I have been indulging in my annual re-reading of Jane Austen and it has struck me — strangely, for the first time — that not one of her five heroines has a satisfactory mother. Mrs Bennet is a disaster, over-indulgent to her favourite daughter, Lydia, and a constant embarrassment to Jane and Elizabeth. It could be said in her defence that in one respect she is a better parent than Mr Bennet. She does realise the total ignominy which would follow his death without at least one daughter having married well: removal to a cottage on the Longbourn estate and reliant on the charity of Mr Collins and Charlotte. Mrs Dashwood is charming but gravely irresponsible as a mother. Her refusal, despite all Elinor’s pleading, to ask Marianne about her relationship with Willoughby, could have resulted in her daughter’s ruin and did indeed nearly cause her death. Mrs Musgrove is affectionate but silly.
Indeed Jane Austen, somewhat unfeelingly, invites us to join her in despising the poor woman’s loud lamenting over her dead son, whom no one had greatly cared about during his life. Perhaps we should not expect too much of Mrs Morland, with ten children to bring up, but she was unwise to let Catherine go for a protracted stay at Northanger Abbey to a family she herself had never corresponded with or met. (General Tilney and Mrs Norris are arguably Austen’s only complete villains.) Emma Woodhouse and Anne Elliot lost their mothers when young. But in leaving her heroines without the wisdom, affection and guidance of a sensible mother, Jane Austen was artistically right. A book can only have one heroine and each of the novels has the same basic plot, the story of a virtuous and attractive woman who overcomes difficulties, including the lack of a mother, to win the husband of her choice. In other words, Mills & Boon written by a genius.
Mills & Boon is the English counterpart to Harlequin Romance in the U.S.! I remember a fellow graduate student saying that Jane Austen just wrote Harlequin Romances--obviously what she left out and I stoutly defended was that Jane Austen was a genius! More on P.D. James on Jane Austen here.
P.D. James, rest in peace! The BBC News posted this obit.