Friday, May 14, 2010

Looking to Austen

This past Mother’s Day was lovely as my husband and children pampered with gifts and food. However, it was also sad since I lost my own mom in September. My sister and I planned a long chat to reminisce and cry, but in the end neither of us picked up the phone! I suppose it isn’t a surprise then that I am not feeling overly inspired to talk about the topic of motherhood as it applies to me. Thankfully I realized my blog date falls smack dab between our May themes of motherhood and new beginnings. Of course, many of the aspects involving motherhood include new beginnings – which is why we chose these themes – so it isn’t difficult to span the gap between the two. So I have decided to approach these themes as they relate to my novels and the world of Jane Austen.

Even a cursory glance at the mothers who inhabit Austen’s novels would lead to the conclusion that the only good mother to be found is a dead one! In Northanger Abbey Austen wrote in an explanation on the qualities of Catherine Morland’s mother, “She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as any body might expect, she still lived on.” Commentaries suggest this was Austen’s way of poking fun at the fact that literary heroines typically have mothers who are either atrocious or deceased. Loucinda touched on this subject earlier this week. Austen seemed to know this “rule” since there isn’t a single heroine in her novels with a perfect mother. Not all of them were horrid necessarily. For instance Mrs. Morland was merely busy birthing baby after baby and thus not completely involved with her older children, but is described as very loving. Surrogate mother Lady Russell in Persuasion loved Anne Elliott, but was overbearing in her approach, forcing Anne’s hand in refusing Captain Wentworth. Sense and Sensibility gave us Mrs. Dashwood, who so devotedly loved her daughters that she was unable to discipline or instruct.
On the other end of the spectrum are the truly heinous mothers of Mansfield Park – all of them - and who can forget Mrs. Bennet? Yikes! Was Austen merely following a literary tradition of bad parents? Perhaps. Yet there is tremendous evidence that Austen herself did not have an adequate mother in Mrs. Austen and that their relationship was strained, to say the least. Whatever Austen’s reasoning for writing her heroines’ mothers as she did, it would be wrong to say she hated motherhood, just as it would be wrong to assert she hated marriage based on the terrible marriages seen in her novels.

Each novel’s heroine managed to discover true love with equality, respect, and esteem as the bedrock despite the bad example offered by their parents. Presumably they would therefore be better mothers having learned from those errors as well. The fact that Austen dwelt on both topics quite a bit proves that she was acutely aware of the differences and the importance. In both the case of marriage and parenthood, we do see fabulous examples within the texts from supporting characters presented in stark contrast to the negative. Austen never married or had children, yet it is logical to conclude from her novels and her private letters that she revered both and had a firm grasp on how each should be.

In deciding to take on the task of writing a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, my saga is all about new beginnings. First I had to address my vision of marriage for Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet starting from day one onward. For me there was never a question that Austen meant for them to be happy since their union was one containing all the elements of a good match and I explore this ideal wholeheartedly!

But how would they be as parents?
We never learn much about Darcy other than that his parents spoiled him, encouraging selfishness and arrogance. Since this brought him a fair amount of grief, I assume he would raise his children to be more tolerant and humble, being careful to not lavish them undeservedly while teaching of the wider world beyond his narrow sphere. Otherwise Mr. Darcy and Lady Anne Darcy appeared to have done a great job raising their two children.

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet possessed so many faults as parents it is impossible to cover them all in this blog! Heading the list of ways to not be like mom and dad, let us pray that Lizzy would exert more control over her children! Discipline would be essential with manners, propriety, respect, morality, and self-control part of the curriculum. I think the Darcys would be devoted to their children, involved in their day-to-day lives, active in providing a rounded education, and encouraging of self expression (we are talking about Lizzy Bennet after all).

I have written an extensive, diverse community of family and friends for the Darcy children who appear in my upcoming stories: In The Arms of Mr. Darcy due in October and A Darcy Christmas in November. No doubt I am more of an optimist where Austen tended toward cynicism, and some may find this unforgivable or boring. But then I look at my own children who are marvelous examples of how excellently young people can mature - just as I look at my marriage of 24 years – and I know it is isn’t a fantasy.


  1. I'm with you, Sharon, on talking about mothers after losing one this past year. Great blog post!

    I just finished writing Heart of the Highland Wolf, and even in that one, the hero's mother isn't accepting of an American red wolf. But there's growth in their relationship, and that's what I wanted to show. :) If everyone's family is perfectly happy, what's the fun in that? LOL

    I love your books, Sharon! Keep up the great writing!

  2. How interesting to think about the mothers in Austen's work--and reading through your blog, it looks like Austen did a pretty good job showing a variety of mothers, but most of all, showing how they, too, are human--with their own ideals and values and hopes and expectations for their children (or lack of these things, as well)... it's honestly something I've never thought about at length! But I'm glad you brought it up. Great post, Sharon!

  3. Great blog, Sharon. I love all things Austen. I always figured that Jane had a contentious relationship for her mother because of the mothers she depicted. It's nice to know that I was right.

  4. The Bennetts may have been terrible parents, but you gotta love 'em! Not sure if Jane intended it that way, but they make me laugh every time! Great post!

  5. I relate to your difficulty with Mother's Day theme. My mother and grandmother died within days of each other when I was seventeen.

    For me, Mother's Day is bittersweet. While I am happy to honor them, the day always reminds me of my loss.

    Your discussion of Austen' mothers was interesting. I don't Mrs.Bennet is a bad mother, just a human one, and in her defense, let me point out that the criticism of Elizabeth's education comes from the Duchess. I think we need to consider the source.

    Mrs.Bennet is doing her best for her daughters. The way I see it she's doing more than Mr.Bennet, who thinks himself so long-suffering and superior to her, is doing.

  6. I love how you brought up Austen's characters for mother's day, Sharon. Thoughtful post, thank you! Oh, and I agree with you on Mrs. B, MM. :}

  7. Yes Terry, I know you have had a rough year as well. It sure is weird to think of my mom as gone. I still do not think I have accepted it. And how true that more fun is found in writing the crazy characters! I like writing of happiness and the hope for perfection (or as close as we can get to it) but have to admit that tossing in a Lady Catherine or villain now and again is a delight!

  8. One of the great aspects to Austen's writing is that she was never one dimensional. As you say, Danielle, she showed variety. Even those mothers who were loving and with the best intentions failed to some degree. In all cases it is a lesson to learn from.

    I have to confess that the idea for this blog germinated while listening to the amazing Austen scholor Dr. Juliet McMaster lecturing on the children in Austen's novels. She was the guest speaker at our Jane Fest this past weekend and, man, what an honor and inspiration to meet someone of her caliber!

  9. Hi Robin! There is a great deal of speculation that one of the reasons Cassandra Austen destroyed the bulk of letters from Jane may have been due to comments about their mother. Those letters that survive are littered with vague, slightly negative comments so who knows what she may have said if seriously vexed and venting to her trusted sister! Unfortunately we will never know.

  10. It is interesting, Mary Margret, but I have always been a bit more sympathetic to Mrs. Bennet than most people are. I give her a softer side in my novels. She is still annoying, and thus fun to write, but I do allow her to mellow to a degree as her daughters are married.

    The discussions on the Bennets are wide and loud on the various forums related to Austen. As I said, it would take more than this blog to delve into it all! The various screen adaptations have indeed had fun with them, as Cheryl points out. But however you interpret them, in the end they were pretty bad parents. Lizzy and Jane succeeded in marriage and life in spite of them, and if not for Mr. Darcy we can be pretty sure Lydia would have ended up a prostitute. Even in her well intentions to marry off her daughters Mrs. Bennet failed. Very sad.

  11. Thanks Kathryne! Glad all of you have enjoyed it, especially since I pumped it out at the last minute yesterday after a hellacious 3 nights in the NICU! LOL!

  12. Sharon, you have a way of explaining things that makes it so easy for me to understand. Thank you! I usually leave parents in general out of a book because they tend to get in the way of romance for me.


  13. Thank you Amelia. You are very sweet. :)

  14. Hugs out to all of you who have lost moms. As children, we expect to out live our parents, but that doesn't mean its easy.

  15. It is interesting that so many literary mothers are either missing or flawed in some way. I've been thinking about this and I wonder if it almost has to be for the development of plot conflict. Warm, loving mommies have a wonderful way of neutralizing problems in life - great for real life, but perhaps not so great for building the tension in a plot!