happy ending of her works, she might have been finally stung by a reality - mothers may have been ignorant procurers of their daughters to respectable marriages, but they have at least tried to protect them against darker alternatives.
It breaks one’s heart to think of Austen, at 40 and without prospects of marriage, still bringing her heroines and heroes to marital bliss. It must have started to taste bitter in her mouth. But at least she gave mothers a break.