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Sunday, 5 June 2016

Jane Austen: How to be a Good Parent

Jane Austen notices the irony of parenthood: good parenting takes so long to master that it comes too late to be of practical use! Heroines find their way and do well, not because of parental guidance, but in spite of it. She makes us think very often about the role of a parent. Remember Mr. Bennet to Elizabeth:

An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.

Bennet at the end jokes that Wickham is his 'favourite' son-in-law and that he is 'prodigiously proud of him'. Remember him, when his wife is concerned about the loss of their property through the entail and what she will suffer:

My dear, do not give way to such gloomy thoughts. Let us hope for better things. Let us flatter ourselves that I may be the survivor.

Mr. Bennet may not have been altogether wise but he must have been great fun for a daughter who could appreciate his sense of humour. Conversing with Mr. Collins, who boasts of the 'little delicate compliments' he pays to his patroness, Bennet asks whether 'these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study'! Collins, 'altogether a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility', takes the bait and admits that he sometimes plans flattery in advance.

In contrast, Sir William Lucas, though affable enough, shows no great solicitude as a father. When Mr. Collins and Charlotte agree to marry, he consents with alacrity, thinking mainly of the status that will accrue from having a son-in-law who becomes proprietor of the Longbourn estate. Despite his experience, Sir William (unlike Elizabeth) is overawed by Lady Catherine de Bourgh and can do nothing more than echo the fawning compliments made to her by his son-in-law, Mr. Collins. He stays only a week at Hunsford but that convinces him (without irony) 'of his daughter's being most comfortably settled, and of her possessing such a husband and such a neighbour as were not often met with'.

Mr. Woodhouse is another interesting parent. He is selfish but the people of Highbury hardly seem to notice. Wealthy but unintelligent, for years unduly concerned about his health, full of fears and doubts, he has perfected a way of life in which his own comfort is paramount.

(By the way, the 'Kitty' riddle, which Mr. Woodhouse can only partly recall, was reproduced in full [with its solution - a chimney-sweep] in the May 1997 Newsletter of the Jane Austen Society.)

It is easy for him to seem good-tempered when always getting his own way. He shows no sign of missing or of having loved his late wife. His attitude to marriage is always hostile. Despite the esteem in which he is held, his thoughtfulness is negative. He shows concern for the well-being of his friends and discourages them from eating things he believes will upset them, but when such food includes wedding cake, it is clear he goes too far.

He has a high regard for some people – those who contribute to the self-indulgent life he chooses to live.

It is difficult to find specific instances of Mr. Woodhouse's generosity, with the possible exception of the pork being sent to Mrs. Bates; and even that is largely Emma's doing.

He is fond of Emma but, as she has a fortune of her own, he needs do very little to ensure her comfort. He is unable to do much: being 'without activity of mind or body', he cannot 'meet her in conversation, either rational or playful'. Thus she is left to her own resources. He is so self-centred that, when Elton writes a letter without once mentioning Emma, Jane writes that it .....could not escape her father's attention.


It did however. 


How is it that Emma has reached the age of 21 without ever being taken to Box Hill, a celebrated beauty spot only six miles from her home? It shows Mr. Woodhouse to be a stifling, curmudgeonly killjoy. And how is it that (before the strawberry picking) Mr. Woodhouse has not visited Donwell for two whole years, even though he seems to expect Mr. Knightley to visit him daily? What a crabstick the man is!

Within the novel's structure, he has his uses. Jane Austen wants the reader to find qualities to admire in Emma. We soon feel sympathy for the way she handles her selfish and bigoted father. He also brings out by contrast the good judgement and kindness of other male characters.

Where parental guidance is unavailable, the heroine often receives advice from other characters. Elizabeth Bennet is counselled by Charlotte Lucas and the Gardiners; and her instinctive sense of correct behaviour is fine-tuned by the importance attached to 'propriety' by her future husband, Darcy. When Elizabeth, taken by surprise, agrees against her will to dance with Darcy, Charlotte gives good advice:

Charlotte could not help cautioning her, in a whisper, not to be a simpleton, and allow her fancy for Wickham to make her appear unpleasant in the eyes of a man ten times his consequence.

Mrs. Gardiner keeps a protective eye on Elizabeth while observing her interest in Wickham. We may compare with Anne Elliot's situation the moment when Mrs. Gardiner warns Elizabeth against falling in love with Wickham:

Do not involve yourself, or endeavour to involve him, in an affection which the want of fortune would make so very imprudent ...Your father would depend on your resolution and good conduct, I am sure. You must not disappoint your father.

(Mr. Bennet, whatever he might 'depend on', does not give such warnings himself.)

In a fairly long reply from Elizabeth, Jane Austen uses dialogue to reveal Elizabeth's heart and mind. She admits she finds Wickham attractive, is unsure whether her father really would object to him; and she has enough humour and realism to point out that 'where there is affection young people are seldom withheld, by immediate want of fortune' so how can she promise to be wiser than other women? However, she ends by promising, 'I will do my best'.

The two eldest Miss Bennets have surely acquired many of their notions and much of their good breeding from contact with the Gardiners. Throughout the novel, the aunt and uncle are as thoughtful, considerate, diplomatic and helpful to Elizabeth and her family as the best of parents. They have qualities lacking in Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. The Gardiners show Darcy that Elizabeth 'had some relations for whom there was no need to blush'. Mr. Gardiner may be 'in trade', but every sentence he speaks marks ‘his intelligence, his taste, his good manners'. They are important, too, in providing Darcy with an opportunity of demonstrating that he has learned good manners. Unlike Mrs. Bennet, the Gardiners are not people to meddle.

However, they act quickly when the Bennet family is in trouble, even 'though Lydia had never been a favourite with them'. Mr. Gardiner consoles and cheers Elizabeth. He thinks rationally and calmly: surely Wickham will not risk his career and reputation?

Jane Austen's genius for knowing just how, when and where to bring chapters to an end is delightfully applied in the final words of Pride and Prejudice, which refer to the Gardiners:

With the Gardiners they were always on the most intimate terms. Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them; and they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing her into Derbyshire, had been the means of uniting them.

Another in loco parentis is Sir Thomas of Mansfield Park, misled by Mrs. Norris's enthusiasm into believing that she intends Fanny to live with her. He considered Fanny a potentially welcome addition to the Parsonage – a desirable companion to an aunt who had no children of her own; but he found himself mistaken. However, the good man gladly agrees to have the girl brought up and educated in his own house. (He is also generous to her brothers, assisting them in their education and careers.)

As a surrogate father, he is thoughtful and kind; yet his manner intimidates Fanny. He tries too hard. His excessive use of words and his 'gravity of deportment' do not put a shy child at ease. And we may detect a King Lear aspect: Fanny has a greater consciousness than his own daughters of what is due to him.

The empty-headed Mrs. Allen chaperones Catherine Morland in Bath; and Mrs. Jennings acts in loco parentis while Elinor and Marianne are in London. She is good-hearted but preoccupied with her own daughter (Mrs. Palmer, who gives birth during this time).