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Parents in the World of Jane Austen - Part 1

Phoebe Lucy Watson By Phoebe Lucy Watson Published on July 21, 2017

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Out of all her novels, at least those published as finished works (excluding Lady Susan, the Watsons etc.), only Pride and Prejudice features the main character’s parents alive and active throughout the novel. Mr Dashwood dies at the start of Sense and Sensibility and Emma’s mother is dead, as is Lady Elliot in Persuasion. Mr and Mrs Price, Fanny’s parents in Mansfield Park, send Fanny to live with her aunt and uncle while Mr and Mrs Morland, arguably the best example of parents that we are given in these stories, scarcely feature simply by dint of Catherine being away from home for most of Northanger Abbey. Very few of the gentlemen in Austen’s works feature parents, or parental figures, and those that do generally suffer from them.

Pride and Prejudice

Mr and Mrs Bennet are the first example that comes to my mind when I think of parents in the world of Jane Austen. These two strikingly dis-similar characters serve to frequently embarrass and exasperate, as well as bring moments of joy to, their five daughters, who are as different in character as they are themselves. Mr Bennet, fond of peace and quiet, well-educated and observing with amusement the folly of others, is none the less too indolent to bestir himself on the part of his family, at least on a regular basis. While he willingly calls on Mr Bingley at the beginning of the book, no matter how much he teases his family otherwise, he is too fond of his books and luxuries to make the effort of saving money for his daughters. As matters stand, they have nothing to survive on after his death but a meagre inheritance from their mother. From this he defends himself, saying “by the time it became clear that we would not [have a son], it seems too late to begin [saving].” This may sound reasonable, until one considers that Lydia is nearly 16. Assuming that they realised they would not have a son perhaps two years after this, there is still some 14 years in which he could have saved money. If he could have set aside 100 pounds a year, 5% of his income, he could have added say an extra 250 pounds to each. Not significant as a dowry, but it would have an impact if they were left to fend for themselves.

While Mr Bennet behaves in general with more social discretion than his wife, at least as far as we are informed, he makes no move to check her folly and takes his turn at embarrassing his children. Take the scene where he halts Mary’s performance with 

“That will do, child. You have delighted us long enough. Let the other young ladies have a chance to exhibit” 

Though this intervention was no doubt required, one would hope that a man with his intelligence and observation would have more tact. One feels that almost every action of his is motivated by self-interest, whether to avoid his wife’s nagging or maintain his own social standing. “We shall have to peace until she goes [to Brighton]” is his response to Elizabeth’s entreaties not to let Lydiago to Brighton. Even when he goes to London in search of her, he returns home at what seems like the earliest opportunity. Another example of Mr Bennet’s selfishness is his refusal to take his children to “town for the benefit of the masters” Not only would this have improved their social standing, a more thorough education would have set them up with the ability to become a governess, should all else fail. Despite his love of books, he doesn’t seem to have exerted himself to ensure his daughters’ received a good education.

Despite Mr Bennet’s faults, it is obvious that Jane Auten likes him as a character, and we in turn grow fond of him. It is to his credit, one feels, that Elizabeth and Jane, particularly Elizabeth, are the characters we love so well. His sense of humour makes us smile, his love for his two edest daughters warms our hearts and one can sympathise with his desire for peace when faced with his wife’s constant, meaningless chatter. We see this strongly when he upholds Elizbeth’s refusal to marry Mr Collins. As she is not yet of age, it is well within his power, not precisely to compel, but to oblige her to marry him. To do so would bring him the peace he so much desires, avoiding his wife’s nagging and also negating her frantic search to find her daughters husbands before he dies. One could argue that it is his wife and younger daughters, for whom he has little affection, that could suffer most from this decision, while he himself can selfishly choose to keep his favourite daughter with him. However, even when faced with the most advantageous marriage for her, which will bring him access to a great store of books, he hesitates over concern for her welfare. 

“You will have more fine carriages than Jane, to be sure, but will that make you happy?” 

In an age where marriages of convenience were common, Mr Bennet ignores all worldly considerations and prioritises his daughter’s happiness. For this, and for his humour, we love him in spite of his selfishness. Is he a good parent? Well, he’s certainly not perfect, but he could do worse. (consider his parenting of his other children?)

In contrast to Mr Bennet is Mrs Bennet. Mr Bennet loves first Elizabeth, then Jane. Mrs Bennet loves first Lydia, then Jane, and Elizabeth least. One must wonder what Mary would have been like, had either of her parents devoted more attention to her. Mr Bennet could have nurtured her desire for learning and taught her how to hold an intelligent, interesting conversation about it, while Mrs Bennet could perhaps have improved her taste in music and helped her to fair better at balls.

Mrs Bennet’s all consuming desire, throughout the book, is to see her daughters married. This, in itself, is not the callous ambition it may appear to be to our modern eye. Aside from the demeaning drudgery of a governess’ role, there is no other option for women of small fortune at the time, except possibly to go in to millinery and so take a large step down the social ladder. If Mrs Bennet can but marry one or two of her daughter’s off, she not only ensures their comfort, but her own as well. If she can marry but one of them off well, she can reasonably assume that when her husband dies, and she and other daughters are deprived of home and income, they may seek shelter with the married daughter(s). A well-married daughter may have a dower house or cottage on the estate where they can live in reasonable comfort. However, if none of them marry, one might perhaps go to Mrs Phillips, and another to the Gardiners, but at least three would be left to eek out an existence even more uncomfortable than that of the Dashwood’s in Sense and Sensibility. Once that happens, they will have very little chance of any marriage, let alone a respectable one, as they will no longer be able to dress and entertain in their current fashion. Even if they don’t marry well, each daughter married is one less to provide for out of her own meagre inheritance. When one considers that Jane, her eldest and prettiest daughter, is twenty-three with nary a proposal to her name, one begins to understand her urgency, In a world where men were scare and insistent on youthful brides, the better to bear children, Jane is nearly on the shelf. Consider also that Mr Bennet is probably some seven to ten years older than her and death a far nearer thing than our modern lifestyle would accept. From this, it must be concluded that Mrs Bennet’s desire to marry off her daughters comes from a real concern for their welfare, even if some self-interest is mixed in as well.

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No matter how justifiable Mrs Bennet’s chief aim in life is, she constantly undermines her chances of achieving said goal. Her silliness and lack of understanding cause her to constantly embarrass her two eldest daughters. Mr Darcy is not unduly harsh when he describes 

“the lack of proprietary shown by your mother, your three younger sisters and even on occasion your father.”

 When good manners are synonymous with good breeding and family connections of extreme importance when choosing a bride, Mrs Bennet’s faux pas are far worse than a parent embarrassing their child in today’s world. Not only that, but she encourages Lydia and Kitty to behave in such a way that must give a sensible man a disgust for the family. With the threat of such an ill-bred bunch descending, as they did at Netherfield when Jane was ill, for months at a time, Mr Darcy’s extrication of Mr Bingley from the scene is not altogether the dastardly act it appears. For all that she claims to want her daughters married, Mrs Bennet’s actions seem to do nothing but damage their chances. To start with, all five of her daughters are out in society. Lady Catharine’s shock of is actually reasonable. “What, five out at once. The youngest out before the elder are married?”  Lydia is only fifteen, and Kitty seventeen. Both should be in the schoolroom, not just to give their elder sisters a chance but also so that they might learn to conduct themselves and not embarrass the family. Not only that, but in this world, looking like you were not out to catch a husband was vital, yet Mrs Bennet openly discussed the topic. Even her encouragement of Mr Collins is foolish. She should know that Elizabeth will never accept him, yet she pushes him to her rather than Mary, who would be a far more suitable companion for him. All of the above materially damage her daughters chance at marriage, and that Mr Bennet does nothing to restrain her must be held against him as well. She is but a foolish woman, he has the understanding , should he choose to apply it.

The damage that the Bennets parents do to their family can be seen most clearly in their treatment of Lydia. Mrs Bennet encourages her to behave in the most improper way, from walking to Merriton to meet the officers to her wild behaviour at parties, which paves the way for her downfall, and Mr Bennet just ignores her. In today’s world, the true significance of Lydia’s wild behaviour is hard to grasp. Such actions damage her sisters as well as herself, for reputation is everything. Elizabeth’s statement makes this evident.

“she will be branded the most extreme flirt who ever made herself and her family ridiculous”

 Yet Mr Bennet commits the supreme folly of allowing a flighty fifteen year old girl to head off to a camp of soldiers without parent, relative, or even a sensible female to rely on – Mrs Campell is not much older than Lydia. Worse still, Mrs Bennet sends her off with the words “Enjoy yourself.” No caution as to good behaviour, not even a warning to be careful. Lydia’s elopement with Wickham is nothing short of disastrous, for herself and her family. Her position is horrendously unstable until her uncle discovers them, though she is too heedless and naive to see this. It is evident from the later narrative that Wickham has very little desire or intention of actually marrying her. Far more likely that he will disappear off to the continent and leave her destitute, a ruined woman. She has no money and the chances of her ending up on the street as a prostitute are high. Even if she does make her way back to her family, they will have to banish her an isolated cottage, as the Bertram’s do to Maria in Mansfield Park, to avoid complete social ostracism. Even as it stands, had the escapade not been covered up, her entire family would have been ruin. Mrs Bennet is not exaggerating in her nervous fluttering. No one would want to be connected to a family with a daughter who has disgraced herself like that. Such scandalous behaviour would stigmatise her sisters, for fear that they may have inherited the same weakness of character. Their chance of marriage would be obliterated, for, as Lizzie says, “who will take us now, with a fallen sister.”  Shunned by society while Mr Bennet lived, they would have to join Lydia in her isolated cottage after his death. What a fate, for five sisters, and the mother if she lived, to eek out an existence. How dreadful for the two eldest in particular, on whom the brunt of the household responsibilities would fall and who would constantly have to reign in the two youngest. This is the fate that the both the Bennet parents risk for their children by their behaviour and teachings.

In short, the parents of the Bennet sisters have very little to recommend them. One is likeable but odiously selfish, the other has her daughters’ welfare at heart but so little sense that she actively damages their prospects. But what about the other parents in the book. 

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Mr Darcy being introduced to the Gardiners

Mr and Mrs Gardiner are probably the best example of parents, if their behaviour to their nieces is anything to go by. They shelter Jane after her heartbreak and take Elizabeth on holiday. Mr Gardiner scours all of London for his niece and Mrs Gardiner counsels Elizabeth, and even Lydia, as their own mother does not. Sir William and Lady Lucas are rather average parents, happy to see their eldest daughter married and comfortable, but having made no significant effort, that we know of, to further her prospects. Neither Mr Darcy nor Mr Bingley have living parents, that we know of, but Mr Darcy is obviously a fond, loving guardian to his sister Georgiana. His letters to her and behaviour with regards her near elopement are proof of this. In contrast, one can only pity Lady Catherine De Bourge’s daughter Anne, growing up under such a mother. The closest to care that Lady Catherine shows for her daughter is to push an arranged marriage that Mr Darcy does not want and parrot the proficiencies her daughter would have had, if she had the health to have learnt them. If her behaviour to others is anything to go by, it seems likely that Lady Catherine frequently scolds her daughter for her illness in private, for she never shows the least consideration to her health in public.

Sense and Sensibility 

While the action of both Mr and Mrs Bennet do both materially lessen their daughters’ hopes of succeeding in the world (as mentioned previously, marriage was the only comfortable option for a girl with no fortune to support herself ), Mr and Mrs Dashwood’s actions are almost in direct contrast. Mr Dashwood’s fortune is entailed, similar to Mr Bennet, so he cannot provide for his daughters’ as he wishes. However, by caring for a rich uncle, he has not unreasonable hopes to inherit in such a way that would enable him to provide for them. When the perverse terms of the will give his daughters’ nothing but a thousand a piece – a poor man’s fortune, in those days – he none the less makes plans to do, in his fifties or sixties, what Mr Bennet should have done in his thirties, that is, to save enough to provide for them. When this too fails, he extracts a promise from his son to take care of them. That Mr Dashwood considers giving each another thousand pounds a piece, before the meanness of his wife Fanny interferes, shows the justice in this request. Short of saying that he should have anticipated his uncle’s decision in favour of primogeniture (favouring the eldest son) and begun saving earlier, we can rightly say that Mr Dashwood senior did all he could for his dependants. Indeed, if such savings had interfered with the education of his daughters and maintaining their position in society, which could potentially have resulted in both Elinor and Marianne marrying already, it would hardly be just to expect this. The most we can hold against him lies in having raised such a son, that does not have the moral fibre to behave with decency, and having guided him so poorly that he married a woman who only exacerbates the flaw in his character.

Mrs Dashwood can be similarly contrasted to Mrs Bennet. While she is by no means a perfect character or mother, her actions strongly contrast with that of Mrs Bennet. Both act from the same desire to see their daughters established in the world, but Mrs Dashwood’s approach is very different. That which Mrs Bennet fears has come true for Mrs Dashwood, yet she shows all of the good sense and breeding that Mrs Bennet lacks. She remains at Norland Park in the hopes of seeing Elinor and Mr Ferrars engaged, despite the extreme discomfort of having Mrs Fanny Dashwood usurp her as the lady of the house in such a rude and callous manner. 

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"Why, Jane - you never dropped a word of this, you sly thing"

Unlike Mrs Bennet, not one word of the scheme does she hint at to Elinor, and while she may occasionally discuss the matter with Marianne, she never puts her daughters to blush. Moreover, when nothing seems to come of the matter, she respects her daughter’s privacy but takes great care to invite her love to visit. How unlike Mrs Bennet, who reproaches Elizabeth endlessly for shunning Mr Collins. It should also be noticed, in Mrs Dashwood’s favour, that her daughters have had a very thorough education, contrary to the Bennet sisters, and Mrs Dashwood continues this with Margret throughout the novel. Not only does this improve their social stance and chance in matrimony, as evident in Marianne’s admirers, it offers the alternative of a governess, should all else fail.

While in contrast to Mrs Bennet, Mrs Dashwood is a pillar of sense, she none the less has her follies. One can only despair at the lack of financial awareness she shows when considering the move away from Norland Park, and the additional burden this puts on her eldest daughter, only nineteen. However, in this we must do her the justice of observing that not only were financial matters the realm of men – she could reasonably have expected her step-son to manage the entire matter – but she is also at least willing to trust Elinor’s judgement of the matter. In this, we can simply say that she is doing her best as a single parent, struggling after the loss of her husband. None the les, her failings as a parent can be seen even more strongly in her handling of Marianne’s flirtation with Willoughby. Having the same preference for sensibility as Marianne, and a strong desire to see her daughter married, and so re-established in the position she was raised to, Ms Dashwood does nothing to curb Marianne’s improper behaviour with Willoughby. Her trust in Marianne and partiality for Willoughby keep her silent and lead her to fail, not as a person, but as a parent. Marianne, being younger than Elinor, of a more romantic disposition and with a careless disregard for convention, behaves as if she is engaged when she is not. Her mother, like all the neighbours, assumes that there is a clear understanding between the two, but does not question Marianne regarding it. Though this shows a beautiful gentleness of disposition, it neglects her duties as a parent. Had she discussed the matter with Marianne privately, she might have served her better.

With regards Mrs Dashwood’s treatment of Marianne and Willoughby, we must at least condider the outcome had she trusted Marianne less and guided her more. Given Marianne’s headstrong, decisive nature and romantic temperament, it is not likely that her mother would have been able to put any restraint on Marianne’s feelings, even if she had moderated her behaviour. In fact, Marianne may just have been left with a direct breach of promise, rather than being able to draw comfort from avoiding this

“At least I have not had that pain”

Also, it can be argued that Marianne has every right to consider herself engaged to Willoughby. We see from Persuasion that if a truly honourable man behaves in such a way that his engagement may be taken as a sure thing, he should then consider himself to be so, unless the girl shows otherwise. Such is Captain Wentworth’s position in Persuasion with regards Louisa Musgrove, that he considers himself bound to her without ever having declared himself, and is freed only by her engagement to another man. 

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Since Willoughby’s attentions towards Marianne are even more marked and indiscreet, such as taking a lock of her hair and showing her around his aunt’s home unaccompanied, Marianne has reason to feel betrayed. Certainly her acquaintances are outraged on her behalf and not unjustifiably so.

While interference between Marianne and Willoughby may have been futile while he was still in the locality, it is harder to see why Mrs Dashwood did not press for clarity once he left. Had she known that no fixed engagement was between them, would she have left Marianne go to London without her? And if she did, would she not at least have prepared Marianne in such as way as to avoid such a display as she gives? For it is in Marianne’s behaviour after Willoughby leaves that she most needs firm guidance. As with Lydia, it is difficult to understand the effect of Marianne’s actions in London from today’s perspective. All her actions, from dramatically fainting at the sight of him to writing letters to him, threaten to damage her reputation and chance of marriage. What man would want to marry a girl pining after another man? Not only that, but she puts her health at serious risk. Would she have done so if she had been brought to realise the risk of him having abandoned her before she left home? Despite this, I cannot help but feel that if Marianne had told Mrs Dashwood that she and Willoughby were not engaged, it would have been Elinor, and not her mother, who reigned in her behaviour and guided her to behave in a more circumspect manner. However, this may have reduced the gossip, but her heart would have been broken none the less. For a single mother struggling in a very difficult situation, with no husband to confront the errant swain, we cannot hold Mrs Dashwood’s overindulgence of one daughter and overreliance on the other too much against her.

While Mr and Mrs Dashwood senior represent parents trying to do their best for their children, Sense and Sensibility also showcases some truly awful parents. John and Fanny Dashwood, though the claim to act in the child’s best interest, are too self-centred to truly do well by their child. If he grows up to be anything but weak in resolution, like his father, and poor in social niceties, like his mother, it will be in spite of, not because of his parents. Sir John and Lady Middleton are another example of poor parents. While Sir John is amiable, he lacks breeding, a fatal flaw in anyone trying to make their way in the world. Worse still is Lady Middleton’s cold politeness and utter spoiling of her offspring. Since Sir John is unlikely to be anything but indulgent, it will be the work of good schools and governesses / tutors to turn those children into pleasant members of society. However, throughout the book, nice parents do not necessarily mean nice children and vice versa. 

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Mrs Ferrars is a prime example. An utterly unreasonable, self-righteous woman, she holds the threat of disownment over her eldest son’s head. That Edward Farrars is a character we can respect, his youthful engagement not withstanding, is a credit to him rather than his mother. It is typical of her tyranny that as soon as she settles a portion of her fortune on her younger son John and shuns her elder, he goes and marries the very woman Edward was disowned for the sake of. That Lucy Steel is able to wrangle her way into Mrs Ferrar’s good graces by the end of the novel, while Elinor remains forever distained, proves how little Mrs Ferrars values all that Jane Austen holds dear, that is, strength and beauty of character, good breeding and gentleness of manner. For Elinor, though impoverished, is well raised and well connected, and does her husband credit, while Lucy Steel is ambitious, opportunistic and scheming, with mot education or connections to recommend her. 

To summarise, Jane Austen shows a wide range of parents in her two most renown works. For any that act with the welfare of their children at heart, there are others whose selfishness or silliness does active damage in the lives of their children. We see characters that we like damage their children's future prospects, while even dislikeable characters may have worthy motives for their actions. 

Having stumbled out of Narnia back into the real world, I am now a civil engineer living in 221B Baker Street, Dublin, with my dear friend Sherlock. I love all things Austen and have a soft spot ... Show More

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