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General Discussion > Family Issues in J A's Novels-SpoilersPossible

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message 1: by Joy (new)

Joy (joylnorth) Jane Austen's novels reflect many different family dynamics and familial issues. Here are some preliminary observations to get the conversation started (if anyone is interested!):

Sisters - some are close (Elizabeth and Jane Bennet), some cause problems for the rest of the family (Lydia Bennet), and some are alienated and exploited (Anne Elliot).

Fathers - Mr. Bennet is uninterested, except when it comes to making a clever quip at one of his daughters' expense; Mr. Woodhouse is caught up in his own obsessions with germs and health; and Sir Elliot is superficial and negligent.

Mothers - The mothers seem to be either stupidly silly or if they are hinted at being a good mother, they are long dead.

message 2: by VMom (new)

VMom (votermom) | 68 comments Interesting topic, specially the absent mothers. I will think about it during the weekend. :)

message 3: by Dhara (new)

Dhara Mehta (tulsitree) | 23 comments For the most part, I suppose Mrs. Dashwood is an exception..

message 4: by SarahC, Austen Votary & Mods' Asst. (new)

SarahC (sarahcarmack) | 1473 comments Mod
Great thread Joy and great example Dhara--

Mrs. Dashwood in S&S was dealt a tough situation -- she was thrown out into the hedge rows as Mrs. Bennet had always feared in P&P. In Sense & Sensi, it seems like everybody was having tough time in their own way. She had two daughters who were coming into their own just at the time when they were thrown into tough times money-wise. In spite of their uncertain future, she seemed most importantly to allow her daughters to be themselves -- she wasn't obsessively trying to marry them off.

Mrs. D wasn't present when much of the action was taking place (in London for example), but that maybe signified that Austen was emphasizing this as girls coming into adulthood, making their own choices. It didn't seem as much of a struggle between the Dashwood daughters and their mom as is in other Austen stories.

message 5: by Joy (new)

Joy (joylnorth) Mrs. Dashwood is a unique mother. Like you point out Sarah, she isn't obsessively trying to marry off her daughters to the highest bidder. She seems to truly care about her daughters and genuinely wants the best for each of them. However, she does appear to indulge Marianne and her sensibilities a little too much, perhaps because she is a little like Marianne herself. She allows Marianne to freely engage in a relationship with Willoughby, a little too freely as Elinor points out. Perhaps if she would have encouraged, or insisted, that Marianne was a bit more restrained, Marianne would not have been so hurt. It always baffles me as to why Mrs. Dashwood doesn't ask Marianne what the status of her and Willoughby's relationship is. That being said, Mrs. Dashwood is a much better example of a mother than most in Austen's novels.

message 6: by Shayne (new)

Shayne | 49 comments Yes, Austen does often make her mothers absent or incompetent. I suspect the story-external reason is that a competent mother would be so good at providing wisdom and observing difficulties that life would go too smoothly for our heroines!

Mrs Dashwood - loving and intelligent, but as Joy says a little too indulgent with Marianne because she's such a romantic herself. She's somewhat distracted by grief in the earlier part of the book, and is absent during the London section.

Mrs Bennet - need I say more? :-)

Mrs Morland - competent and affectionate, and conveniently absent for most of the book.

Mrs Woodhouse - clever and competent, and long-dead.

Lady Bertram - vaguely kind, but indolent. Mrs Price - worn-down to the point of apathy. Mrs Norris - bitter and twisted, and taking her frustrations out on the most vulnerable target.

Lady Elliot - admirable, and dead.

message 7: by SarahC, Austen Votary & Mods' Asst. (new)

SarahC (sarahcarmack) | 1473 comments Mod
Maybe Austen presented Mrs. Dashwood as the kind of parent she was so we would see two young women given the freedom to make their own mistakes. Or that their circumstance was simply an example of the trials of life. Their family had broken apart with the death of their father and the lack of loyalty and protection by their brother. Maybe they were all making the best choices they could and Mrs. Dashwood wasn't practiced at the the sole head of household. (This all sounds pretty current-day to me -- as women today are still defining roles as single parents.)

Then I can't help thinking about the contrast of Lady Russell, the surrogate parent of Anne Elliot in Persuasion. Through her too-heavy involvement in Anne's decisions, Anne experienced great pain. Another complicated parent-child-type relationship.

message 8: by Shayne (new)

Shayne | 49 comments In some ways Elinor has to act as head of the household, and as a second mother to Marianne, but without having the authority to (for instance) insist that Marianne tell her just what her understanding with Willoughby was.

message 9: by [deleted user] (new)

I think at least with Mrs. Bennett and Mrs. Dashwood, the mothers almost want to act like sisters, or at least relive their youth through their daughters. Mrs. Dashwood is very excited and encouraging regarding Willoughby, and Mrs. Bennett is just as excited to see the officers as Lydia is. Neither is a great mother, although Mrs. Dashwood is much more of a positive influence than Mrs. Bennett.

I wonder what Austen was up to? Women already had a lot of things against them: couldn't make a living, hold or inherit property, had to "promote" themselves on the marriage market. So, the heroines had the extra burden of having to be the "adult" female in the house as well.

message 10: by SarahC, Austen Votary & Mods' Asst. (last edited Mar 06, 2010 05:32AM) (new)

SarahC (sarahcarmack) | 1473 comments Mod
Jeannette wrote: "I think at least with Mrs. Bennett and Mrs. Dashwood, the mothers almost want to act like sisters, or at least relive their youth through their daughters. Mrs. Dashwood is very excited and encoura..."

Maybe whether it was from a disconnect with her own mother or simply seeing young women in that role due to parents not living long in those days, Austen wanted to show her characters handling this responsibility? In other words, show it as one of their burdens and their strengths.

I thought about Mrs. Dashwood acting sisterly too. Sometimes what happens in the single-parent household of today also. And Mrs. Bennett just wanted to live a little, didn't she? "A little sea-bathing could set me up forever!" ha ha

message 11: by Christy (new)

Christy | 14 comments I find it interesting that some of Austen's "good" mothers are dead--Lady Elliot and Mrs. Woodhouse, to be exact. I think she did this so that the plots can continue. If Anne or Emma had had their good mothers with them, they would not have made so many mistakes. There is a very interesting article on mothers in Jane Austen on the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) website. I would include the link but my computer's acting up. If you want to see it just google JASNA and click "search" on the JASNA home page. The article is by June Sturrock.

Interesting discussion!

message 12: by Joy (new)

Joy (joylnorth) Great discussion so far, thanks for all of the thoughtful contributions!

What about other family members beside mothers? If the mothers are often incompetent, silly, or absent, what emphasis does that place on the fathers?

Austen's fathers are a rather odd bunch. I would think that out of such a patriarchal society, her fathers would be more overbearing and demanding. Instead, many seem to be more concerned with superficial matters. And when they do assert their authority, it is to ensure that they are not inconvenienced instead of to ensure the welfare of their family.

message 13: by Shayne (last edited Mar 08, 2010 04:07PM) (new)

Shayne | 49 comments Fathers: an "odd bunch" indeed :-) They don't fall so easily into neat categories.

Mr Dashwood - a decent man and a kind father, as far as we can tell. And dead when the novel's barely begun.

Mr Bennet - has largely retreated from his fatherly responsibilities. A loving father to Jane and Lizzie; a careless one to the other girls. With a more suitable wife, I think he'd have been a fine father.

Mr Morland - absent for much of the book, but a kind father and a sensible man.

Mr Price - it's fairly obvious that Fanny's scared of him. All right, Fanny's scared of many things :-) But I do find Mr Price has an unpleasant vibe. I wouldn't be surprised if Mrs Price occasionally has to hide bruises.

Sir Thomas, as surrogate father to Fanny and real father to her cousins - basically a good man, though rather cold and distant (although that's seeing him through modern eyes, of course). His largest error is one that he eventually sees for himself: he left too much in the hands of Mrs Norris, thereby condemning Fanny to years of sly cruelties and Maria to far too much indulgence. I see him becoming warmer in later years, and being quite a fond grandfather.

Mr Woodhouse - largely a child himself, and so unable to be a real father to Emma.

Sir Walter - self-absorbed, selfish and vain. He doesn't even fulfil the basic duty of ensuring his daughters have suitable marriage portions.

Hmm, this does have something in common with Austen's mothers, in that the best of the fathers are absent, thus depriving their daughters of a measure of protection and guidance.

message 14: by [deleted user] (new)

I guess Austen wanted her main characters to be the "sensible" adults in her books?

message 15: by VMom (new)

VMom (votermom) | 68 comments Jeannette wrote: "I think at least with Mrs. Bennett and Mrs. Dashwood, the mothers almost want to act like sisters, or at least relive their youth through their daughters. Mrs. Dashwood is very excited and encoura..."

I think maybe Austen could see in life that silly girls grow up to be silly women.
I was just thinking, btw, that Mrs. Thorpe was not much different from Mrs. Dashwood or Mrs. Bennett. And in Isabella & Lydia's cases, silly mother + silly daughter = disaster.

So maybe Austen is saying you can't pick your parents so it's up to you to steer your life?

message 16: by Usako (new)

Usako (bbmeltdown) | 226 comments That's how I understood the family dynamics to be -- it's up to you to make the most of your family and circumstances.

How do these dynamics compare to Austen's family?

message 17: by [deleted user] (new)

So maybe Austen is saying you can't pick your parents so it's up to you to steer your life?

That's a pretty good summation, Mayakda!

message 18: by J. (new)

J. Rubino (jrubino) | 193 comments I think one recurrent theme in Austen is that of the negligent father - particularly the father who neglects to provide for his daughters. Mr. Bennet has five daughters, but puts off saving for them until he gives up hope of having a son, and even then has evidently put aside very little for them. Mr. Dashwood, too, ought not to have waited until his uncle dies to begin providing for his three girls - if he lives only a year beyond the late Mr. Dashwood, his daughters were 18, 16, 11 at the time of their uncle's death - well beyond the point where he ought to have been setting something aside for them. Sir Walter is a spendthrift who can't even afford to keep his single daughters in their family home.
Then there are the fathers who are "emotionally selfish". Mr. Woodhouse's phobias about diet and change have limited Emma's society, and Sir Thomas Bertram has discouraged any candor or informality with his daughters that might have encouraged them to confide in him more easily, and prevented Maria's disastrous marriage and Julia's subsequent elopement.


message 19: by Joy (new)

Joy (joylnorth) Great observations Shayne and J.

When I first read Austen's novels I seemed to overlook the negligence of some of the fathers like Mr. Bennet and Mr. Woodhouse (Sir Elliot is pretty obvious) because they were so entertaining. I forgave Mr. Bennet distancing himself and his lack of involvement in the well being of family because he was so funny! But after reading the novels a few time, the lack of fatherly care is quite obvious (and frustrating!).

message 20: by [deleted user] (new)

I posted this under "Henry Tilney -- Part 2" and think it belongs under this topic, too.

******Spoilers for Austen "Newbies"************

Sarah posted (message 2) about Henry being a middle-child and having to deal with family issues (he had a few). This got me to thinking about Austen's portrayal of second sons and middle children. You would suppose that second sons had to seek a "good" match in terms of money (as Col. Fitzwilliam did in P&P). Think about how many of Austen's men should have married "up" (and could have), but didn't:

Edmund Bertram chose Fanny (who had little or nothing), Henry Tilney chose Catherine (who was not wealthy), Frederick Wentworth chose Anne (the family had title, but were cash poor) and Edward Ferrars, who wanted to be the second son (and got his wish), chose Elinor. Just an interesting idea I have been chewing on.

message 21: by Usako (new)

Usako (bbmeltdown) | 226 comments I wasn't surprised by the choices. Second sons typically have less responsibility and it doesn't matter whom they marry (well as much). So they could marry for love. Unless it was an opportunist second son...then he's seek a way to marry up! :)

First borns didn't have such freedom. I think that's why we fall more in love with Elizabeth & Darcy.

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