Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child?: Representations of Mothers in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility
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Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child?: Representations of Mothers in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility "I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her suckling child". Jane Austen wrote these words about her novel, Sense and Sensibility, in a letter to her sister Cassandra in 1811. Such a maternal feeling in Austen is interesting to note, particularly because any reader of hers is well aware of a lack of mothers in her novels. Frequently we encounter heroines and other major characters whom, if not motherless, have mothers who are deficient in maturity, showing affection, and/or common sense. Specifically, I would like to look at Sense and Sensibility, which, according to Ros Ballaster's introduction to the novel, "is full of, indeed over-crowded with, mothers" (vii). By discussing the maternal figures in this work, I hope to illustrate the varying possibilities of what mothering and motherhood can entail in Austen, and what this curious spectrum of strengths and weaknesses means for the heroine involved. When discussing the mothers in Sense and Sensibility, it is only logical to begin with Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor and Marianne's mother. We meet her just a few pages into the novel, and are immediately told of her genuine and unassuming interest in Elinor's relationship with Edward Ferrars. Unlike most of Austen's mothers, Mrs. Dashwood is neither calculating nor preoccupied with a particular agenda for her daughters: "Some mothers might have encouraged intimacy from motives of interest...and some might have repressed it from motives of prudence...but Mrs.
Like Mrs. Dashwood, she tends to openly misread events (such as Willoughby's letter to Marianne), and also like Mrs. Dashwood, she not entirely successful at keeping Elinor and Marianne under a mother's watchful eyeMarianne's sickness is not only due to her own carelessness, but also the negligence of her guardian. Even though Mrs. Jennings is a good-hearted woman, as a mother she seems to falter, both while overseeing Elinor and Marianne, and, more apparently, with her two daughters who are more like caricatures than intelligent, well-rounded individuals. Fanny Dashwood and Lady Middleton are less generous portraits of motherhood. I mention them together because they are inexorably linked in Austen's view, both depicted as self-serving and corrupt forms of mothering. Lady Middleton, "though perfectly well bred...was reserved, cold, and had nothing to say for herself beyond the most common-place enquiry or remark" (26). She dotes on her children who, despite being described as "noisy" and "troublesome", remain conspicuously anonymous. They are rarely named, or even given a gender, as if their individuality is not what is important, but rather, their ability to serve as their mother's pet or prop. Her role as mother is the defining factor in Lady Middleton's identity, and she seems to take interest in little else. Ironically, this particular brand of devotion comes across as being detrimental to everyone involvedit reduces her to a shallow and limited individual, and creates children that are spoiled brats.
Interestingly, despite her lack of physical presence in the novel (we only meet Mrs. Ferrars for one brief encounter in the novel, and even then, Austen does not create dialogue for her that would allow us to witness what we've heard of her firsthand), there is a feeling that she is always looming (and disapproving), as if her methods of mothering are so suffocating and tyrannical that they are not contained within Edward, but appear to threaten others as well. In The Improvement of the Estate, Alastair Duckworth states "the need for 'employment', 'duty', 'responsibility', is sounded again and again in Austen's novels, as her heroines all learn the act of living itself is a profession" (34). This "resounding" in Sense and Sensibility is in part fueled by the lack of an ideal mother figure. Although Elinor loves her mother, she is also aware of her shortcomings. Ironically, Elinor, surrounded by negative examples of mothers, seems to successfully take on a maternal role, both watching out for her loved ones and keeping everything around her in check. This seems to suggest that the faults Elinor witnesses and endures in others allow her to become more mature. This line of thinking makes perfect sense when we consider Jane Austen's tendency, particularly in Sense and Sensibility, to use her writing as a vehicle for not only entertainment but also instruction. We may view the varying representations of mothers then, not only as examples for Elinor to learn from, but for us as readers as well.
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