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Parenthood According to Jane Austen
Another excerpt from my Jane Austen Seminar Final Exam Essays
In 2015, I was part of a Jane Austen seminar at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, LA. I was an NSULA undergrad and was very honored and privileged to partake in quite a few courses at the Scholars’ College on the same campus. Here’s a second excerpt (the first is here) from my final exam for the Jane Austen course, taught by the charming and brilliant Dr. (Shirley) Holly Stave:
The parents in Austen’s novels are often inept, misguided, embarrassing, careless, or overly trusting of people to whom they are barely acquainted. In Northanger Abbey, for example, Catherine Morland’s parents were not even acquainted with the Tilneys, but still give their permission for Catherine to travel with the Tilneys “double [the] distance” from her home. Likewise, in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bennet is positively blasé about letting his daughter Lydia go to Brighton, to flirt with soldiers, under the sponsorship of Colonel and Mrs. Forster, people to whom he was only very recently acquainted. In Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. Dashwood refuses her daughter Elinor’s advice to caution Marianne against overly familiarity with Willoughby. Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Dashwood are both outright irresponsible as parents. The Morlands are just naive. Yet faulty parenting is an essential plot device in Austen’s novels. Catherine had to go to Northanger Abbey in order to evolve into a wiser person. It would have been odd to have the protagonist of a novel titled Northanger Abbey never in fact go to Northanger Abbey! Similarly, the necessity of having Darcy perform the heroic action of Pride and Prejudice made it incumbent for the writer to put someone in existential peril; who could have been better for that function than Lydia—the silliest, most flighty sister of the heroine, and therefore the character most likely to behave recklessly? People making serious mistakes and learning important life lessons are indispensable to the plots of engaging novels—especially ones like Austen’s, which are timeless and unforgettable favorites to millions of readers in every generation.
There are deep parental issues regardless of marriage or singleness. Yet the single parents are often very bad. In Persuasion, the widower Sir Walter Elliot is vain and pretentious, and as a father, utterly useless. In the novel Emma, Mr. Woodhouse, for all his affectionate overtures to the title character, often behaves more like a child than a parent.
Sense and Sensibility: Mrs. Dashwood, recently widowed, is also sometimes more child than parent, Elinor being, in some ways, the real parent at Barton Cottage.
Northanger Abbey: General Tilney, likewise a widower, is psychologically and emotionally abusive to his adult children.
Pride and Prejudice: Lady Catherine de Bourgh, another widow, spoils her daughter by making every excuse why Anne de Bourgh is not more accomplished; at the same time, Lady Catherine criticizes Mrs. Bennet’s lack of care in the education of her own children.
Those are just the single parents. The married parents are far from perfect. The overindulgence of Lady Middleton’s “sweet little Annamaria” is likely to turn the child into a monster. Overindulgence is exactly the word for how Mrs. John Dashwood treats her “dear little boy.” Mrs. Bennet indulges and even encourages the flirtatious and obnoxious behavior of Lydia. Mrs. Bennet herself is often obnoxious in front of her daughters. Mr. Bennet is no better for ignoring his wife’s follies and neglecting his duties as a father. Mr. Bennet is one of the most irresponsible of all of Austen’s characters. He has an avoidant personality that leads him to fail in his duty to provide adequately for his family in the event of his death. Mr. Bennet is no better than Sir Walter Elliot. Mr. Bennet blames his wife’s inability to have a son, but the fact is that he could have taken steps to alleviate the evils of the entail on the estate by supplementing his income by some other means. He preferred to sit in his library. Similarly, Sir Walter would pick up no other book but the Baronetage in order to stroke his ego.
With regard to mothers and fathers, Austen is an equal opportunist. In Sense and Sensibility, mothers tend to be worse than fathers, but even if Sir John Middleton is more likable to the reader than his wife, his role as a father is never even alluded to in the text. He has nothing to do with his children—or indeed, anything except hunting and organizing parties. Pride and Prejudice is also very harsh with mothers. Mrs. Bennet’s chief concerns include getting her daughters married and announcing to everyone everyday that she has poor nerves. But even here, the father is not given a free pass. It was Mr. Bennet’s laziness that allowed Lydia to run amok in a “camp full of soldiers,” thus jeopardizing the reputation of the entire family.
Mansfield Park is a good example of a novel where we see, in the Bertram family, both parents are inept and ineffective. Sir Thomas behaves to his children in an imposing manner that provokes them to artificial behavior in his presence, thus giving him an inaccurate knowledge of his own family. He assumes that they always obey him because they do obey him when in his sights. The moment they are out of his sight, they are disobedient. Lady Bertram simply resigns every parental duty to either Sir Thomas or Mrs. Norris, neither of whom is in touch with the real dynamics at play in the household.
I think the most effective parents in Austen’s novels are the Morlands. They may be naive and too trusting of people in general. They were also probably too relaxed about Catherine’s education. Yet Catherine absorbed their good nature and is a very happy character. Catherine has morals and a strong sense of decency that guides her to behave properly and respectfully. Catherine is shocked to discover that there are people in the world who behave as Isabella and John Thorpe do. Isabella and John’s mother lets them run wild and become careless, thoughtless adults.
Mrs. Dashwood being an irresponsible mother forces Elinor into maturity far above her years. Elinor has to teach her mother financial prudence. Elinor endeavors to set a good example for her sisters. Likewise, Jane and Elizabeth Bennet have to find their own way because their mother is clueless and their father is unreliable. It is very typical in Austen’s works for the child to become the parent, or vice versa. We see it in Emma. Not only are the natural roles reversed for Emma and her father, but we see Miss Bates being the voice of her almost totally silent mother. Nothing at Hartfield would be done if not for Emma. By making Emma the mistress of Hartfield and the caretaker of her hypochondriac father, Austen gave the character authority and activity towards her own destiny. Heroines and heroes unbound by overbearing parents are freer to explore both inner and outer worlds. Elizabeth Bennet could not have evolved as she did if left at Longbourn to observe only the small acquaintance of her country neighborhood without any larger perspective.