books, death, Emma, Fiction, Jane Austen, literature, motherhood, mothers, Mrs. Woodhouse, novels
George Justice is the editor of the Norton Critical Edition of Jane Austen’s Emma (2011). He specializes in eighteenth-century literature and has written and edited books and essays on the literary marketplace, authorship, and women’s writing. He’s Dean of Humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Associate Vice President for Humanities and Arts in the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development at Arizona State University.
When I hosted a party for Mansfield Park a couple of years ago, George contributed a defense of Mrs. Norris. For Emma in the Snow, he’s written a guest post on Emma’s late mother, Mrs. Woodhouse. He’s also sent this beautiful photo of Phoenix, Arizona in winter.
I’m realizing I know quite a few Austen scholars who live in places where it’s warm all winter—or at least not as cold and snowy as it is in my corner of Canada. In case you missed the recent guest posts by Diana Birchall, Elisabeth Lenckos, and Cheryl Kinney, you can find their photos here: winter in Santa Monica, London, and Texas. Meanwhile, we’ve just had two snow days in a row here in Halifax….
I’m thinking of the contrast with Highbury, where “the snow was nowhere above half an inch deep—in many places hardly enough to whiten the ground.” Instead of taking pictures of the snowbanks in front of my house, however, I decided to show you my photo of the view from Point Pleasant Park yesterday afternoon, after the blizzard had ended.
Okay, now that I’ve finished my weather report, let’s move on to more important things. It’s a real pleasure to introduce George’s contribution to the Emma celebrations.
At what age would memories of a mother’s caresses be “indistinct”? For Emma, twenty years old, that must have been a long time ago. The narrator of Emma does not specify exactly when Emma’s mother had died, but from my own experience of losing a mother in childhood, and comparing my own memories with those of my brothers, Emma must have been seven or younger when her mother died.
It has always seemed strange to me that the narrator of Emma proclaims that little had vexed her heroine up until the time of the events of the novel. My own mother died when I was nine, and although I, like Emma, lived a relatively calm and peaceful childhood, with the “place” of my mother taken by a loving, Miss Taylor-like step-mother, I would have to say that my mother’s death from cancer was indeed highly vexing, not only to me but to my entire family.
And so I must project vexation onto Mr. Woodhouse, who never remarried and apparently made a rapid transition from husband to valetudinarian, depending on Miss Taylor and his two daughters for female guidance and upon Mr. Knightley, Miss Taylor, and Emma to keep the business side of Hartfield going.
Most marriages in Jane Austen’s novels are pretty bad, and it’s easy to project a severe level of dysfunction onto the marriage of Emma’s parents. Was Mrs. Woodhouse, like Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Bennet, the victim of a certain passion (in this case for money?) that led her into an intellectually unequal match? She seems to have had no connections in Highbury—at least there are no parents or siblings on display, or even mentioned, in the pages of Emma. Perhaps, like one Augusta Hawkins of Maple Grove, Mrs. Woodhouse married a narcissist husband to escape from an unfortunate situation?
Let’s look at the text to glean what we might about Emma’s mother. There is very little: evidence comes directly only from Mr. Knightley’s lament that a lack of her strong mother’s guidance has led Emma astray; instead of an accomplished, disciplined perfect woman of her day, he implies, we have a flawed, headstrong, occasionally self-involved young woman. (Would the novel’s readers want her any other way?)
The less direct evidence I want to consider comes from the case of Emma’s older sister Isabella, who was not presumably too young to forget her mother’s caresses. Most critics and readers look at Isabella as her father’s daughter, whereas Emma might take after her mother. And the comparisons with Mr. Woodhouse and Isabella are too strong to overlook. Obsessions with food, health, and a smothering sense of familial affection; perhaps the character most like Mrs. Woodhouse would be Mr. John Knightley!
In Volume 1, Chapter 5, Mr. Knightley says, “At ten years old, [Emma] had the misfortune of being able to answer questions which puzzled her sister at seventeen. She was always quick and assured: Isabella slow and diffident. And ever since she was twelve, Emma has been mistress of the house and of you all. In her mother she lost the only person able to cope with her. She inherits her mother’s talents, and must have been under subjection to her.” It’s unclear to me (at least) why inheriting her mother’s talents would have resulted in Emma being under subjection to her—except in the vacuum left by the vapidity of Isabella and Mr. Woodhouse. And, in any case, why should such strong talents require “subjection”?
Mr. Knightley here is wrong: it is no misfortune for Emma to be able, at ten, to answer questions that puzzled her seven-year-older sister. This is an example of the novel’s requiring Mr. Knightley to change as much as Emma must change. Especially since the words “mother” and “motherly” are often used in the novel in relation to gentleness and warmth—overwhelmingly both in direct reference and in qualitative judgment to old Mrs. Bates, Miss Bates’s oft-referred to mother.
Other characters lost their mothers at an early age, including Frank Churchill (for whom Mrs. Weston serves as a surrogate “mother,” just as she had for Emma) and Jane Fairfax, who does not seem to have suffered from want of a mother in the way that Mr. Knightley associates with Emma. And even Mrs. Elton had lost her mother (as well as her father) sometime before marrying her “cara sposo.”
Mrs. Woodhouse’s death was certainly a misfortune to herself, to Mr. Woodhouse, to Isabella, to Emma, and to others in Highbury. But if Mrs. Bates is the ideal of motherhood in the novel, perhaps the strength of character and independence attributed to Mrs. Woodhouse had even less space in her pre-Wollstonecraftian world than Emma will have in post-revolutionary Britain. The inanities of the various mothers in Emma therefore might serve as commentary on the world that threatens to hold Emma down.
There are two moments of hope for mothers at the end of the novel. First, Mrs. Weston, motherly in a positive sense, gives birth to a daughter. But more generally, Emma married to Mr. Knightley and Jane Fairfax to Frank Churchill provide a sense that future generations will be raised by relatively egalitarian parents in modern marriages. Death may or may not intervene (we wouldn’t wish it for Mrs. Weston, Emma, or Jane Fairfax), but all three women have had a profound and positive impact on their husbands, not to manage them (as Mrs. Woodhouse must have done) but to rationalize them. We don’t believe that little Henry will inherit Donwell Abbey, even if he seems to be the heartier of Isabella’s two boys. Instead, we can’t help but believe that the happy ending of Emma will be as much about what happens in the future to Highbury as what has happened in the past, including the death of Mrs. Woodhouse and others of the novel’s absent mothers.
Fifteenth in a series of blog posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Emma. To read more about all the posts in the series, visit Emma in the Snow. Coming soon: guest posts by Gillian Dow, Margaret Horwitz, and Kate Scarth.
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A most interesting post! “Mr. Knightley here is wrong” hmmmmm. While I rarely think Mr Knightley is wrong, I see the excellent point here.
George Justice said:
Thank you for the comment!
Bobbie Kolehouse said:
Reblogged this on Jane Austen's Spirit and commented:
An interesting analysis of the impact of the loss of her mother on Emma Woodhouse. My question was in the description of “subjection” as interpreted by Mr. Justice as meaning held down or contained–oppressed. My understanding is that Austen meant Emma was authoritative and in control, managerial, and if her mother had lived, Mrs. Woodhouse would have managed rather than Emma. Similar to Anne Elliott’s mother also married to a ninny who managed well but died young leaving Anne to manage but encumbered by the spendthrift father and older sister like him. And Mr. Justice mentions the fact that despite Hartfield being a family holding, there are no uncles, no aunts, no cousins, no relations beyond sisters and brothers for either Knightly or Woodhouses. Few friends for either of them. Interesting read!
George Justice said:
I’ve often noticed that authors of children’s adventure stories seem to kill off the mother before the beginning of the story. I assume it’s because if the mother was still there then the children would be kept safe at home, so there would be no adventure and no adventure story. I guess the same could be for Emma. If her loving but firm and wise mother had lived to raise Emma properly, then Emma would not be so silly and self absorbed. Then there would not be a funny story to tell about her. There would also not be as much need for Mr. Knightly in her life. I doubt if Mr. Knightly would have loved her as much if she was perfect.
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George Justice said:
Thanks for commenting!
I have wondered before (but never to this thoughtful extent) about Mrs. Woodhouse, and how Emma would have got on if her mother had lived. However, I think that life was such a precarious thing in those days that Austen saying that Emma had not much to vex her was simply because it was not unusual, and therefore, not noteworthy that her mother had died before Emma had much memory of her. In today’s world, there is a definite expectation that your parents will live at least until you are an adult and out in the world. When that doesn’t happen, it is a trauma that is deeply felt, and rightly so. But in Austen’s time, I think it was less so, and therefore, not so deeply felt. I liken it to the maudlin verses on childhood samplers at the time… “When I am dead and in my grave, this work in had my friends can have”. Perhaps it was “whistling past the graveyard”, but also, I think, just an acceptance of the world as they knew it.
All that said, I loved this essay, and especially some of the insights drawn out from interactions between other motherly characters in the book.
George Justice said:
Abigail Bok said:
I enjoyed your post! The number of “absent mothers” in the novel hadn’t previously occurred to me. Even Mrs. Bates is a vacancy, though physically present. I don’t take as dim a view of the Woodhouses’ marriage as you, though: even in his present state of enervation, Mr. Woodhouse has charming manners and likes company. Such traits, along with youth and good looks, might have sufficed, though he was probably never his wife’s intellectual equal (except in Alexander McCall Smith’s reinterpretation).
As for asking why Emma’s strong talents should require subjection, the way I take it is that her situation in life has allowed her to become dominant and uncontrolled in ways considered unladylike in her day; she manipulates others and is disrespectful toward those she considers inferior, such as Miss Bates. “Obstinate, headstrong” girls were considered in need of reining in as recently as the early twentieth century. My own grandmother used to say that I needed a dominant older man for a husband to control my rebellious mind. (Thanks for the warning, Gran! I escaped parson’s mouse trap as a result.) Miss Fairfax was much more the model of restraint that was expected (and although her mother was absent, she did have the Campbells).
This series of posts is so interesting—whole worlds opening up from one text.
George Justice said:
I can’t share your favorable view of Mr. Woodhouse! But thank you for your engagement with the piece…
Fantastic post about a rather unusual topic: it opens up a whole new field for speculation, offering some very interesting insights.
At the start of the book our heroine is not yet 21, and Miss Taylor’s just married, having been 16 years with the family. Emma remembers she taught and “played with her from five years old,” so we may assume her mother had already passed away by that time or was too ill to take care of her children. That would explain her hazy memories of her.
Was her death a traumatic event for her husband and daughters? It must have been, however they may have chosen to repress their recollection of it. Illness and death were far more frequent in those days, so perhaps people needed/pretended to be tougher in order to survive- not talking about them might have been a strategy. We’re told very little indeed about Frank Churchill’s or Jane Fairfax’s mother – to say nothing of Harriet’s: being an illegitimate daughter, no one seems to care “whether she were dead or alive.” And it now strikes me that garrulous Miss Bates, never mentions her sister. Mr Woodhouse has been “a valetudinarian all his life, without activity of mind or body,” but he didn’t use to be so opposed to matrimony – after all he did marry once- maybe he couldn’t get over the loss of his wife …
We don’t know much about Mrs Woodhouse’s parenting style. Isabella dotes on her children, is overcareful of their health, “full of their merits, blind to their faults,” and anxious that they should enjoy themselves as much as possible. But she takes after her “most affectionate, indulgent father.” From Emma’s attitude to her nephews, we might infer that Mrs Woodhouse would have done all in her power to make her daughters “happy, which … must preclude false indulgence and physic.” In other words, she wouldn’t have spoilt or smothered them with excessive solicitude. Being a clever woman herself, she would have known how to encourage Emma to develop her talents, as well as “industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding.” I think this is what Mr Knightley means – not that talents require subjection but that more gifted children need a certain guidance that “slow and diffident” parents simply can’t provide.
“Men of sense … do not want silly wives.” I don’t imagine Mr Knightley would wish Emma to be any less intelligent than she is. His ironical use of the term “misfortune” echoes NA: “A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing any thing, should conceal it as well as she can.” 🙂 It’s not Emma’s abilities that constituted a problem, but rather her father and sister’s lack of them. Like Augusta Hawkins, she is, in a way, “the best of her own set” – hence her “conceit.” Miss Taylor was undoubtedly “intelligent” and “well-informed”, but ” the mildness of her temper” prevented her from giving her pupil “such a complete education as her powers would seem to promise.”
George Justice said:
Very useful additional commentary! Thanks so much.
Good post. Interesting that a few of Austen’s heroines are motherless. Anne Elliot lost her mother at 14. Fanny Price effectively has no mother. Food for thought!
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