August 7th, 2012
Tatiana Emilia Federoff
On The Absence Of Fathers In Austen’s Novels.
Few authors have gained more acclaim than the great Jane Austen. Her books are quoted, fan-fictioned, adapted, and enjoyed by millions of people the world over. The author grew up in eighteenth century England, a time of balls and country lords, where to cause scandal was a fate worse than death, and to marry into wealth, a woman’s only purpose. Her parents were members of the English gentry, and her family of six brothers and one sister was close-knit and affectionate. It is unintelligible, then, that her novels are ripe with detached parents and disliked siblings. From the deceased father in Sense And Sensibility, to the apathetic Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, it seems that the only men that the heroines of the story can count on are their lovers. This is naturally contrary to the principle that the family should be involved with a romance, so as to encourage affection between the in-laws and to provide perspective for the sweethearts. Though arguably the most famous woman novelist of modern times, this fault is detrimental to her status as one who understands human nature, and to the accuracy of her novels.
Of those novels, perhaps none are so famous as Pride And Prejudice, a satirical masterpiece of wit and propriety in the English countryside. The novel tells of the tumultuous romance of the proud Elizabeth Bennet and the equally proud Fitzwilliam Darcy. Full of social commentary, the book also presents a cautionary tale of the dangers of infatuation, which leads only to unhappiness. Elizabeth’s father is a victim of such unhappiness, and prefers to hide in his study rather than deal with the vapid and shallow Mrs. Bennet. This causes him to be careless and neglectful in his relationship with his daughters, in turn causing scandals and impropriety among his family. Elizabeth realises this in chapter 42 of the book, where Austen writes: “But she had never felt so strongly as now the disadvantages which must attend the children of so unsuitable marriage, nor ever been so fully aware of the evils arising from so ill-judged a direction of talents; talents, which, rightly used, might at least have preserved the respectability of his daughters, even if incapable of enlarging the mind of his wife.” (42.3) Though Austen presents an peerless parable of the foolishness of a poor marriage, the end of the story seems somewhat contrived. In the real world, a woman needs the objective guidance of her father in order to find the right match. Mr. Bennet’s apathy, though understandable, is deleterious to the sweetness of this famous tale.
But the Bennets have an advantage over the Dashwood family in Sense and Sensibility. Mr Dashwood deeply loved his family, but sadly succumbs to illness in the beginning of the novel. Mrs Dashwood and her three daughters, Eleanor, Marianne, and Margaret are cast out of their house by the new landlord, and go to live with a cousin. The novel is primarily about the battle of logic (Sense) and emotion (Sensibility.) Marianne becomes infatuated with a handsome rogue, who unfortunately abandons her in favor of an heiress, breaking the romantic girls heart. One is sure that if Marianne had thought with her head rather than her heart, she would not have had to suffer through the heartbreak that she caused. Thankfully, she matures and finds real love with the gentle Colonel Brandon. Family, in this novel, is intentionally portrayed in two incorrect ways- first as a convenient and emotionless way to further one’s own social standing, and second as an emotional mess with no logic or objectivity. Austen here shows the foolishness of both these mindsets, and presents by the end of the novel a third, better way- where spouses love each other deeply, yet are not consumed by passion or infatuation. One cannot help but feel, however, that if Mr. Dashwood had lived, the novel would have gone much differently, perhaps with less suffering and tears.
Anne Elliot is no stranger to suffering in Austen’s last novel, Persuasion. The term “autumnal” is often used to describe this story of the aging Anne and the man she spurned ten years before. As a mature woman of twenty-eight, she has an acceptance about her that is refreshing after the foolery and unwiseness of Austen’s previous heroines. Her family is out the higher aristocracy, and are snobbish and rude. The quiet Anne prefers the company of Mrs. Croft, who happens to be the sister of Captain Wentworth, the man who Anne was forced by her status- conscious family to abandon. Anne moves through various levels of society as a humble and kind spinster, overlooked by almost everyone she meets. Eventually she gets a second chance with Capt. Wentworth, but not until she has pulled herself from the influence of her vile relatives. Her father is perhaps the most unlikeable of all the parents in Austens novels. He is described with these words, “Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation. He had been remarkably handsome in his youth; and, at fifty-four, was still a very fine man. Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did, nor could the valet of any new made lord be more delighted with the place he held in society. He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliott, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion.” (Chapter 1) With a father like this, it is a miracle that Anne has become such a sweet and well-adjusted lady! The reader finds it disconcerting, that Anne is the only likeable one in her family. Indeed, it feels fabricated, false, and foolish.
So, is Austen’s portrayal of parents helpful or detrimental to the reader? Perhaps, to a reader who has already sought to educate themselves with romance well done, the problems will be inconsequential compared to the satirical glory of the lessons the novels portray. But for anyone to think that a good romance needs no help from parents is naive and dangerous, and the stories of Jane Austen present this idea as normal and good. Though certainly the novels are masterpieces as they relate to society and maturity, the romance angle rings a little false. A woman should be able to count on friends and family members, not just the man she finds herself in love with. And anytime this is not the case, whether in 1812 or 2012, it is a tragedy.