Persuasions #11, 1989                                                                                                                                                      Page 117-124

Mothers, Substitute Mothers, and Daughters in the Novels of Jane Austen 

Technical Librarian, Linfield College Library, McMinnville, Oregon 97128  

Even a cursory examination of the novels of Jane Austen reveals an abundance of absent or otherwise ineffectual mothers.  Anne’s and Emma’s mothers are dead, and Catherine’s is absent for most of the novel.  Those mothers who do appear have something inadequate in  their natures – in most cases, at the very least, innate silliness – and are thus unable to provide any sort of role model, or guidance, or education – Mrs. Dashwood to a lesser extent, Mrs. Price – and her substitutes, Aunt Bertram and Aunt Norris, and, of course, the supremely, delightfully foolish Mrs. Bennet to a greater extent.  In addition, all the heroines have substitute mothers of some kind, and some of these characters, such as Mrs. Gardiner and Lady Russell, are respectable role models of sorts; but all the substitutes remain minor characters.  Yet these inadequate maternal figures do not set motherhood itself in a negative light.  While all the novels begin with heroines in unbalanced family situations, and with dead or bad mothers, they all end with the heroines – and their future mates – on the verge of creating balanced families.  All the heroines will be better mothers than their own.  

Austen’s representations of mother/daughter relationships also reflect her views of marriage and the family as a whole.  The existing families in the novels are, in general, inadequate, and thus we have the plots, which work towards ideal family situations in the ultimate marriages of the heroines.  Unlike their parents, the heroines and their husbands are joined in companionate marriages – and, in many cases, marriages of true equals – and will in turn create loving, moral families.  

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf writes, “We think back through our mothers if we are women” (132).  As women we are all interested in our mothers; as women, we define ourselves and our values in terms of our mothers, and even if we ultimately reject our mothers’ values, that very rejection is a major aspect of our own personal definitions.  In Jane Austen’s time, even more than today, mothers were responsible for their children’s early education.  Such education included moral education – with the word moral used in the broadest possible sense. Austen follows in the tradition of other eighteenth-century writers, from Locke to Richardson, in placing a high value on the development of morality, though for her, of course, the presence or absence of morality becomes a source of comedy.  That she sees moral education as important, and defines it in terms of the mother/daughter relationship, is demonstrated in such characters as Emma and Catherine, whose early education is neglected, and who, before reaching maturity, must rectify their mothers’ lacks.  The Austen heroine must, to he a heroine, have her own personal sense of morality well established – even if it is separate from that of her family – before she can grow up and become a mother herself.  

Emma Woodhouse, like Anne Elliot, is motherless; her mother has died long before the novel begins.  Emma does not pity herself as a motherless child – in fact, the only person in the vicinity of Highbury who might pity Emma for this reason is Mr. Knightley.  While we never meet Mrs. Woodhouse, Mr. Knightley tells us:  “ ‘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’ ” (E, 37).  

      Emma is unusual among our heroines in that she sets herself in the maternal role, and does so with disastrous results – consider her efforts at motherly guidance to Harriet Smith.  Emma is the one who is accustomed to giving commands and being obeyed; she is left to choose her own path, and chooses the wrong one.  She is perhaps the heroine most harmed by lack of proper family; the others all realize their families’ lacks, or eventually come to realize them, but are themselves essentially untouched by these lacks.  And, Emma is the most outgoing of all the heroines, and thus her errors are the most blatant.  She needs more guidance than the others, because, since her mother’s death, she has had no guidance or example at all, except from Mr. Knightley.

Emma’s mother substitute is poor Miss Taylor, later Mrs. Weston.  Miss Taylor has all the ideal maternal qualities – education, breeding, high principles.  But she can, of course, no more guide Emma than can Mr. Woodhouse.  She is a mother in affection only, like Mrs. Dashwood with Marianne, she is always undiscriminating in her support of her beloved child.  Miss Taylor treats Emma as an equal, or, more often, as a superior.  

Jane Fairfax, an orphan, shows us what Emma might have been with some better guidance, or education in the broad sense.  Jane’s relatives quite equal Mr. Woodhouse in enchanting foolishness, but Jane is blessed with proper substitute parents, who educate her and rear her to understand her role in the world – uncomfortable though that role is.  

Even at the conclusion of the novel Emma is still in need of parental guidance, and Mr. Knightley, who has played the parental role even more than Miss Taylor, will provide it.  Emma finally says to Mr. Knightley,  “ ‘I was very often influenced rightly by you – oftener than I would own at the time.  I am very sure you did me good’ ” (E, 462).  Emma will always be a headstrong woman, but will also always continue to look up to Mr. Knightley for approval.  

Anne Elliot is Austen’s other motherless heroine.  Like Emma, in the loss of her mother Anne loses the person most like herself, and Anne is thus doomed to moral isolation within her family.  Anne, however, differs greatly from Emma, and from the other heroines, in her maturity.  She begins the novel with self knowledge.  

Lady Elliot, like her daughter, was a gentle, submissive woman.  She “had been an excellent woman, sensible and amiable; whose judgment and conduct, if they might be pardoned the youthful infatuation which made her Lady Elliot, had never required indulgence afterwards” (P, 4).  And, she had the strength of character to moderate her husband’s excesses – and probably those of her eldest daughter, as well.  “While Lady Elliot lived, there had been method, moderation, and economy, which had just kept him within his income; but with her had died all such right-mindedness …”  (P, 9).  

Lady Russell, like Miss Taylor, possesses the characteristics that should make her a good substitute for a mother.  She loves Anne, and even demonstrates her affection.   

She was a benevolent, charitable, good woman, and capable of strong attachments; most correct in her conduct, strict in her notions of decorum, and with manners that were held a standard of good-breeding.  She had a cultivated mind, and was, generally speaking rational and consistent – but she had prejudices on the side of ancestry; she had a value for rank and consequence, which blinded her a little to the faults of those who possessed them.  (P, 11)

       Those prejudices, of course, are the cause of her interference in Anne and Frederick’s first courtship.  She is blind to many of Sir Walter’s faults, for, “ … as being Sir Walter, in her apprehension entitled to a great deal of compassion and consideration …”  (P, 11).  Lady Russell is similarly blind, first when she encourages Anne’s marriage to Charles Musgrove, and, later, when she encourages Anne’s marriage to Mr. Elliot, considering his rank, future position and wealth enough to ensure Anne’s happiness; she acknowledges none of Lady Elliot’s marital unhappiness, and never quite realized that she would doom Anne to the same.  Indeed, much as she loves Anne, she has no understanding of her at all.  

Anne, however, at age twenty-seven is no longer dependent on Lady Russell’s advice in all things.  She is confident of her own values, which in many ways differ drastically from those of Lady Russell:   

It was now some years since Anne had begun to learn that she and her excellent friend could sometimes think differently; and it did not surprise her, therefore, that Lady Russell should see nothing suspicious or inconsistent, nothing to require more motives than appeared in Mr. Elliot’s great desire for reconciliation.  (P, 147)

 Anne is not only more perceptive than Lady Russell in terms of personal motives, but she also differs in what she truly values in her friends.  She values the open-heartedness of the Musgrove family, and especially of Frederick’s fellow sailors and their families – the Crofts, the Harvilles.  More than any of the heroines, at the end of Persuasion Anne totally separates herself from her family in favour of Frederick’s open-hearted sailor friends.  

Mrs. Dashwood is the most loving mother a heroine could have; Sense and Sensibility presents the most loving view of motherhood.  Mrs. Dashwood may not always function as a mother, but she is a positive force in the lives of her daughters.  She often lacks judgment, but she is warm and loving, and truly desires her daughters’ happiness.  On the other hand, it is Elinor who often ends up acting as the mother figure; it is she who has the strongest inner sense of right and wrong, and she is the only one of the family who demonstrates reticence and decorum.  When we are introduced to Elinor, we are told: 

Elinor, this eldest daughter whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother …  Her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn.  (SS, 6)   

Mrs. Dashwood usually acts more like a sister, especially to Marianne.  “Mrs. Dashwood entered into all their feelings with a warmth which left her no inclination for checking this excessive display in them” (SS, 54).  Mrs. Dashwood is quite as romantic as her daughter, and thus her sensibility outweighs what common sense she has.  She is unable to restrain her second daughter, nor does she see the necessity for such restraint.  “In Mrs. Dashwood’s estimation, he [Willoughby] was as faultless as in Marianne’s” (SS, 48).  In her romantic sensibility, Mrs. Dashwood enters so much into Marianne’s feelings that she often neglects those of her eldest daughter.  Mrs. Dashwood becomes conscious of this neglect by the end of the novel:   

She now found that she had erred in relying on Elinor’s representation of herself …  She found that she had been misled by the careful, the considerate attention of her daughter …  She feared that under this persuasion she had been unjust, inattentive, nay, almost unkind to her Elinor; – that Marianne’s affliction, because more acknowledged, more immediately before her, had too much engrossed her tenderness, and led her away to forget that in Elinor she might have a daughter suffering almost as much, certainly with less self-provocation, and greater fortitude.  (SS, 355-56)   

(It is interesting to note that, of the three, it is Mrs. Dashwood, not one of her daughters, who matures the most in the novel.)

In Mrs. Jennings we have a delightful substitute mother for Elinor and Marianne.  Mrs. Jennings is certainly not genteel, and is even less capable than Mrs. Dashwood in putting any kind of check on Marianne’s behaviour.  But, other than gentility, the two women share many common characteristics.  Both are ineffectual, both are sincerely warm-hearted.  When Marianne falls ill: 

Her [Mrs. Jennings’] heart was really grieved ….  And as for their mother, when Mrs. Jennings considered that Marianne might probably be to her what Charlotte was to herself, her sympathy in her sufferings was very sincere.  (SS, 313)   

Mrs. Dashwood is a major character in the novel.  In fact, Mrs. Bennet is the only other heroine’s mother to hold such a role.  But, unlike Mrs. Bennet, Mrs. Dashwood represents warm affection, and a happy family life; Elinor is isolated from her mother and sister by her emotional maturity, but she and Marianne are not in any sense the orphans the other Austen heroines are.  

Northanger Abbey also presents a loving mother.  At first glance. Mrs. Morland even appears to be a somewhat able mother; Catherine does come from a truly happy home.   However, Mrs. Morland, even more than Mrs. Dashwood, is a failure as a source of morality; she has too many children to concentrate on the guidance and education of any individual daughter or son:   

Mrs. Morland was a very good woman, and wished to see her children every thing they ought to be; but her time was so much occupied in lying-in and teaching the little ones, that her eldest daughters were inevitably left to shift for themselves; and it was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had by nature nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, base ball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen to books – or at least books of information.  (NA, 15)   

It is no wonder that Mrs. Morland should not pay any more attention to her daughter when, at the age of fifteen, she develops her taste for gothic novels and romantic poetry; Mrs. Morland’s motherhood is a policy of benign neglect.

These brief references to Mrs. Morland are all, of course, highly satiric.  However, a close look at what little the reader is told about her does show her to be naïve; in fact, she – and probably Mr. Morland, as well – are possibly even more naïve than their daughter Catherine.  When the Allens invite Catherine to Bath, “Mr. and Mrs. Morland were all compliance” (NA, 17), yet even Catherine knows that Mrs. Allen’s judgment is not trustworthy.  When Catherine is sent home from the Abbey, her mother says, “ ‘My dear, you give yourself a great deal of needless trouble … depend upon it, it is something not at all worth understanding’ ”(NA, 234).  The parents barely blink at Henry’s proposal, as “His pleasing manners and good sense were self-evident recommendations; and having never heard evil of him, it was not their way to suppose any evil could be told” (NA, 249).   Catherine’s parents, in fact, assume that everyone else is as kind as they are.  Catherine tells Isabella, “ ‘It is impossible … for parents to be more kind, or more desirous of their children’s happiness’ ” (NA, 119).  

Mrs. Allen, Catherine’s substitute mother in Bath, is even less a role model or a source of guidance than is Mrs. Morland.  While Mrs. Morland is too busy, Mrs. Allen is too lazy; she possesses only “the air of a gentlewoman, a great deal of quiet, inactive good temper, and a trifling turn of mind …”  (NA, 20).  It certainly never occurs to her that the Thorpes might not be good acquaintances for Catherine, though she does note “… that the lace on Mrs. Thorpe’s pelisse was not half so handsome as that on her own” (NA, 32).  She is, in fact, not unlike Lady Bertram.  

Catherine, in Bath, is isolated, and tries to trust to her own judgment.  She shows her consistent desire to do the right thing, and whenever she is troubled, she seeks advice; she gets into trouble, however, when she seeks advice from the wrong people – the Thorpes, Mrs. Allen.  The Thorpes are too self-serving, Mrs. Allen too lazy to be able to assist her.  After all, states Mrs. Allen, “ ‘Young people do not like to he always thwarted’ ” (NA, 105).  Ultimately she finds the guidance she needs in Henry Tilney.  She has matured by the end of the novel, and, indeed, she acts with real dignity when she is sent home from Northanger Abbey.  She and Henry will have a companionate marriage, but, like Emma, her husband will always be her mentor and superior; theirs is not a marriage of equals.  

Now we move away from the good, if ineffective, mothers to the harmful ones.  Poor Fanny is unique as an Austen heroine in that she has two homes – and three mothers, none of whom is more than a substitute.  One would expect Aunt Bertram to have the most important role in Fanny’s upbringing, but she is unable to exert herself enough to set any kind of moral tone:    

To the education of her daughters, Lady Bertram paid not the smallest attention.  She had not the time for such cares.  She was a woman who spent her days in sitting nicely dressed on a sofa, doing some long pieces of needlework, of little use and no beauty, thinking more of her pug than of her children, but very indulgent to the latter, when it did not put herself to inconvenience … (MP, 19-20)    

Aunt Bertram abdicates most of her maternal role – not only with regard to her niece, but also with regard to her own daughters – to her sister Norris.    

Lady Bertram did not go into public with her daughters.  She was too indolent even to accept a mother’s gratification in witnessing their success and enjoyment at the expense of any personal trouble, and the charge was made over to her sister, who desired nothing better than a post of such honourable representation, and very thoroughly relished the means it afforded her of mixing in society without having horses to hire.  (MP, 35)  

Aunt Norris is selfish and unprincipled in the extreme, and Julia and Maria both show her influence; Maria, as the favourite niece, turns out quite the worse of the two:  

That Julia escaped better than Maria was owing, in some measure, to a favorable difference of disposition and circumstance, but in a greater to her having been less the darling of that very aunt, less flattered, and less spoilt.  (MP, 466)    

And, of course, even as Aunt Norris works to spoil Maria and Julia, she consistently works against Fanny’s comfort and happiness.  She “… had no affection for Fanny, and no wish of procuring her pleasure at any time …” (MP, 79).  Fanny, of course, has no gumption at all.  “She rated her own claims to comfort as low as even Mrs. Norris could” (MP, 221), and, when Sir Thomas offers her the carriage, she responds “… with the feelings almost of a criminal towards Mrs. Norris” (MP, 221).  

Mrs. Price, the mother who gave up the child Fanny, is certainly no better a mother than her two sisters.  She has no affection, nor any welcome, for her oldest daughter.  It is interesting to note, however, that the family life in Portsmouth that would surely have crushed Fanny does not crush her sister Susan; Susan can handle both her parents, and will probably bully her Aunt Bertram.  Susan, rather than her sister, is more like the other Austen heroines; she has the spirit of Emma and Elizabeth and Catherine.  

With three mothers to oppress her, poor Fanny is isolated both physically and morally; of the Austen heroines, she has the most difficulties to overcome.  She is the closest to an orphan of any of them.  She is never a true part of either her birth family or the Bertram family, and never has reason to expect affection from any of them, except William and Edmund.  Yet Fanny, in spite of all these difficulties, has tremendous inner moral reserves; it pains her to go against Edmund’s wishes, but it would be impossible for her to disregard her own moral sense.  Considering Fanny’s upbringing, considering that only two people, William and Edmund, have ever loved her, she is quite admirable.  Like Elinor and Anne, she is principled, and depends on her inner resources when those around her fail her.  While Fanny will probably always look up to Edmund, theirs will still be a marriage of equals, for, in her rejection of Henry Crawford, and in the Lovers’ Vows affair, she has proved herself Edmund’s superior in moral matters – and, even if the modern reader does not agree with her morality, Edmund does.  She cannot possibly be a worse mother than those who raised her; she might occasionally bore her children, but both she and Edmund will be affectionate parents.  

Elizabeth Bennet has undoubtedly the worst mother a heroine could have.  Mrs. Bennet is a constant source of embarrassment and irritation – though, of her five daughters, only Elizabeth has the perception to realize the extent of her mother’s shallowness and negative influence.  Mrs. Bennet is indifferent to her daughters’ education.  Lady Catherine aptly pronounces, “ ‘No governess! – How was that possible?  Five daughters brought up at home without a governess! – I have never heard of such a thing … Without a governess you must have been neglected’ ”  (PP, 164-65).  

     Mrs. Bennet is equally indifferent to her daughters’ moral education – and, in fact probably is incapable of providing them with any moral example.  To illustrate Mrs. Bennet’s notion of advice, when Lydia takes off for Brighton:   

Mrs. Bennet was diffuse in her good wishes for the felicity of her daughter, and impressive in her injunctions that she would not miss the opportunity of enjoying herself as much as possible; advice, which there was every reason to believe would be attended to …  (PP, 235)    

Like Mrs. Dashwood, Mrs. Bennet can only enter into her daughters’ feelings – or at least, into the feelings of Kitty and Lydia – she cannot censure them.  When the regiment is about to leave for Brighton:   

Their affectionate mother shared all their grief; she remembered what she had herself endured on a similar occasion, five and twenty years ago.  ‘I am sure,’ said she, ‘I cried for two days together when Colonel Millar’s regiment went away.  I thought I should have broke my heart.’  (PP, 229)   

And, like Aunt Morris, Mrs. Bennet can show little fondness for a daughter so different from herself; she could hardly enter into Elizabeth’s feelings.  “Elizabeth was the least dear to her of all her children”  (PP, 103).  

In Aunt Gardiner, however, we have Mrs. Bennet’s counter, and the most admirable, and most developed, substitute mother in the novels.  Aunt Gardiner is no blood relation to the Bennets, and she has her own happy family.  She is “… an amiable, intelligent, elegant woman, and a great favourite with all her Longbourn nieces.  Between the two eldest and herself especially, there subsisted a very particular regard” (PP, 139).  Unlike Mrs. Bennet, she is capable of giving real advice.  She is the only one to advise Elizabeth against Wickham; later, she is the physical instrument of Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s reconciliation at Pemberley.  While most of the other mother substitutes are caricatures, Mrs. Gardiner represents the visible ideal family life, so far from the family life of the Bennets.  The Gardiners will certainly be part of “… the time when [Elizabeth and Darcy] should be removed from society so little pleasing to either, to all the comfort and elegance of their family party at Pemberley”  (PP, 384).  

In Aunt Gardiner Elizabeth has a role model and a friend; Aunt Gardiner, like Darcy, is Elizabeth’s moral and intellectual equal.  However, she remains a minor character, and cannot be the agent of Elizabeth’s maturity.  Rather, Elizabeth herself must be that agent.  Isolated from her parents and younger sisters by their foolishness and lack of morality, isolated from Jane because of her inability to discriminate, and isolated from Charlotte because of what Elizabeth considers her friend’s less than intelligent marriage, Elizabeth is as isolated within her social circle as any of the Austen heroines.  

In defense of Mrs. Bennet, however, one should note that, when Austen writes, “The business of her life was to get her daughters married”  (PP, 5), she may certainly be satiric, but she is also writing a truth: it is the business of all the heroines’ mothers – and mother substitutes – to get their daughters married.  And, of course, it is the business of the plots as well.  In a sense, mothers may be measured by how well they succeed in this endeavour – though this is an ironic measure.  In Pride and Prejudice, Jane, Elizabeth, and even Lydia are married in spite of their mother, not because of her at all.  Austen’s other heroines come equally independently to their marriages.  

       All of Jane Austen’s heroines are, in one sense or another, quite as parentless as Fanny Burney’s Evelina, or Emily, the heroine of Mrs. Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho.  Those who have parents are isolated from those parents, and from the rest of their families as well.  But all choose marriage – and, undoubtedly, motherhood – for themselves.  All the heroines have the makings of being better mothers than their own; with the self-knowledge they have achieved in the course of the novels, it is quite likely that they will succeed.  However, even as happily-married women, they will remain isolated from their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sisters, at least intellectually.  For Austen, the ideals of happy marriage and successful motherhood exist – but they are rare, and require intelligence and emotional maturity.   


Austen, Jane.  The Works of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman, 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933, 5 vols. 

Woolf, Virginia.  A Room of One’s Own.  New York: Harcourt Brace, 1929. 

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