August 2012 meeting: The older female characters in Pride and Prejudice

On Saturday August 18th we welcomed Dr Kate Mitchell from the ANU to the meeting, as well as welcoming back Dr Sarah Ailwood.

The topic for discussion was the older female characters in Pride and Prejudice. The discussion that ensued was wide ranging, lively and complex. This report can only capture a flavor of that complexity.

We began naturally with Mrs Bennet as Dr Mitchell felt her undergraduate students were ‘hard on’ Mrs Bennet, not understanding why “The business of her life was to get her daughters married”. As a result she gets a ‘raw deal’ from these younger readers, whereas Mr Bennet is treated more sympathetically, although a strong case could be made for him being a negligent father.

For some members Mrs Bennet’s problems stemmed from the fact that she was unable to separate herself from her daughters, especially Lydia and is hence an embarrassing mother. Mrs Gardiner, however, was considered a role model, a more conventional mother who talks sense.

Older women as role models are rare in Austen’s novels because, as one member remarked, for a plot to have drama and excitement, heroines can’t have good parents. Mrs Philips is described as “vulgar” by Austen and a gossip. John Mullan in What Matters in Jane Austen, Bloomsbury 2012, discusses in one chapter the important characters who never speak in Jane Austen’s novels. He calls this “the selective denial of quoted speech to particular characters” including Mrs Philips, despite the fact she is a “dedicated talker”. However, Mrs Philips’ voice is finally heard as she tells her sister the gossip from Mrs Nicholls, the housekeeper at Netherfield.

Members raised issues of Mrs Bennet and the menopause with its resulting anxiety attacks, as a response to John Wiltshire’s argument in Jane Austen and the Body, CUP 2006, that Mrs Bennet’s nerves function in two ways, “as real distress, the result of anger, humiliation and powerlessness – and as modes of recuperation – an attempt to rescue herself as a centre of attention, if not of actual authority”. The discussion then turned to the entail and Mr Bennet’s lack of economic provision for his family and the resulting impact on Mrs Bennet.

The topics of power and powerlessness naturally led to Lady Catherine de Bourgh and how, despite her status and power, she was unable to control events. There are, therefore, interesting parallels to be drawn between Mrs Bennet and Lady Catherine in their efforts to interfere to protect their families. Ultimately both are ineffectual and both are ludicrous.

A member referred to an article by John Halperin in Persuasions in which he argues that Lady Catherine is probably based on the Dowager Lady Stanhope who, in the 1790s, was described as “a rather fierce old lady” who dominated her husband while he was alive and his descendants after his death.

Another member focused on the role of the older working women in Pride and Prejudice, including the three housekeepers, Mrs Hill at Longbourne, Mrs Nicholls at Netherfield and the ‘redoutable’ Mrs Reynolds of Pemberley, pointing out that the latter is instrumental in driving the plot as she dispels many of Elizabeth’s false impressions of Darcy.

The discussion ended with a return to Mrs Bennet and Lady Catherine, contrasting their rudeness and ‘pushiness’ with Mrs Gardiner, a women from Lambton, a country woman who shows patience, generosity and kindness, and to questions that no one can really answer. What was Mrs Austen really like, with her monopoly of the couch and “gentle connections”?  And what was Jane Austen’s relationship with her mother?

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