Sunday, 30 March 2014


Alison Steadman as Mrs Bennet (1995)
Today is Mother's Day in the UK, Jane Austen's country, and author Victoria Grossack wants to celebrate it with us,  sharing this brilliant post about Jane Austen's   mothers. Thank you so much, Victoria!

Jane Austen is celebrated for many things: her wit, her irony, her insight into the human heart, her romances, and her skill in creating characters.  This article looks at Jane Austen’s mothers, the ones she brought to life in her stories.

The mothers in Jane Austen’s novels differ in each book.  In part this is due to her mastery of characters – they are all unique and three-dimensional – but they also reflect Jane Austen and her own development as a person and an author.  Jane Austen had two main writing periods.  When she was young, before 1800, she wroteNorthanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.  These books were not published until later, and certainly they were revised, but the mothers in them reflect the author’s youthful attitude.  Between 1800 and 1809 Jane did not produce much, mostly because her life was unsettled.The novels that she wrote later, after finding a new home in Chawton – MansfieldPark, Emma and Persuasion– show motherhood with greater maturity.

Not all of Jane Austen’s the heroines have mothers, and some of the mothers in the novels are designed to make their daughters cringe.This is not because Jane Austen did not value mothers.  Her own relationship with her mother, Cassandra Austen, was excellent.  No, mothers were so important that Jane Austen had to remove them from her stories, or else give their characters serious flaws, in order togive her heroines something to struggle against.

Brenda Blethyn as  Mrs Bennet (2005)
The removal of the mother is addressed explicitly in Northanger Abbey, the first novel of Austen’s that was accepted for publication (the publisher did not, however, actually print it, so it only appeared after Austen’s death).  Northanger Abbey is a satire on the gothic novels that were popular at the time, and they tended to remove mothers by having them die in childbirth.  Austen mocks this trope with:

Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and what is more remarkable, with a good constitution.  She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on—lived to have six children more – to see them grow up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself.(Northanger Abbey, chapter 1.)

Nevertheless, Austen recognizes that it is useful to get the mother off the stage.  Instead of killing her off,Austen removes Mrs. Morland simply by making her very busy:

Mrs. Morland was a very good woman, and wished to see her children everything they ought to be: but her time was so much occupied with lying-in and teaching the little ones, that her elder daughters were inevitably left to shift for themselves. (Northanger Abbey, chapter 1.)

Julia Dearden as Mrs Morland in Northanger Abbey (2007)
Mrs. Morland is so busy that even at the end of the novel, she does not realize that her daughter Catherine is in love until Catherine’s beau, Henry Tilney, asks for her hand in marriage.  After that, however, she is pleasant and supportive.

In Sense and Sensibility the young ladies have a mother but no father.  The lack of a father and the stinginess of their half-brother means that the females are facing poverty for the rest of their lives.  These circumstances create enough difficulty for the heroines, and so Mrs. Dashwood is allowed to exist.  Nevertheless she is kept off stage when the two older girls visit friends in London.  Her usefulness is limited, too, as she is emotional and feels things acutely – she resembles Marianne, and not Elinor – and so some of her impulses are not the wisest.  She isgood-hearted and loving, doing her duty when Marianne is ill, but not always perceptive with respect to Elinor.  It is up to Elinor for much of the book to assume the role of mother, but at least Mrs. Dashwood is never vulgar and rarely embarrassing, unlike Mrs. Bennet.

That brings us to Mrs. Bennet, who lives in the pages of Pride & Prejudice,the last novel written before Austen was twenty-five.  Mrs. Bennet isa mother who makes sensitive daughters blush with embarrassment.  She is loud and opinionated and seems all too worried about getting them married.

Mrs. Bennet may be vulgar, but she recognizes a reality that her daughters do not.  Their inheritancesaresmall, and so after the death of their father – whose estate is entailed on a distant cousin – theycould be turned out to starve in the hedgerows.  Theprospect of want always haunts Mrs. Bennet’s mind and may be the reason for her many attacks of nerves.  A neighboring young lady, Charlotte Lucas, reaches a similar conclusion:

Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.  (Pride & Prejudice, chapter 22)

Mrs. Bennet always has her daughters’ best interest at heart and loves them dearly, although not always wisely.  Her husband maintains that their three youngest daughters are three of the silliest girls in the county; Mrs. Bennet will not see it.  Although the heroine, Lizzie, is her least favorite, Mrs. Bennetdislikes Mr. Darcy, because he once slighted that daughter.

As Pride & Prejudice’s readers know, the youngest Miss Bennet, a sixteen-year-old girl named Lydia, runs off with a dashing soldier, Mr. Wickham. After all is covered up – Mr. Wickham has been bribed to take Lydia as his wife– Mrs. Bennet is ecstatic at finally marrying off a daughter and tells absolutely everyone how happy she is, while Elizabeth is mortified because her mother does not feel the moral weight of the situation.  It turns out thatMrs. Bennet’s attitude is somewhat justified; the circumstances of their life before marriage probably make little difference once theWickhams have tied the knot.  Besides,premarital sex is something that would bother few people today, which makes mewonder if Mrs. Bennet was secretly ahead of her time.  At any rate, Mrs. Bennet’s approach is one that hopes the best for Lydia and clearly shows her affection for one of her daughters.

In a later chapter, Mrs. Bennet outmaneuvers her daughter Elizabeth in order to give Mr. Bingley the opportunity to ask for the hand of Jane Bennet, the oldest sister.  Elizabeth and Jane recoil at their mother’s behavior, but in truth Mr. Bingley needed time and space in which to propose.

Mrs. Bennet may be annoying and vulgar but she loves her daughters and is in many ways very practical.  When she learns that Elizabeth has accepted Mr. Darcy, her reaction is delightful.She is totally willing to make amends: “Oh, my dear Lizzy! prayapologise for my having disliked him so much before. I hope he will overlook it.”And then she moves on to doing what she can to make Darcy feel welcome by feeding him. “But my dearest love, tell me what dish Mr. Darcy is particularly fond of, that I may have it tomorrow.”

I don’t know if I would want Mrs. Bennet as my own mother, but the older I get, the more tolerant I become of her – the more I actually love her.

Mansfield Parkwas the first of Austen’s novels from her later period, and the last one in which the heroine, in this case Fanny Price, has a mother living.  For the first two volumes of the novel, Fanny is separated from her mother, having been taken by her rich aunt and uncle to live with them.  Her two aunts in the area could supply maternal affection, but they do not.  Lady Bertram is beautiful but indolent, spending nearly all the time on her sofa. Although she means Fanny no harm, she cannot make up for the active nastiness of her sister, Mrs. Norris, who lives close by and spends nearly all the time at the great estate.

In the third volume Fannyreturns for several months to her much poorer parents in Plymouth.  There she hopes to bond with her natural mother, but Mrs. Price, although kind, has many children and little attention to spare.  However, now Fanny is older and stronger emotionally, and instead of just looking for a mother figure she becomes one to Susan, one of her sisters.This is a huge step for Fanny, and possibly shows that Jane Austen is already thinking, not just from the point of view of the daughter, but from the point of view of a mother or at least a mother figure.

When Fanny returns at last to Mansfield Park, ata time when the Bertramshave been suffering from setbacks and scandals, Lady Bertram finally accepts, welcomes, and even loves Fanny:

By one of the suffering party within, they were expected with such impatience as she had never known before.  Fanny had scarcely passed the solemn-looking servants, when Lady Bertram came from the drawing-room to meet her; came with no indolent step; and falling on her neck, said, “Dear Fanny! Now I shall be comfortable.” (Mansfield Park, chapter 45.)

It is this act, even more than the marriage proposal that Fanny receives later from her cousin, whichshows that Fanny has been accepted at Mansfield Park as a member of that family.  She finally has her mother.

Emma was Austen’s next book.  When we open the pages, Emma’s mother has long since been dead.  Perhaps Austen, older and having seen more death in her friends and family by the time she wrote Emma, nolonger felt that having Emma’s mother be long dead was too severe a break with reality (though still not throughthe overused trope of death in childbirth).

Still, it is a matter or regret.  In chapter 5, Mr. Knightley says: “Emma is spoiled by being the cleverest of her family.  At ten years old she had the misfortune of being able to answer questions which puzzled her sister at seventeen.  She was always quick and assured; Isabella slow and diffident.  And ever since she was twelve, Emma has been mistress of the house and of you all.  In her mother she lost the only person able to cope with her.  She inherits her mother’s talents, and must have been under subjection to her.”

Emma needs a mother, and although the vacancy is filled in part by her governess, Austen makes it clear how important motherhood is.

Persuasion was Jane Austen’s last novel, and like Northanger Abbey, was not published until after her death.  Again we have a heroine without a mother.  In the first chapter Austen writes:

“Lady Elliot had been an excellent woman, sensible and amiable, whose judgment and conduct, if they might be pardoned the youthful infatuation that made her Lady Elliot, had never required indulgence afterwards.  She had humoured, or softened, or concealed his [her husband’s, Sir Elliot’s] failings, and promoted his real respectability for seventeen years; and though not the very happiest being in the world herself, had found enough in her duties, her friends, and her children, to attach her to life, and to make it no matter of indifference to her when she was called on to quit them.  Three girls, the two eldest sixteen and fourteen, was an awful legacy for a mother to bequeath, an awful charge rather, to confide to the authority and guidance of a conceited, silly, father.”  (Persuasion, chapter 1.)

Because mothers do so much to smooth life for their daughters, it is still artistically necessary for Austen to remove Lady Elliot.  In Persuasion,Austen pays tribute to the depth of a mother’s insight, so different from Northanger Abbey’s distracted, albeit kind Mrs. Morland who never even notices that her daughter is in love.  InPersuasion, the regret is expressed from the perspective of the dying mother, showing that Austen, even though she was never a mother herself, clearly understood that point of view.

Victoria Grossack


Victoria Grossack is the author of The Highbury Murders: A Mystery Set in theVillage of Jane Austen’s Emma, as well as several other novels and the “Crafting Fabulous Fiction” columnist  She wishes every mother out there a Happy Mothers’ Day, whether or not your country is celebrating it today, for mothers should be appreciated every day.


Carmen said...

A very interesting article, thank you for sharing.
I agree with Ms Grossack about Mrs Bennet: the older I get, the more tolerant I become of her, while only some years ago I thought she was only embarassing and annoying (and a little bit silly!). Poor Mrs Bennet, she has her own reasons!

dstoutholcomb said...

great insight!

junewilliams7 said...

Ahh, but you left out Lady Catherine! Her daughter was not a JA heroine, but Lady Cat was definitely a most unique mother.

In Emma, we see Mrs Bates with her spinster daughter, and Frank Churchill's aunt who was his mother-figure.

In S&S, Mrs Ferrars was a most "interested" mother, as was Mrs Jennings.

Would you care to comment on these other mothers, and whether JA's aunts are seen in any of her mother figures?

Victoria Grossack said...

To June: I thought of these other mothers and mother figures but as there is a limit to how much one can ask readers to read as a guest blogger, I decided to concentrate on the mothers of the heroines. Lady Catherine is well developed as a character and is certainly very fond of her daughter - and most biased towards her - but Anne speaks so little that it is hard to be sure of that relationship (unless Anne speaks little because of her mother's overbearing personality - a possibility, but ill health is hinted as the origin of the daughter's shyness).

Mrs. Bates is old and infirm, so what JA shows more of is the kindness of Miss Bates in caring for her mother. We never see Mrs. Churchill, only read the reports that others make about her, so commenting on her is a bit speculative.

Mrs. Ferrars is certainly interested and is one mother who ends up rewarding one son for doing exactly what she punishes the other for having intended to do. Illogical, but we all know people like that.

Mrs. Jennings is a bit inconsistently drawn but makes me think of an early version of Mrs. Bennet.

The one mother figure who I have not brought up is Mrs. Weston from Emma. In many respects she ends up playing mother to nearly all the young people in that book - Emma, Isabella, Frank and then Jane - not to mention her own baby daughter.

I have read several biographies of Austen, but haven't tracked Jane's aunts well enough to comment on them.

Thanks for your interest!

Victoria Grossack said...

June: it occurs to me that you may have been referring to the fictional aunts in Jane Austen's novels. There are some wonderful aunts, such as Mrs. Gardiner; Emma herself is an aunt and perhaps at her most mature in this situation; those that are kindness if a bit odd, such as Miss Bates; those who are absolutely awful, such as Mrs. Norris. But that would be a topic for another essay.

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