March 2022 meeting: Women of a certain age – in Austen (2)

As noted in the first post in this two-part series, our March meeting was devoted to discussing “women of a certain age”. The first post focused on the definitions, and the contributions of members who looked at the topic more broadly. This post contains the contributions of those who chose to explore particular characters.

It’s important to reiterate that these characters were chosen according to some different understandings of “women of a certain age”.

Mrs Smith (Persuasion)

Many of Austen’s older women, said our member, suffered from a “malady imaginative”, but Mrs Smith’s illness was real. Mrs Smith is not technically middle-aged, by our generally agreed definition, but she was three years older than Anne Elliot, and, because of her experience, she seems much older. However, our member’s main point was that Mrs Smith, by her definition of the topic as being older women who drive the plot, is a significant plot device in Persuasion.

Greenfield writes of Mrs Smith in Sensibilities, likening her to that other important Smith, Harriet Smith in Emma. Both Smiths challenge the judgement of the heroine, and are more than just “objects of patronage” for their heroines. Our member argued that Mrs Smith exposes how callous Mr Elliot could be, but she could also be manipulative. She’s savvy, resilient, complex, and has an “elastic” mind, said our member. She keeps readers uncertain about her true motives. She had married for money, and it’s only on Anne’s second visit to her sick bed that Mrs Smith reveals all she knows about Mr Elliot. Is she sincerely Anne’s friend, or using Anne for her own advantage? She doesn’t expose Mr Elliot’s full perfidy until she ascertains that Anne does not plan to marry him.

Nonetheless, argued our member, Mrs Smith is an interesting friend, because she lets Anne see the fault of her own choices. Unlike Lady Russell, she doesn’t interfere, but she encourages Anne. Women of a certain age, concluded our member, did have powers of persuasion, and in Mrs Smith’s case she helped Anne clarify her decision. She plays a similar plot role in terms of the heroine’s change of mind as the Gardiners do in Pride and prejudice.

Our member didn’t have time to research her fully, but argued that Mrs Churchill, another (much) older woman, plays an important role in driving the plot of Emma.

Miss Bates (Emma)

Jane Austen, Emma

Jane Austen creates no female over the age of 30 who are marriageable (with the exception of Lady Susan), said another member, and Miss Bates is the only older spinster in Austen’s novels who is a main character. She represents a subset of society, a subset that Austen, herself, and her sister Cassandra, also belonged to.

Miss Bates is introduced in Ch. 3 of Emma, with “she was a great talker on little matters”. She’s in the middle of life, needing to make her money last, which was Austen’s own world. Then we don’t meet her again until Ch. 19 when we are told of Emma’s reluctance to visit her. Emma sees Miss Bates and her mother as “tiresome”, and has a horror of “falling in with the second rate and third rate of Highbury” who regularly visit the Bateses – which of course tells us more about Emma than those women. And yet, Emma and Miss Bates have a few things in common: both care for aged parents, both are unmarried, and both seem happy.

Miss Bates is a great talker and on Emma’s visit she talks for 5 pages inspired by Jane Fairfax’s letter. Norton asks how readers react to her: do we find her “amusing or delightful” or does the sight of page/s devoted to fill us with “gloom”. These questions determine whether we share Emma’s reaction to her. Emma is exasperated by her and shows little tolerance or empathy, and yet others in Highbury, including Mr Knightley, show remarkable kindness to Miss Bates. 

Norton discusses how Austen presents Miss Bates – the use of double dashes to convey the frenetic nature of her speech. He also suggests we try to imagine being her, and read her speeches aloud.

Our member did disagree with Norton’s statement that readers are amused by Emma’s witticism about Miss Bates at Box Hill. She argued that most readers, like Mr Knightley, are appalled.

Miss Bates is more than a comic element, but plays an important role in the plot: she reveals significant pieces of information, particularly regarding Jane and Frank.

Beyond this, Norton argues that Miss Bates is important to Austen’s deepening vision of humanity, to her dealing with women with compassion.

Mrs Jennings (Sense and sensibility)

Book cover

Mrs Jennings, said our member, plays a useful role in Sense and sensibility. She is always where the action is or she makes effort to know what’s going on (going so far as to ask her servants to obtain information from the servants of others). She’s generous and good-hearted, but a gossip, so she keeps the plot moving along, like Miss Bates. However, she can get “the wrong end of the stick” at times, such as putting Colonel Brandon and Elinor together.

She appears in at least 25 of the 50 chapters. She sees through affectations like Fanny Dashwood. She’s described as “cheerful, agreeable”, but Marianne finds her boring, interfering. But, proposed our member, this reflects more on Marianne’s character than on Mrs Jennings’.

She’s wealthy, and she’s never invisible. Things don’t bother her. Having married off her daughters satisfactorily, she is keen to do the same for the Dashwood girls.

Mrs Norris (Mansfield Park)

Mansfield Park

Our member who chose Mrs Norris started with her name. Doody suggests that “Norris” might derive from the French for “north” or Nourrice (nurse). Mrs Norris is harsh as the north, and, ironically, un-nurturing. “Norris” is also the surname of John Norris, a cruel pro-slavery delegate portrayed by Thomas Clarkson, who was a leading writer for the abolition and whom Austen read.

Barchas refers to an article by Kathleen Fowler, who argues that “Jane Austen plants for us an emblem for the entire novel” in the moor park apricot tree, which is praised by Mrs Norris and judged as “insipid” by Dr Grant. Fowler argues that Austen uses plants to help delineate characters: the Misses Bertram make artificial flowers while the life-draining Mrs Norris dries roses.

The moor park apricot discussion (Ch. 6) also serves to reveal character of he two Grants and Mrs. Norris, who discuss it. This discussion, for example, raises the issue of taste and discernment. Mrs Grant says that Dr. Grant cannot even recognise the genuine article. But he is not alone, because, repeatedly, characters fail to recognise “the natural taste” of real fruit: the Bertrams and Crawfords fail to recognise Fanny’s virtues; and Fanny fails to recognise real strength and “natural” behaviour in her Portsmouth family.

Mrs Norris gets it wrong all the time, not only about the nature and taste of the apricot. She:

  • takes the credit for engineering Maria’s engagement to a man she does not love (Mr Rushforth) while missing what is going on between Maria and Henry Crawford
  • promotes the theatricals, not appreciating (unlike Fanny and Edmund) that Sir Thomas would disapprove
  • is cruel, particularly to Fanny, but also the Mansfield Park servants
  • is mean (and the examples abound), but it is epitomised in her refusal to have Fanny live with her and her spending as much time as possible at Mansfield Park to save money
  • is a sycophant, obsequious, particularly to Sir Thomas
  • is a snob, and emphasises the difference between Maria and Julia, and Fanny

Our member wondered what modern personality disorder we could ascribe to her: passive aggressive?mid-life crisis? relevance deprivation syndrome (which she experiences twice, first after the death of her husband, and then when she is banished with Maria).

Does she have any redeeming qualities? Blogger Sarah Emsley shares the thoughts of George Justice (from Arizona State University). He says:

We learn in the novel’s first paragraph that Mrs. Norris was the older sister of Lady Bertram and, subject to the marriage market of her time, had to watch her younger sister marry first (and marry well) and eventually find “herself obliged to be attached to the Rev. Mr. Norris, a friend of her brother-in-law.” The double passive of “found herself obliged” and “to be attached” signals the novel’s latent sympathy with the character. Mrs. Norris is characterized both explicitly and in the action of the novel as having a “spirit of activity.” Therefore, being put in the position of being acted upon in the single most important life moment that society imposed on young women of her social class—marriage—is not a punishment of her but the signal moment shaping the narrative of Mrs. Norris’s life. Mrs. Norris is female activity repressed by patriarchal society.

Justice continues to suggest that as the active spouse of a clergyman, she would have had plenty to do, the most important of which would probably have been raising children, but Mrs. Norris is dealt another blow by life: she had no children. Austen writes of her frugality, suggesting that

Had there been a family to provide for, Mrs. Norris might never have saved her money; but having no care of that kind, there was nothing to impede her frugality. (Ch. 1)

So, says Justice, Mrs. Norris’ ill-judged encouragement of Lovers’ vows can be understood in terms of her having “clawed her way to significance through assuming a role in the economy of Mansfield Park”. She is “a middle manager, a factory floor shift supervisor despised by both the owner … and the workers …”. With Sir Thomas absent, and no-one taking charge, she does, he argues,

the best she can. Like many middle managers … she can only act on her best understanding of the intentions of her superiors in relation to those she is managing—who are, at best, resentful, and at worse filled with enmity and contempt.

So, he says, we could see her as “a victim of an unjust society: widowed, ill-educated, and requiring patronage to maintain her human dignity”. What does it say about us, he asks, if we’d rather she be Miss Bates, who is “powerless and ridiculed, existing solely on the basis of charity”? Looking at her this way, he suggests that “Mrs. Norris, given her limited opportunities, is as hard-working as any of Austen’s female characters”.

Another member saw some redeeming qualities, suggesting her economising is a positive quality in a woman managing on her own.

Academic Moira Ferguson also hints at Mrs Norris’s affection for Maria as a redeeming feature, but she also likens Mrs Norris to the role of “overseer”.

Perkins explores how the idea of slavery plays out in Mansfield Park. The article makes interesting reading, finding analogies between the institution and practice of slavery, and the treatment of people, and particularly Fanny, at Mansfield Park. For example, as the master of Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram has ultimate responsibility for years of humiliation and pain inflicted upon Fanny by her authorised overseer, Mrs. Norris, even if he didn’t fully intend this evil. Mrs Norris, who has little power herself, seems to relish this role of subjugating someone below her on the ladder. Sir Thomas leaves his plantations under an overseer.

Sources

4 Responses to March 2022 meeting: Women of a certain age – in Austen (2)

  1. wadholloway says:

    A great discussion WG, leaving me mute with admiration. I hadn’t thought about Austen being/achieving a ‘certain age’ though I often wish she had allowed just one of her heroines the freedom she allowed herself.

    • Thanks Bill … interesting point re Austen’s heroines. That could be a good discussion topic, one which would have take into account discussions of her biography and whether she did allow it to herself or it was how things turned out?

      • wadholloway says:

        That’s a discussion I would enjoy reading. My opinion FWIW is that once that Anglo-Irish guy was out of the picture she was happy to settle into spinsterhood (the name men give women’s independence) with Cassandra. (Look at poor bloody Ch. Bronte who was finally talked into giving up her career(s) as school propr and writer for marriage and promptly died in childbirth).

      • Tom Lefroy? Yes but after that there was possibly a romance in 1801, and then the overnight proposal in 1802, all of which suggests she still had hopes? Lots of things to think about.

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