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Austen and Mothers: Matriarchs, Matchmaking and Mrs Bennet

24th Jul 2013

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that Mrs Bennet’s mothering skills leave much to be desired. Pride and Prejudice featured Mrs Bennet obsessed with seeing her daughters marry wealthy (or any) suitors.

She congratulates herself rather too early when Mr Bingley and Mr Collins show interest in marrying her two eldest daughters, and when her plans are frustrated, she descends into bouts of hysteria, blaming everyone around her for her ‘poor nerves’.

She even accepts Wickham as a son-in-law after he elopes with her youngest daughter. Clearly, readers are not meant to sympathise with, nor aspire to be, Mrs Bennet.

When considering all Austenian mother figures (the angelic, the heinous, the dearly departed), Mrs Bennet is hardly the worst...Yet Mrs Bennet is by no means unique in Jane Austen’s creation; when considering all Austenian mother figures (the angelic, the heinous, the dearly departed), Mrs Bennet is hardly the worst.

The truly terrible and downright disgraceful. The most immediately dislikeable mothers are the matriarchs, determined to marry off their children to rich partners.

Pride and Prejudice’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh means to forge a union between her sickly daughter Anne, and Mr Darcy, her nephew, though he much prefers Lizzie Bennet.

Though she doesn’t openly disparage Elizabeth and her family (until the end of the book, at least), Lady Catherine’s veiled comments about the ‘unusual’ Bennet family’s lack of refinement and social standing (“Five daughters brought up at home without a governess! […] I never heard of such a thing”) amply convey her snobbishness and self-interest.

Similarly, Sense and Sensibility’s Mrs Ferrars wishes to see her sons marry well. When Edward and Lucy Steele’s long engagement is revealed, Edward is immediately disinherited in favour of his younger brother (whom Lucy ironically marries as soon as he inherits the estate).

A perhaps more well-meaning contender is Persuasion’s Lady Russell, who persuades her daughter figure Anne Elliot not to marry Captain Wentworth, as he is apparently without prospects. Her motherly influence is similarly errant regarding Mr William Elliot, whose finery and wealth recommend him as a good match for Anne, despite his (latterly revealed) selfish character.

The good mothers; widows, spinsters, and the dead. Though it would often appear otherwise, there are good mother figures to be found in Austen. Surprisingly, many of them are biologically childless.

Anne Elliot is often left looking after her sister’s children, and exhibits maternal tenderness when Louisa Musgrove injures herself at Lyme. In turn, Mrs Smith, Anne’s old school friend, fills the motherly advisor role, counter-balancing Lady Russell’s failures. Where Lady Russell is fooled by Mr Elliot, Mrs Smith sees his darker character.

Mrs Gardiner, Lizzie Bennet’s aunt, is more overtly maternal than Mrs Bennet. With perceptiveness which many Austenian mothers lack, Mrs Gardiner invites Jane, grieving for Mr Bingley’s departure, to visit her in London. She is also among the first to notice Lizzie and Mr Wickham’s mutual preference, though she disapproves of the match.

Often, a deceased mother’s goodness manifests through their family’s downward spiral when they depart. Anne’s mother managed her husband’s prodigality, but when she dies, Sir Walter is freely runs up debts which force his family to relocate from their estate to the centre of Bath.

Similarly, the death of Northanger Abbey’s Mrs Tilney emphasises her husband’s tyrannical nature, suggesting to Catherine that, echoing many Gothic narratives, Mrs Tilney was an innocent, brutally murdered by nefarious General Tilney.

Once again we have Emma the exception Perhaps surprisingly, one novel’s protagonist displays typically Austenian ‘maternal’ attitudes towards matchmaking.

Emma’s relationship with Harriet can be partially construed as maternal: Emma, with no aspirations of marriage for herself, makes it her mission to see Harriet in an advantageous match, ignoring the implications of Harriet’s uncertain parentage.

However, Emma lacks the matchmaking skills of Sense and Sensibility’s Mrs Jennings, the first to notice Colonel Brandon’s feelings towards Marianne. Emma misses that she’s setting Harriet up with a string of men whose affections lie elsewhere, Harriet’s feeling for her loving farmer and Emma’s own feeling for Mr Knightley.

Austen doesn’t restrict maternal influence solely to mothers, and though many of her characters fit into the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ mother camp, others prove more difficult to place. Where would you put Lady Bertram, for example? Is Lizzie the more traditional maternal influence of the Bennet household? What is Elinor’s role in the Dashwood family?

Further Reading:

Look out for Lady Susan, a rather complicated take on motherhood with a protagonist undoubtedly a precursor to Lydia Bennet.

This is part two of a three part series on themes on Austen. Last month was Austen and Holidays. Next month is Austen and Reading. So what do you think of Austen and Mothers? Who have we missed and who would you choose to have as your Austen Mum?

Aimee Oliver

(Image via chicks57)