Thursday, 11 March 2010

From Pride to Persuasion

Jane Austen could certainly not be accused of drawing portraits of mothers in her work with gentle, loving strokes. Austen’s mothers are tolerated, rather than loved, and with a good reason. Take, for example, Mrs. Bennet, of Pride and Prejudice. How could a woman of “mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper,“ be anything but a drag on the cultured, vivacious life of her husband and children? We are told Mrs. Bennet is entirely unconscious of her own emotional life, while being hyperaware of her daughters’ marital status. Disliking Mrs. Bennet’s morally flimsy character and archaic concerns is easy.

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.

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Elisabeth said...

It's hard not to measure the past in contemporary terms, but I'm inclined to agree with you, Maja. It must have been horrible for women in Austen day, particularly intelligent and sensitive observant women like Austen herself. Although they presumably took taken it for granted. Though I also imagine they might at times have railed against it.

Austen did so in her writing simply by making these injustices transparent on the page.

Maja Djikic said...

I agree, Elizabeth, and also wish we were more privy to their manner of resistance. All of Austen heroines are noble and 'long-suffering.' I guess I wish there was at least one that was immoderate and short-tempered. But then, Austen wouldn't not be Austen.

Carolyn said...

Hmm. I would disagree that Mr. Bennett was cast as a good father. More sensible than his wife, yes, but he did nothing to protect his daughters against the certainty of his daughters' disenfranchisement upon his death. Mrs. Bennett, for all her irritating qualities, was well aware of that danger. Mr. Bennett, at least in my opinion, preferred reading and leaving the management of his family to his sensible daughter, and that can certainly be viewed as an abdication of his parental duties. I think Austen very carefully arrived at the qualities of both Bennett parents, both of whom are flawed. It's just that Mr. Bennett's flaws are less abrasive, but no less damaging, in the end.

I think I disagree that all Austen's heroine's are noble -- Catherine, in Mansfield Park, might be long-suffering -- though without the self-knowledge, but she was certainly silly, which was the point of Mansfield Park. And Emma was in fact self-involved, to the point of disaster, not only her own but to the lives of two other women.

Charlotte Bronte, in one of her letters (an excerpt is in the forward in my copy of Vilette, I believe) refers precisely to the manner of resistance -- that flash of intelligence observed in a woman's eyes, quickly suppressed lest she be discovered. And though Bronte, of course, comes after Austen, her observation of the ways in which woman suppressed their intelligence in the public sphere could hardly have been uncommon.

Maja Djikic said...

It's interesting you bring up Mr. Bennett, Carolyn. I think it very much true he wasn't a good father - not necessarily for abdication of the familial duties, but rather for hypocrisy of pretending to make fun of his wife's values, while holding them himself. But the point is that Austen signals with her prose we should like him more than his wife (if only by making clear there is an affectionate loving relationship between him and the protagonist).

And yes, you are right, Carolyn, that many of her heroines do not seem noble or long-suffering, but silly and self-deceptive. I think, though, we are meant by the author to dislike those qualities in them. We are signaled, for example, to dislike Emma for her superficiality. If I had to think which of her own female characters Austen liked best, it would be the smart, sensible, understated (and long-suffering) women. Women who knew better than those around them, yet did not violate the expectations of propiety. Women a bit like herself.

Old Folkie said...

You know, I've been thinking about this claim that readers want "complex" characters, and it just never rings true for me.
I think it's rather a case of readers wanting main characters they can believe while reading, and support characters that help to drive the story.
How complex they have to be or not, is in the end up to the story that the writer wants to tell.

And let's face it, real people are seldom complex either, they just are sometimes complicated.

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