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In Praise of Jane Austen’s Negligent, Indulgent and Nasty Mothers

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Today is the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, and as a very enthusiastic Janeite, I’m loving all the thoughtful pieces about Austen proliferating across the web.

And since Kveller is a site largely for moms, let’s take a short moment out of our busy mornings to appreciate Austen’s collection of negligent and downright awful fictional mothers (the ones who aren’t dead, that is). There is one notable exception, the genial Mrs. Morland in “Northanger Abbey,” Austen’s first real novel. Clearly, she realized after that effort that there’s no point in giving her heroines nice mothers, as the other kind only make things more interesting.

Take her later work, “Mansfield Park,” for instance. Protagonist Fanny’s mother, Mrs. Price, is too distracted by the travails of marrying poor to care about her daughter, and  so she ships her off to her cousins. Mrs. Price’s sister and Fanny’s surrogate mom, Lady Bertram on the other hand, married rich. She, in her turn, sits around all day “thinking more of her pug than her children, but very indulgent to the latter, when it did not put herself to inconvenience,” as Austen writes. She is the epitome of wealthy indolence and a different kind of negligent mothering.

In “Sense and Sensibility,” Austen describes the mercurial, snobbish Mrs Ferrars, who passes the family inheritance back and forth between her two sons based on who marries acceptably, and then reverses course: “For many years of her life she had had two sons; but the crime and annihilation of Edward a few weeks ago, had robbed her of one; the similar annihilation of Robert had left her for a fortnight without any; and now, by the resurrection of Edward, she had one again.”

In fact, neither of these boys is robbed from her–Austen’s irony mocks Mrs. Ferrars dramatic tendency to cut her children out of her life, and money.

Mrs. Ferrars’ antagonist is the permissive, if loving, Mrs. Dashwood, who nurtures her daughter’s Marianne’s unrealistic flights of fancy without checking them at all, as older daughter Elinor observes, “what Marianne and her mother conjectured one moment, they believed the next: that with them, to wish was to hope, and to hope was to expect.”

But there’s no Austen mother to match Mrs. Bennet, of “Pride and Prejudice,” whose single-minded obsession with marrying off her daughters is obnoxious, near-hysterical and almost delusional, and yet mirrors the plot of the novel itself, which also wants to marry them off and ends up doing it successfully. Her defects as a mother, but also her society’s reliance on marriage as financial stability for women, is sliced open by one line towards the end of the book: “Happy for all her maternal feelings was the day on which Mrs Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters.”

I read an essay this week lamenting the lack of pleasurably bad moms on television, but a quick turn through the classics Austen canon reveals plenty of material for the modern mama hungering for someone to whom we can feel superior. Bad mothers are deliciously painful to read about—and they are a lesson in how to create lively conflict in fiction: give the protagonists a total lack of guidance and support.

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