Kathy was kind enough to let me see her paper before I began to write mine, and what struck me in thinking about the contrast with Jane Austen's treatment of mothers is that in Austen there is less sense of the oppressiveness of the relationship than in the novels of Barbara Pym. Kathy has shown how many of Pym's middle-aged characters, of both sexes, are constrained either by their mothers' continuing presence in their lives, or by an influence that survives the grave. Living or dead, they are felt to be disapproving and prescriptive. They leave many of their children incapable of forming a healthy relationship with a member of the opposite sex. Particularly in the case of males, their very sexuality can be rendered questionable. People are made timid by their mothers, or else have to make a great effort to repudiate their demands.
There is little or none of this in Austen. There are embarrassing or inadequate mothers aplenty in her novels, as we shall see, but their children, if they are at all worthy of our sympathy, have the energy and confidence to escape not just physically from their presence but emotionally. I want to begin by asking why these two novelists, who both deal in family relationships and who write in the comic mode, differ in this respect.
Firstly, although both novelists have a range of characters in all age-groups, fundamentally Jane Austen looks at life from a youthful standpoint, while Barbara Pym's take on life is middle-aged. I don't mean that if we were lucky enough to meet them as people we would think Jane Austen immature in outlook or Barbara Pym deficient in fun and zest--far from it. But the conventions within which it was natural for Jane Austen to work centred on the courtship novel. Her protagonists have to be young, unmarried, just setting out on life and discovering truths about human nature. In the courtship novel, as in so many of Shakespeare's plays, closure comes with the formation of new couples to carry life forward into a more hopeful future, having learnt from the mistakes of their elders. Older people in such novels act as dire warnings or temporary embarrassments, not as insurmountable obstacles to renewal.
From the start, Barbara Pym seems to have been more interested in those whom life has 'left on the shelf'. She is fascinated by the marginalized and the disappointed, and a great many twentieth-century readers could identify with that. Famously, her first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, is an imaginative projection of herself and her sister as they might be in unmarried middle age. In contrast, none of Jane Austen's heroines is older than 27, and when she herself was dying in her forty-second year, instead of advancing on that 27 and considering the situation of the thirty-something woman, she was beginning a novel about a twenty-year-old.
Even though Jane Austen herself became a middle-aged spinster of small and precarious means, living with an elderly mother, her only such character is Miss Bates of Emma, and hers is not the novel's point of view. Miss Bates' predicament, though acknowledged in the text, is evidently not considered by Jane Austen to be a suitable focus for fiction--it is as if it would be a discourtesy to her readers to expect them to enter seriously into such a person's tribulations. Whereas for Barbara Pym, it is the Miss Bateses and Miss Lathburys of this world who constitute the real interest.
Another difference is that Austen's was a more patriarchal society than Pym's. The real bullies in Austen's fiction are men: Sir Thomas Bertram, General Tilney, Sir Walter Elliot. The very names bespeak power. Two of the three have lost their wives, and of course very many women did die in childbirth then, whereas in Pym it is usually the men who drop dead or fade away, leaving widows who seek to control their children, as Kathy has shown, sometimes through financial dependence but often through emotional blackmail; the mothers do not have to be rich and powerful to get the upper hand, sometimes quite the reverse, as they make their children feel sorry for them. In Austen's world, money is frankly acknowledged to be the basis of all power, including that within families, and the money is almost always in male hands.
Of course, simply as a plot requirement, Austen cannot afford to have satisfactory, sensible mothers giving their daughters good advice or there would be no story. It is essential that the mother be absent or inadequate in some way. Of the six heroines, two have lost their mothers before the narrative begins and two are separated from their mothers for most of the action; in all four cases there is an unsatisfactory mother-substitute. The remaining heroines have mothers who are present but of more hindrance than help in their daughters' difficulties.
Both Emma Woodhouse (Emma) and Anne Elliot (Persuasion) have lost their mothers, Emma when she was five and Anne when she was fourteen. Anne has a mother-substitute in her godmother Lady Russell, a friend of her mother's, a well-meaning sensible woman who wants only to see Anne happy, yet whose bad advice--for Anne to give up an engagement entered into when she is nineteen, on prudential motives--involves Anne in years of regret--though not recrimination. As for Anne's own mother, we learn how unhappy Anne was when she died, and how she has missed her encouragement in music, a pleasure they shared. In her later novels, of which Persuasion is one, Austen is much more careful to take account of the workings of heredity than in the works written in her youth. The superior character of this mother explains how Anne comes to be so different from her father and from the two sisters who take after him. Lady Russell calls Anne "your mother's own self in countenance and disposition".
At one point in the plot, there is the suggestion that Sir Walter's heir, William Elliot, might seek Anne's hand in marriage: "For a few moments her imagination and her heart were bewitched. The idea of becoming what her mother had been; of having the precious name of 'Lady Elliot' first revived in herself . . . was a charm which she could not immediately resist." Anne is the only one of Austen's characters to think of a dead mother in this way.
Emma Woodhouse also inherits abilities from her dead mother, though being only five when she lost her, she has only an indistinct memory of her caresses, and never once thinks of her through the course of the novel. It is Mr Knightley, the old family friend whom she will eventually fall in love with, who says early on in the novel, addressing Emma's old governess, "Ever since she was twelve, Emma has been mistress of the house and of you all. In her mother she lost the only person able to cope with her. She inherits her mother's talents, and must have been under subjection to her." This is all we learn of Mrs Woodhouse.
Emma's mother-substitute is indeed her governess, who (as Mr Knightley suggests) has been kind but too mild, and whose marriage and departure from the household begin the narrative. Michael Cotsell has said of A Glass of Blessings, "It may be described as Barbara Pym's Emma". The similarities are in the cast of mind of the heroine and the mode of narration--these factors inextricably linked. Emma Woodhouse and Wilmet Forsyth share an exceptional awareness of the image they are presenting to the world, both care for elegance and niceness, and both are curiously blind to the workings of other people's minds, leading them into error. Emma fancies that Frank Churchill is in love with her, whereas in truth he is secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax, and Wilmet imagines that Piers Longridge is in love with her, whereas--sign of the twentieth century, this--he is gay and eventually produces a lover, Keith. The narrative of both novels depends on a succession of discoveries, not all of which are made explicit to the reader, though the clues are there.
I would love to know whether Barbara Pym had Emma in mind when she was creating this, the most accomplished of her novels in my opinion. There are many parallels, but the point I want to make with regard to mothers, is that in both novels it is the detachment of the mother figure which brings the heroine to full maturity at last. Wilmet has had an easy life in the home of her mother-in-law, Sybil, but Sybil's second marriage forces Wilmet and her husband Rodney to grow up and make their own lives together. It is not Mrs Weston's marriage that makes the big difference to Emma, though this is what she dreads at the beginning of the novel. It is the birth of Mrs Weston's own child which really forces Emma out of the emotional nest. As even her ego is forced to recognise, "The child to be born at Randall's must be a tie there even dearer than herself; and Mrs Weston's heart and mind would be occupied by it." It is time for Emma to form her own family unit, with Mr Knightley, and initially with her elderly hypochondriac father as their child.
It is in the novel Emma that Austen's one truly Pymian character, Miss Bates, has her being. A middle-aged spinster of no particular distinction, living with a very elderly mother and trying to make ends meet, she is a familiar type in the later writer's work. Her concerns with such things as her mother's old petticoat and the whereabouts of the preserving pan for boiling the ham that Emma has charitably given to her poor neighbours are reminiscent of Pym's world, and unusual for Austen's, where details of food and clothes are rare. Though Mary Beamish resembles Jane Fairfax in being a person the heroine ought to like better: "I was unable to decide what it was that I found so irritating about her goodness," says Wilmet of Mary, a sentiment that echoes Emma's feelings about Jane: "Why she did not like Jane Fairfax might be a difficult question to answer", she and her mother equate in some ways to Miss Bates and her mother, except that Mrs Bates is no meat-guzzling tyrant like Mrs Beamish, but a harmless old woman, sitting in her chimney-corner knitting, past everything, the narrator tells us, except tea and quadrille. (Though she is very partial to fricassee of sweetbread.) Then again, just as Mrs Beamish's death releases Mary to make her own life and even marry, the death of Mrs Churchill, offstage as it were in Emma, releases her nephew Frank Churchill to marry Jane Fairfax.
Turning now to the two heroines who are parted from their mothers for the important events of the novel, in Northanger Abbey Catherine Morland's mother is just about as good as mothers come, kindly and commonsensical, though Catherine is one of ten so gets a limited amount of her attention. But the action begins when Catherine leaves home for a visit to Bath in the company and care of neighbours, Mr and Mrs Allen. Mrs Allen is singularly deficient as a chaperone, being more interested in dress than anything else. For example, on their first visit to the Assembly Rooms, where they have to press their way through crowds, Mrs Allen shows "more care for the safety of her new gown than for the comfort of her protégée". She wishes she could get Catherine a partner, but does nothing to effect this. Catherine is really left to do as she likes in Bath, falling under the influence of the vulgar and money-seeking Isabella Thorpe. Catherine receives no advice on her conduct from Mrs Allen; "Just as you please, my dear," is her usual answer when appealed to for guidance. It is left to Mr Allen eventually to raise an objection after Catherine has been out twice with John Thorpe in his gig, having waited in vain for his wife to tell her that it is improper conduct in a young lady.
Jane Austen has had a great deal of fun at the beginning of the novel burlesquing contemporary fiction and suggesting that Mrs Allen, in the way of literary chaperones, might contribute to reducing poor Catherine "to all the desperate wretchedness of which a last volume is capable--whether by her imprudence, vulgarity or jealousy-- whether by intercepting her letters, ruining her character, or turning her out of doors"--all devices to which lesser writers of the period, including Fanny Burney, resorted to inject some interest into their narratives. By making Mrs Allen so placidly ineffectual Austen shows how an older woman can fail to fulfil her duties without meaning any harm, and how a heroine can suffer from mishaps and distresses which are not dramatic but are still important to her proper conduct in the world.
Catherine's own mother, Mrs Morland, is too unimaginative to grasp the kind of dangers her daughter might encounter in Bath, for which she might need better guidance than Mrs Allen's; and when Catherine returns home, sick with love for the hero, unable to concentrate on her sewing, her mother is too prosaic to guess she has fallen in love and thinks she is pining only for Bath or for the rich food at Northanger Abbey, which results in some comic misunderstanding.
The other novel in which the heroine is separated from her mother is Mansfield Park, but here the separation lasts for years. Fanny Price is adopted by her rich uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, at the age of nine, and finds herself with two mother-substitutes during the next eight years: her two aunts, Lady Bertram and Mrs Norris, the sisters of her mother. Mrs Norris is an officious busybody who seizes every chance to put Fanny down, while professing high-flown sentiments: "Is she not a sister's child? And could I bear to see her want, while I had a bit of bread to give her?" Lady Bertram is kinder but wholly indolent, never giving herself trouble about anything; and when, after Henry Crawford's unwelcome proposal, she instructs Fanny that it is every woman's duty to accept an unexceptionable offer of marriage, the narrator tells us, "This was almost the only rule of conduct, the only piece of advice, which Fanny had ever received from her in the course of eight years and a half.--It silenced her."
Sir Thomas now packs Fanny off to her parents' miserable home Portsmouth, ostensibly for a holiday, but really hoping she will come to her senses and accept Henry Crawford; Fanny goes very willingly, hoping after the bullying of Sir Thomas and the sniping of Mrs Norris to find peace, acceptance and love. The reality proves very different:
The narrator draws comparison between the three sisters, whose marriages have placed them in such different circumstances, and concludes that Mrs Price, with habits similarly suited to idleness and affluence, would have made as good a woman of consequence as Lady Bertram, but that Mrs Norris, with her managing ways, would have made a more respectable mother of nine on a small income. This is the only mite of praise offered to Mrs Norris in the whole book. Mrs Price is not to be pitied, however, as it was the imprudence of her marriage choice that has placed her where she is; and she is culpable in that it is her innocent children who suffer. Fanny, thinking it all over,
As the plot works its way to its conclusion, Fanny is able to rescue her next sister, Susan, from such a home, and transplant her to Mansfield Park, where she herself is to marry the younger son of the house, her cousin Edmund, and look to his mother, Lady Bertram, as her only mother-figure; Fanny is unlikely to have any further dealings, except out of charity, with her own mother. It is typical of Jane Austen's characters that having learnt, during the course of the novel, to distinguish between worthy and unworthy people around them, they able to discard the unworthy and move on. In this way, her vision is more dispassionate than Barbara Pym's, her characters more ruthless--able, with their creator's approval, to free themselves from the emotional baggage that so many of Pym's women are obliged to carry.
And then there are the two novels in which the mothers are very much a presence in the heroines' lives. Pride and Prejudice is of course one of them, and Mrs Bennet is perhaps literature's most embarrassing and unpleasant mother. Elizabeth Bennet maintains her outward politeness to her mother, but that is about all. She has no respect for her, and as she perceives, neither does her father. Mrs Bennet shows her unpleasant side when she tries to force Elizabeth into accepting the marriage proposals of Mr Collins, coaxing and threatening her by turns, and obviously totally unconcerned for her daughter's personal happiness. When her youngest daughter Lydia elopes, she takes to her bed in hysterics and creates as much trouble in the household as possible; her concerns are not with Lydia's morals but with her wedding clothes.
Earlier, Mrs Bennet embarrasses Elizabeth during supper at Netherfield by talking loudly about her expectation that Jane will soon be engaged to Bingley; Elizabeth sees that Darcy can hear and urges, "For heaven's sake, madam, speak lower," but to no effect: "Elizabeth blushed and blushed again with shame and vexation". And she is right to do so, for the next day Darcy persuades his friend Bingley to leave the neighbourhood and eventually tells Elizabeth, "The situation of your mother's family, though objectionable, was nothing in comparison of that total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly betrayed by herself." Though offended at first, Elizabeth later reflects on the justice of this. For all Mrs Bennet's endeavours to get her daughters well married--and it is, we are told, the chief business of her life - she is in fact the main obstacle to their marrying men of standing in the world. Comic character though she is, she is capable of causing real pain to the two right-thinking of her five daughters. However, Pride and Prejudice is a fairy story of sorts, and both Jane and Elizabeth get their rich and handsome husbands in the end despite their mother. The last chapter begins:
From which it is evident that Mrs Bennet does not accompany her husband and that Elizabeth's reward at the end of the book is not only Darcy and Pemberley, but the almost total exclusion of her mother from her life.
The two heroines of Sense and Sensibility, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, have perhaps the most delightful mother in Jane Austen's fiction--but even she is not a perfect guide for her daughters, being over-romantic, impulsive and even imprudent. Mrs Dashwood tenderly loves all her daughters, but is closely resembled by Marianne. They encourage each other in giving way to their feelings, whether of grief after the death of Mr Dashwood, indignation at the insensibility of most of their relations, or admiration for the handsome stranger Willoughby. Elinor is more moderate and well-judging in her response to life, and she more often offers her mother good advice than the other way round, but Elinor sometimes feels misunderstood by her mother and excluded from the bond between Mrs Dashwood and Marianne. In the great crises of the two sisters' lives--the defection of Willoughby and the apparent loss of Elinor's lover, Edward Ferrars, to a rival, Mrs Dashwood is no help at all, for she encourages Marianne to wallow in misery and assumes that Elinor, because she keeps her feelings in check, cannot be suffering. When Marianne nearly dies from self-neglect, Mrs Dashwood as well as Marianne herself learns a lesson, and she learns too that she has been wrong about Elinor and has underestimated her.
Mrs Dashwood is, therefore, almost like a heroine herself, and indeed her qualities make her a most attractive one, for she is unworldly, warm-hearted and unselfish. We are told that her manners are "captivating" and that "a man could not very well be in love with either of her daughters, without extending the passion to her". This is without her being in the slightest way flirtatious or competitive with her daughters. The pity is that, although she is said to be "barely forty" and to have such captivating manners, there is no hint of a romance for her. No Professor Arnold Root on the horizon: though as it happens I have always thought Colonel Brandon much better suited to Mrs Dashwood than to Marianne.
As a mother Mrs Dashwood has, I think, something in common with Jane Cleveland in Jane and Prudence in that in both instances there is considerable role reversal with a daughter. Flora is the one who attempts to keeps up standards in the Cleveland household, sometimes despairing of her mother's happy-go-lucky ways. Likewise Elinor often counsels her mother, restrains her more impetuous actions, and is more concerned about appearances and propriety. That the daughters have to be old before their times is due to the deficiencies in the mother, delightful though each mother is.
An aspect of motherhood more central to Austen's concerns than to Pym's is the characters' potential as mothers. In all Austen's novels, in order t o be worthy of her destiny, the heroine has to demonstrate her capability to guide the next generation. Thus, Elizabeth helps her young sister-in-law, who is motherless, to feel more comfortable in society; Emma gains Mr Knightley's approval for her sensible handling of their young nephews and nieces; Anne is a better mother to her two little nephews than their own mother, especially when one of the little boys has an accident; and even Fanny Price exerts herself to intervene in the squabbles of her younger siblings for the good of the whole family, astonished though she is to find herself the one looked up to, after many years of being, at Mansfield Park, the lowest and the least. There is nothing like this trial-motherhood in Pym, as far as I am aware, the nearest example being perhaps Catherine Oliphant of Less Than Angels, who has motherly feelings for Tom and seems to be thwarted in her natural desire for children. Most of Pym's female protagonists are seen in terms of the help they might give to men, not to the younger generation, though Dulcie Mainwaring of No Fond Return makes a reasonably good aunt.
There are few young children in either novelist's work, perhaps because they had had none themselves--though Jane Austen was an interested and affectionate aunt to her many nephews and nieces. As we have seen, the young children who do appear in her work tend to be there to test the heroine's ability to handle them, and are portrayed with greater realism in the three novels of her maturity than in the three written in her youth, when children are seen mainly as nuisances. Thus in Sense and Sensibility Lady Middleton and Fanny Dashwood are besotted with their children, force them on visiting company and are indulgent to bad behaviour. Like the self-centred and inconsistent Mary Musgrove in Persuasion they are bad mothers because they are more concerned with the gratification of their own feelings than with the moral and social training of their children. Isabella Knightley in Emma is a very caring mother of five small children, but is too nervously inclined to fancy imaginary ills and to dose them with unnecessary medicines, a weakness which, we can be sure, Emma herself will avoid.
A besotted mother of grown-up children is Mrs Thorpe of Northanger Abbey, who boasts about her three sons and three daughters ad infinitum and is in thrall particularly to her strong-minded daughter Isabella. Mrs Thorpe is an old school friend of Mrs Allen, but when they spend their days together in Bath in what t hey call conversation, "there was scarcely ever any exchange of opinion, and not often any resemblance of subject, for Mrs Thorpe talked chiefly of her children, and Mrs Allen of her gowns". Equivalents in Pym are Mrs Lyall in Jane and Prudence, whose son Edward is the chief topic of her conversation, and the mother of the hairdresser Monsieur Jacques in A Glass of Blessings, if only in Wilmet's imagination: hearing his Midlands accent she fancies "the provincial boy making good in London and how proud his mother must be of him".
The bullying mother, though more common in Pym, does make an appearance in Austen, in the guise of two wealthy widows: Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice, and Mrs Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility. Lady Catherine dictates to her daughter Anne, but Anne is a mere cipher, with no personality of her own, and the reader has no sympathy for her--mother and daughter deserve one another. The ease with which Lady Catherine dominates her daughter and the people around her generally gives her a false sense of her own power and induces her to meddle in her motherless nephew Darcy's life. When Lady Catherine turns her big guns on Elizabeth Bennet, the spirited heroine who has the temerity to be loved by Darcy, one of the most comic and satisfying passages of the book results, as Elizabeth stands her ground, and without rudeness asserts her right to act in her own best interests. Lady Catherine does not even attempt to dictate to Darcy himself, recognising that he is too rich and independent, so she cravenly tries to destroy the relationship by getting at Elizabeth, and is incensed when she cannot prevail. She does worse than fail, her interference actually brings the couple together.
Mrs Ferrars is another such wealthy woman; as a widow, the money and hence the power is in her hands, and she attempts to manipulate her sons accordingly. Robert is a heartless creature for whom we care nothing, but sensitive Edward is made miserable by her financial control over him. He preferred the church as a profession, but she preferred the army or law, as being smarter, and consequently he trained for nothing. She is determined he should marry a woman of wealth and consequence. When he nevertheless takes orders and proposes to Elinor, he is cast off, but "After a proper resistance on the part of Mrs Ferrars, just so violent and so steady as to preserve her from that reproach which she always seemed fearful of incurring, the reproach of being too amiable, Edward was admitted to her presence, and pronounced to be again her son".
Mrs Churchill, in Emma, is another domineering older woman, though her victim, if he may be so called, is her nephew and adopted son Frank, for she is childless. Mrs Churchill is not a widow, but she has gained the upper hand over her husband: "out-Churchilled the Churchills" as Jane Austen puts it. This is proved by the ease with which Frank prevails on his uncle to agree to his wishes after his aunt's death. Jane Austen never repeats a character or a situation, so Mrs Churchill differs from the viler Mrs Ferrars in being genuinely fond of Frank, but still selfish and capricious, wanting her own good rather than his. Mr Knightley thinks Frank gives way to his aunt too easily, though Emma can understand the kind of obligation, both financial and emotional, that he is made to feel.
Unlike so many of Barbara Pym's young men, neither Darcy, Edward Ferrars nor Frank Churchill seeks refuge from romantic entanglements in the convenient prohibitions of a powerful older woman. Mrs Ferrars' domination only serves to make Edward long to create his own home with the woman of his choice, and though Frank Churchill does conceal his engagement he is not minded to wriggle out of it. Indeed, Jane Austen has no men of the type common in Pym, of weak or dubious sexuality. None of her male characters is even a confirmed bachelor, let alone effeminate - it is a personality type she just doesn't explore and presumably did not encounter. Men who have reached a certain age without marrying--Colonel Brandon, Mr Knightley--simply haven't been lucky in love yet, as is proved by their romantic and manly behaviour when they do obtain the hand of the woman they love. No man in Austen shies away from the female sex, and if they shy away from commitment it is in order to do that very masculine thing, play the field.
To conclude, the century and a half between Austen and Pym place them in very different worlds and different novelistic conventions, which affect how they portray the mother-child relationship. A more patriarchal structure, an innocence of homosexuality and a different set of literary good manners all play their part. Jane Austen sets out to show the importance of making moral choices as embodied in the selection of a marriage partner and how the next generation will be raised. Pym is more concerned with how to make a life if there is not a suitable partner available, and the single life is necessarily often lived with--or in the shadow of--'Mother'.
Maggie Lane is the author of several books about Jane Austen including
Jane Austen's Family; Jane Austen and Food; and Jane Austen's World.