Persuasions #11, 1989 Page 117-124
Mothers, Substitute Mothers, and Daughters in the Novels of Jane Austen
MARY MARGARET BENSON
cursory examination of the novels of Jane Austen reveals an abundance
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
and are thus unable to provide any sort of role model, or guidance, or
– Mrs. Dashwood to a lesser extent, Mrs. Price – and her substitutes,
Bertram and Aunt Norris, and, of course, the supremely, delightfully
Mrs. Bennet to a greater extent. In
addition, all the heroines have substitute mothers of some kind, and
these characters, such as Mrs. Gardiner and Lady Russell, are
models of sorts; but all the substitutes remain minor characters. Yet these inadequate maternal figures do not
itself in a negative light. While
all the novels begin with heroines in unbalanced family situations, and
dead or bad mothers, they all end with the heroines – and their future
– on the verge of creating balanced families.
All the heroines will be better mothers than their own.
representations of mother/daughter relationships also reflect her views
marriage and the family as a whole. The
existing families in the novels are, in general, inadequate, and thus
the plots, which work towards ideal family situations in the ultimate
of the heroines. Unlike their
parents, the heroines and their husbands are joined in companionate
– and, in many cases, marriages of true equals – and will in turn
loving, moral families.
Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf writes, “We think back through
mothers if we are women” (132). As
women we are all interested in our mothers; as women, we define
our values in terms of our mothers, and even if we ultimately reject
mothers’ values, that very rejection is a major aspect of our own
definitions. In Jane Austen’s
time, even more than today, mothers were responsible for their
early education. Such education
included moral education – with the word moral used in the broadest
sense. Austen follows in the tradition of other eighteenth-century
Locke to Richardson, in placing a high value on the development of
though for her, of course, the presence or absence of morality becomes
of comedy. That she sees moral education
as important, and defines it in
terms of the mother/daughter relationship, is demonstrated in such
Emma and Catherine, whose early education is neglected, and who, before
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
of her family – before she can grow up and become a mother herself.
Woodhouse, like Anne Elliot, is motherless; her mother has died long
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
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
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.
mother substitute is poor Miss Taylor, later Mrs. Weston.
Miss Taylor has all the ideal maternal qualities – education,
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
is always undiscriminating in her support of her beloved child. Miss Taylor treats Emma as an equal, or, more
often, as a
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
but Jane is blessed with proper substitute parents, who educate her and
to understand her role in the world – uncomfortable though that role is.
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,
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
look up to Mr. Knightley for approval.
is Austen’s other motherless heroine. Like
Emma, in the loss of her mother Anne loses the person most like
Anne is thus doomed to moral isolation within her family.
Anne, however, differs greatly from Emma, and from the other
her maturity. She begins the novel
with self knowledge.
Elliot, like her daughter, was a gentle, submissive woman.
She “had been an excellent woman, sensible and amiable; whose
and conduct, if they might be pardoned the youthful infatuation which
Lady Elliot, had never required indulgence afterwards” (P, 4). And, she had the strength of character to
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
such right-mindedness …” (P,
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)
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
and consideration …” (P,
11). Lady Russell is similarly
blind, first when she encourages Anne’s marriage to Charles Musgrove,
later, when she encourages Anne’s marriage to Mr. Elliot, considering
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
however, at age twenty-seven is no longer dependent on Lady Russell’s
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)
is not only more perceptive than Lady Russell in terms of personal
she also differs in what she truly values in her friends.
She values the open-heartedness of the Musgrove family, and
Frederick’s fellow sailors and their families – the Crofts, the Harvilles.
More than any of the heroines, at the end of Persuasion
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:
this eldest daughter whose advice was so effectual, possessed a
understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though
nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother …
Her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them: it
knowledge which her mother had yet to learn.
Dashwood usually acts more like a sister, especially to Marianne.
“Mrs. Dashwood entered into all their feelings with a warmth
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
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
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
now found that she had erred in relying on Elinor’s representation of
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,
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
suffering almost as much, certainly with less self-provocation, and
(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:
[Mrs. Jennings’] heart was really grieved ….
And as for their mother, when Mrs. Jennings considered that
might probably be to her what Charlotte was to herself, her
sympathy in her
sufferings was very sincere. (SS,
Dashwood is a major character in the novel.
In fact, Mrs. Bennet is the only other heroine’s mother to hold
role. But, unlike Mrs. Bennet, Mrs.
Dashwood represents warm affection, and a happy family life; Elinor is
from her mother and sister by her emotional maturity, but she and
not in any sense the orphans the other Austen heroines are.
also presents a loving mother.
At first glance. Mrs. Morland even appears to be a somewhat able
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
education of any individual daughter or son:
Morland was a very good woman, and wished to see her children every
ought to be; but her time was so much occupied in lying-in and teaching
little ones, that her eldest daughters were inevitably left to shift
themselves; and it was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had by
nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, base ball, riding on
and running about the country at the age of fourteen to books – or at
books of information. (NA,
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.
brief references to Mrs. Morland are all, of course, highly satiric.
However, a close look at what little the reader is told about
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
all compliance” (NA, 17), yet even Catherine knows that Mrs.
judgment is not trustworthy. When
Catherine is sent home from the Abbey, her mother says, “ ‘My dear, you
yourself a great deal of needless trouble … depend upon it, it is
not at all worth understanding’ ”(NA, 234). The
parents barely blink at Henry’s proposal, as “His pleasing manners and
sense were self-evident recommendations; and having never heard evil of
was not their way to suppose any evil could be told” (NA, 249).
Catherine’s parents, in fact, assume that everyone else is as
they are. Catherine
tells Isabella, “ ‘It is impossible … for parents to be more kind, or
desirous of their children’s happiness’ ” (NA, 119).
Mrs. Allen, Catherine’s substitute
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
only “the air of a gentlewoman, a great deal of quiet, inactive good
and a trifling turn of mind …”
It certainly never occurs to her that the Thorpes might not be
acquaintances for Catherine, though she does note “… that the lace on
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
trust to her own judgment.
She shows her consistent desire to do the right thing, and
is troubled, she seeks advice; she gets into trouble, however, when she
advice from the wrong people – the Thorpes, Mrs. Allen.
The Thorpes are too self-serving, Mrs. Allen too lazy to be able
assist her. After
all, states Mrs. Allen, “ ‘Young people do not like to he always
” (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
dignity when she is sent home from Northanger Abbey.
She and Henry will have a companionate marriage, but, like Emma,
husband will always be her mentor and superior; theirs is not a
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
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
of moral tone:
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
doing some long pieces of needlework, of little use and no beauty,
of her pug than of her children, but very indulgent to the latter, when
not put herself to inconvenience … (MP, 19-20)
abdicates most of her maternal role – not only with regard to her
also with regard to her own daughters – to her sister Norris.
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
personal trouble, and the charge was made over to her sister, who
nothing better than a post of such honourable representation, and very
thoroughly relished the means it afforded her of mixing in society
having horses to hire. (MP,
selfish and unprincipled in the extreme, and Julia and Maria both show
influence; Maria, as the favourite niece, turns out quite the worse of
Julia escaped better than Maria was owing, in some measure, to a
difference of disposition and circumstance, but in a greater to her
less the darling of that very aunt, less flattered, and less spoilt. (MP, 466)
as Aunt Norris works to spoil Maria and Julia, she consistently works
Fanny’s comfort and happiness. She
“… had no affection for Fanny, and no wish of procuring her pleasure at
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 “…
feelings almost of a criminal towards Mrs. Norris” (MP, 221).
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
surely have crushed Fanny does not crush her sister Susan; Susan can
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.
to oppress her, poor Fanny is isolated both physically and morally; of
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
family, and never has reason to expect affection from any of them,
William and Edmund. Yet Fanny, in
spite of all these difficulties, has tremendous inner moral reserves;
her to go against Edmund’s wishes, but it would be impossible for her
disregard her own moral sense. Considering
Fanny’s upbringing, considering that only two people, William and
ever loved her, she is quite admirable. Like
Elinor and Anne, she is principled, and depends on her inner resources
those around her fail her. While
Fanny will probably always look up to Edmund, theirs will still be a
equals, for, in her rejection of Henry Crawford, and in the Lovers’
affair, she has proved herself Edmund’s superior in moral matters –
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;
might occasionally bore her children, but both she and Edmund will be
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
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 …
a governess you must have been neglected’ ”
Mrs. Bennet is equally
indifferent to her daughters’ moral education – and, in fact probably
incapable of providing them with any moral example.
To illustrate Mrs. Bennet’s notion of advice, when Lydia takes
Bennet was diffuse in her good wishes for the felicity of her daughter,
impressive in her injunctions that she would not miss the opportunity
enjoying herself as much as possible; advice, which there was every
believe would be attended to … (PP,
Like Mrs. Dashwood, Mrs.
Bennet can only enter into her daughters’ feelings – or at least, into
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
occasion, five and twenty years ago. ‘I
am sure,’ said she, ‘I cried for two days together when Colonel
regiment went away. I thought I
should have broke my heart.’ (PP,
like Aunt Morris,
Mrs. Bennet can show little fondness for a daughter so different from
she could hardly enter into Elizabeth’s feelings.
“Elizabeth was the least dear to her of all her children”
however, we have Mrs. Bennet’s counter, and the most admirable, and
developed, substitute mother in the novels.
Aunt Gardiner is no blood relation to the Bennets, and she has
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
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
instrument of Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s reconciliation at Pemberley. While most of the other mother substitutes are
Mrs. Gardiner represents the visible ideal family life, so far from the
life of the Bennets. The Gardiners
will certainly be part of “… the time when [Elizabeth and Darcy] should
removed from society so little pleasing to either, to all the comfort
elegance of their family party at Pemberley”
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
Elizabeth’s maturity. Rather,
Elizabeth herself must be that agent. Isolated
from her parents and younger sisters by their foolishness and lack of
isolated from Jane because of her inability to discriminate, and
Charlotte because of what Elizabeth considers her friend’s less than
intelligent marriage, Elizabeth is as isolated within her social circle
of the Austen heroines.
defense of Mrs. Bennet, however, one should note that, when Austen writes, “The
her life was to get her daughters married”
(PP, 5), she may certainly be satiric, but she is also
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
endeavour – though this is an ironic measure.
In Pride and Prejudice, Jane, Elizabeth, and even Lydia
married in spite of their mother, not because of her at all.
Austen’s other heroines come equally independently to their
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.
Jane. The Works of Jane Austen.
Ed. R. W. Chapman, 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1933, 5 vols.
Virginia. A Room of One’s Own.
New York: Harcourt Brace, 1929.