Sunday, 6 August 2017

Miss Austen's Cautionary Tales by Val Tyler

Jane Austen primarily wrote love stories about women of good sense and principal, falling in love with men of good character; but the more I read her books, the more I wonder if she had another purpose.

Miss Austen often has a subplot or backstory about a man who entices a young lady to run away with him. He may do this simply for his own amusement or vanity, or for financial gain, but he never considers the consequences that will befall the lady.

In Pride and Prejudice there is a backstory about George Wickham trying to, and very nearly succeeding in, seducing fifteen year-old Georgiana Darcy. Fortunately for Georgiana, her brother, Mr Darcy, has a great deal of sense and influence and is able to save her, thus denying Wickham her £30,000 that had been his object. If he had succeeded there would have been no alternative but to make poor Georgiana marry the womanising and profligate Wentworth, as Lydia Bennett did some time later.

Lydia Bennett and George Wickham:BBC
Wickham ran off with Lydia for his own amusement. This selfish act opened her up to malicious gossip and precluded her from decent society. The only course of action was for Lydia to marry Wickham as quickly as possible, and this she willingly did. Even so, they were a tainted couple and Lydia’s life became less than enviable. ‘Their manner of living… was unsettled in the extreme. They were always moving from place to place in quest of a cheap situation, and always spending more than they ought. His affection for her soon sunk into indifference; hers lasted a little longer…’

In Sense and Sensibility, John Willoughby is introduced to the reader as a Knight in Shining Armour, rescuing the injured Marianne Dashwood from a wet and uncomfortable hillside. As the story unfolds, the reader begins to notice his lack of judgement. He encourages Marianne to be imprudent and we begin to realise that Mr Willoughby is not quite the gentleman we originally took him for. Marianne does not have direct male protection and her mother does not have the good sense of her sister, Elinor.

Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby:BBC

Eventually, Colonel Brandon relates to Elinor the treatment of his ward at the hands of Willoughby who, some time before, had had taken sixteen year-old Eliza away from the protection Colonel Brandon had secured for her, seduced the poor girl and, to use Brandon’s words, left her ‘in a situation of the utmost distress, with no creditable home, no help, no friends, ignorant of his address! He had left her, promising to return; he neither returned, nor wrote, nor relieved her.

Colonel Brandon did not force Willoughby to marry Eliza, it was too late for that and, illegitimate as she was, Eliza has little value in society as we see in Emma with Harriet Smith. Willoughby is not even expected to provide for, or even acknowledge, his child.

In Mansfield Park, Maria Rushworth is a well-connected and wealthy married woman with male protection and an enviable place in society. She throws all this away when she runs off with Henry Crawford. He soon tires of her and her family are left with the problem of what to do with a disgraced woman. There is no way she can return to her former home and husband, and it is decided that she and her unpleasant Aunt Norris are to be found an ‘establishment… in another country, remote and private, where, shut up together with little society, on one side no affection, on the other no judgement, it may be reasonably supposed that their tempers became their mutual punishment.’

Henry Crawford and Maria Rushworth:BBC

Miss Austen seldom comments on the rights and wrongs of society, but she verges on criticism when she says that, ‘...the public punishment of disgrace...’ is ‘in this world …less equal than could be wished…’

Unfair and boring though Maria’s punishment may have been, the fate of Colonel Brandon’s first love, the mother of Eliza, turned out to be tragic. Rich and well-connected though she had been, she left her loveless and miserable marriage to be with the man she loved. Her husband divorced her and, deserted by her lover and penniless (a woman’s wealth automatically passed to her husband when she married), she had no place in society. Thus, she was passed from man to man and when Colonel Brandon eventually returned to England and found her, he describes how she was, ‘So altered – so faded – worn down by acute suffering of every kind! hardly could I believe the melancholy and sickly figure before me, to see the remains of the lovely, blooming, healthful girl, on whom I had once doted…’

It is noticeable that he ‘had once doted’ on her and, excellent man though he is, Brandon had no inclination to marry her and give Eliza a name. He is a kind man and did all any man with a good name could be expected to do; he provided for them. The mother was ‘in the last stage of a consumption’. He thought that ‘life could do nothing for her, beyond giving time for a better preparation for death…’ Disgraced as she was, she was better off dead. Surely any female reader would sit up and take note.

In Northanger Abbey, Miss Austen is not explicit as to what happens between Isabella Thorpe and Captain Frederick Tilney, but society judges Isabella because she has allowed his attentions while being engaged to another man. She is disgraced and her friends, the Mitchells, are shocked to see her out in public. Shamed girls should be hidden away, and poor Isabella had no money to cushion the blow.

Isabella Thorpe and Captain Tilney:ITV 
I wonder why Miss Austen entwined such plots in her charming stories about manners and love and I suggest she was doing so for more than entertainment. There is little doubt that gossip can be delicious and people like to ooh and ah at the misfortunes of others, but I wonder if Miss Austen’s aim was to help young, innocent or bored ladies to understand the importance of protecting their reputation.

I do not suggest this was her prime motivation, but I do suggest she might have wanted her books not only to interest her reader, but to alert ladies to a certain kind of man who might not be trusted; especially young women who might be romantically inclined, but naïve. Her tales are witty and interesting, but they also demonstrate how everything can go desperately wrong. Women had to be careful. Only the very fortunate, and here I am thinking of Marianne Dashwood who had Colonel Brandon to make her respectable after tongues had wagged about her very unflatteringly. Fortunately for Marianne, she had stayed the right side of propriety and, consequently, could be accepted not only by Brandon, but by society if a man like the Colonel married her; which, of course, he did.

I like to think Miss Austen wove cautionary tales into her stories to remind women that a dalliance simply would not be worth the excitement.


Sue Bursztynski said...

I wonder how many of her readers picked up on that point? Well, at least Harriet Smith got her appropriate man after Emma nearly stuffed up her life!

Lynne Benton said...

Great post, Val - and very thought-provoking!