Today, would have been my mother’s birthday, but, sadly, I lost her in 2002. It is odd when I think of her. She was a “mighty” force, even though she was but 5’1″ tall and only weighed 97 pounds when I was born. By example, beyond how to cook and clean house, she taught me to love books and reading, always to do my best, and never to succumb to those silent whispers, which say, “You are not good enough.” I also learned to accept people without any conditions except that they accept me in return, how to care about others despite having my own issues, how to be a strong woman and manage all that life throws at me, to assist others where possible, to give more than I got, to notice life’s smallest details and to take joy in those moments, to work hard, and to love both the children in our lives, as well as our elders.
She was a single mother when being a single mother was NOT acceptable in society’s eyes, although, in reality, she was not single. She and my father were married until the day he died in 1972; however, he was never in my life. She devoted her life to me. She did all this in a time when women’s lives revolved around their husband and their children—in a time when a woman rarely worked outside the home. Her teenage years saw the Great Depression. Her 20s saw World War II. In other words, she raised me as a single parent when divorce and dysfunctional families were not the norm. She carried me up and down stairs when I had rheumatic fever and was too weak to walk. She made me Halloween costumes and clothes for school. She taught me to love reading and dance and literature and art, all the things I most cherish in my life. She tolerated indignities so that I might succeed. She was a woman both ahead and behind her time, and she shall remain a part of me forever. With every breath I exhale, her essence is released into the world.
Thinking of my mother had me wondering of Jane Austen’s portrayal of mothers in her novels. Here are some of those I discovered.
Sense and Sensibility
Lady Middleton is said to have the “advantage of being able to spoil her children all the year round.” Then we are told, “Lady Middleton seemed to be roused to enjoyment only by the entrance of her four noisy children after dinner, who pulled her about, tore her clothes, and put an end to every kind of discourse except what related to themselves.”
Mrs. Jennings, on the other hand, is said to be an extraordinary matchmaker.“She had only two daughters, both of whom she had lived to see respectably married, and she had now therefore nothing to do but to marry all the rest of the world.” On the prospect of taking Elinor and Marianne with her to London, she suggests, “I have had such good luck in getting my own children off my hands that [your mother] will think me a very fit person to have the charge of you.” She also tells the sisters, “If I don’t get one of you at least well married before I have done with you, it shall not be my fault. I shall speak a good word for you to all the young men, you may depend upon it.”
Mrs. Ferrars insists that Edward marry well and is not beyond using her wealth to control her son’s choice of bride. She tells “him she would settle on him the Norfolk estate, which, clear of land-tax, brings in a good thousand a-year; offered even, when matters grew desperate, to make it twelve hundred.”
Meanwhile, Mrs. Dashwood is said to possess a “tender love for all her three children.”
Lady Bertram is a mother who is described often as “indolent” and was said “might always be considered as only half-awake.” She pays “not the smallest attention” to her daughters’ deportment or their education.
We learn much the same of Mrs. Price: “Her disposition was naturally easy and indolent, like Lady Bertram’s.”
Mrs. Price spends her days “in a kind of slow bustle; all was busy without getting on, always behindhand and lamenting it, without altering her ways; wishing to be an economist, without contrivance or regularity; dissatisfied with her servants, without skill to make them better.”
Mrs. Price, who has nine children, mind you is said to be “a partial, ill-judging parent, a dawdle, a slattern, who neither taught nor restrained her children, whose house was the scene of mismanagement and discomfort from beginning to end . . .”
Pride and Prejudice
Mrs. Bennet is on the look out for appropriate matches for her five daughters. When she learns of Mr. Bingley’s prospects, we hear, “A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!” At the end of the book, with both Jane and Elizabeth married, we discover, “Happy for all her maternal feelings was the day on which Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters.”
Lady Catherine de Bourgh describes herself as Darcy’s “almost the nearest relation he has in the world,” and she believes she is “entitled to know all his dearest concerns.”
Mrs. Gardiner serves as a surrogate mother, of sorts, to Jane and Elizabeth. She is said to provide “a wonderful instance of advice being given on such a point, without being resented.”
Jane Bennet’s prospects as a mother are assured when we read of her tending the Gardiner children, “The children, two girls of six and eight years old, and two younger boys, were to be left under the particular care of their cousin Jane, who was the general favourite, and whose steady sense and sweetness of temper exactly adapted her for attending to them in every way—teaching them, playing with them, and loving them.”
In caring for Emma, Miss Taylor “had fallen little short of a mother in affection.”
Miss Bates speaks of her mother. “And, indeed, though my mother’s eyes are not so good as they were, she can see amazingly well still, … My mother does not hear; she is a little deaf you know.”
In speaking of Jane Fairfax, we learn, “By birth she belonged to Highbury: and when at three years old, on losing her mother, she became the property, the charge, the consolation, the fondling of her grandmother and aunt, there had seemed every probability of her being permanently fixed there; of her being taught only what very limited means could command, and growing up with no advantages of connexion or improvement, to be engrafted on what nature had given her in a pleasing person, good understanding, and warm-hearted, well-meaning relations.”
“Mrs. John Knightley was a pretty, elegant little woman, of gentle, quiet manners, and a disposition remarkably amiable and affectionate; wrapt up in her family; a devoted wife, a doating mother, and so tenderly attached to her father and sister that, but for these higher ties, a warmer love might have seemed impossible. She could never see a fault in any of them. She was not a woman of strong understanding or any quickness; and with this resemblance of her father, she inherited also much of his constitution; was delicate in her own health, over-careful of that of her children, had many fears and many nerves, and was as fond of her own Mr. Wingfield in town as her father could be of Mr. Perry. They were alike too, in a general benevolence of temper, and a strong habit of regard for every old acquaintance.”
Mrs. Morland tells Catherine, “There is a time for everything—a time for balls and plays, and a time for work. You have had a long run of amusement, and now you must try to be useful.”
“Mrs. Morland was a very good woman, and wished to see her children everything they ought to be; but her time was so much occupied in lying-in and teaching the little ones, that her elder 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, baseball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books — or at least books of information — for, provided that nothing like useful knowledge could be gained from them, provided they were all story and no reflection, she had never any objection to books at all. But from fifteen to seventeen she was in training for a heroine; she read all such works as heroines must read to supply their memories with those quotations which are so serviceable and so soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives.”
“Her mother [Mrs. Morland] wished her to learn music; and Catherine was sure she should like it, for she was very fond of tinkling the keys of the old forlorn spinnet; so, at eight years old she began. She learnt a year, and could not bear it; and Mrs. Morland, who did not insist on her daughters being accomplished in spite of incapacity or distaste, allowed her to leave off. The day which dismissed the music-master was one of the happiest of Catherine’s life. Her taste for drawing was not superior; though whenever she could obtain the outside of a letter from her mother or seize upon any other odd piece of paper, she did what she could in that way, by drawing houses and trees, hens and chickens, all very much like one another. Writing and accounts she was taught by her father; French by her mother: her proficiency in either was not remarkable, and she shirked her lessons in both whenever she could.”
Although her character is deceased when the story takes place, Mrs. Tilney is remembered as, “A mother could have been always present. A mother would have been a constant friend; her influence would have been beyond all others.”
Of Mrs. Thorpe, we learn, “This critique, the justness of which was unfortunately lost on poor Catherine, brought them to the door of Mrs. Thorpe’s lodgings, and the feelings of the discerning and unprejudiced reader of Camilla gave way to the feelings of the dutiful and affectionate son, as they met Mrs. Thorpe, who had descried them from above, in the passage. “Ah, Mother! How do you do?” said he, giving her a hearty shake of the hand. “Where did you get that quiz of a hat? It makes you look like an old witch. Here is Morland and I come to stay a few days with you, so you must look out for a couple of good beds somewhere near.” And this address seemed to satisfy all the fondest wishes of the mother’s heart, for she received him with the most delighted and exulting affection.”
Mrs. Musgrove takes care of the Harville’s children while Mrs. Harville tends to Louisa. She was “receive their happy boys and girls from school.” Mrs. Musgrove’s home is described as “a fine family-piece.”
Lady Russell prevents Anne from marrying Captain Wentworth, assuming the late Lady Elliot would wish it to be so. “Anne Elliot, with all her claims of birth, beauty, and mind, to throw herself away at nineteen; involve herself at nineteen in an engagement with a young man, who had nothing but himself to recommend him, and no hopes of attaining affluence, but in the chances of a most uncertain profession, and no connexions to secure even his farther rise in the profession, would be, indeed, a throwing away, which she grieved to think of! Anne Elliot, so young; known to so few, to be snatched off by a stranger without alliance or fortune; or rather sunk by him into a state of most wearing, anxious, youth-killing dependence! It must not be, if by any fair interference of friendship, any representations from one who had almost a mother’s love, and mother’s rights, it would be prevented.”
In speaking of Lady Russell’s role in the Elliot family, we learn, “To Lady Russell, indeed, she was a most dear and highly valued god-daughter, favourite, and friend. Lady Russell loved them all; but it was only in Anne that she could fancy the mother to revive again.”