In honour of Jane Austen’s 241st birthday, I’m posting an essay by Nora Bartlett on “Jane Austen and Grandparents.” Nora wrote the first guest post for the blog series on Austen’s Emma that I hosted last winter, and she kindly gave me permission to use the title of her contribution, “Emma in the Snow,” as the title of the whole series.
Nora died of cancer on August 14, 2016, and will be much missed by her family and her friends and colleagues around the world. She taught part-time for more than twenty years at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, she worked with adults in various lifelong learning programs, and she often wrote and lectured on Jane Austen and her novels. I never met Nora in person, but I thought of her as a dear friend, and I miss hearing her voice in the lively letters she sent me. I will treasure the memory of our correspondence about Austen and other writers. We also had several conversations about snow—not enough in Scotland, Nora said, for someone born in upstate New York, as she was, and accustomed to white winters; too much in Nova Scotia, I complained to her during the infamous storms of March, 2015.
It’s a pleasure and an honour to share with you Nora’s essay on grandparents, which she sent to me a few days before she died. I wanted to save it for a special occasion and Jane Austen’s birthday seemed like a good choice. For an author photo, Nora sent me this picture of her with her horse Bert, jumping in the paddock by the sea. She told me he was named after Bert from Sesame Street “and resembles him in rectitude and in looking embarrassed rather than conspiratorial when anyone says or does anything funny.”
You could not, with any confidence, expect to see your grandchildren in the world we have lost. —Peter Laslett, The World We Have Lost
When Jane Austen was born in 1775, she had no grandparents living, her father having been orphaned young and her mother left parentless by 1768. From her teens, though, she lived with parents who were also grandparents, and her own talents as an aunt are testified to very convincingly in her nephew’s Memoir and elsewhere. For this essay, the question I began with, given the availability of the grandparent-grandchild relationship to her everyday experience, was why so few of her mature novels explore this relationship very fully. There are absurd grandparents in her juvenilia, like the mysterious stranger who comes and goes in a trice in “Love and Freindship”: after finding that he is grandfather to a mounting number of distinctly dodgy young people, he dispenses £50 notes and vanishes. And there are the longsuffering, letter-writing grandparents who battle with dignity against the threat posed to their children and grandchildren by the insidious charms of Lady Susan in that savage, anti-filial little work. But Pride and Prejudice is without depicted grandparents, and Mansfield Park with its disastrous marriage and its many thwarted marriages, almost seems—but only almost, as we’ll see—designed to disappoint all hopes of parents to become grandparents.
In thinking Jane Austen gave little attention to realistic grandparental hopes, wishes, and experiences, however, I was wrong—both from lack of alertness to the novels and from failing at first to realize that, though the Austens were a multi-generation family, such a lucky experience, in a time of high infant mortality, late marriage and early death, was rare. As figures in Peter Laslett’s The World We Have Lost (1965) show, before the economic transformations of the early 19th century, less than 25% of the population of England was ever over 40—in Laslett’s telling phrase, “conversation across the generations must have been rare, much rarer than it is today.” Although the conversation in Emma between Emma and Harriet about Robert Martin’s prospects for marriage mimics the tone of an older, wiser woman advising a very young one and is not a reflection of Emma’s serious thinking—indeed, like much of Emma’s talk, it reflects no thought at all—it does show some knowledge of how her social and economic inferiors made decisions about marriage. Only at the more prosperous level, which Jane Austen usually concentrates on, could a Mrs. Bennet be aiming at the prospect of a marriage for one of her daughters “since Jane was sixteen” (Volume 3, Chapter 8).
The Austens themselves were a long-lived family. Even Jane survived her 40th birthday, and her brothers were able to marry early, and to marry young women, some of whom had their first children while still in their teens. The brothers’ marital experience also reflected the high rate of early death of first wife and husband remarriage, a phenomenon also noted by Laslett. With young children needing a mother’s care, there would often be a remarriage. Of the five Austen brothers who married, four were married twice. The extensive grandparental experience testified to in the Memoir rested on these then-natural developments of family life, but even more it rested on the senior Austens’ long and healthy—despite Mrs. Austen’s claims to invalidism—lives, which were somewhat exceptional, since though the privileged could marry early they could not—despite their greater access to medical care—depend on that care to guarantee better health than lack of such care gave to the poor. Neither the richest of her brothers, nor the poorest, could keep his first wife alive, an experience perhaps reflected in the persistent family myth that Emma’s Jane Fairfax, married into one of the richest families Jane Austen deals with, is to die in childbirth. It might be possible to see the novels as reflecting both the general experience, with not many grandparents about, and her own, with grandparents taking an active role in the upbringing of their grandchildren.
For, as we’ll see, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Persuasion on careful examination turn out to be looking quite hard at grandparents and grandchildren. And Persuasion uses the experience of the grandparent and the treatment of grandchildren, rather as some of the other novels use behavior with money, to enable us to see deeply—though often in a quick, deft, sketch-fashion—into the moral and imaginative lives of Austen’s characters. So the question I started with—“why so few grandparents and grandchildren?”—has turned into “why so many”!
If we run briskly through the novels in order of publication, and jettison Northanger Abbey, that late-published, early-written novel, as of no interest to the discussion because there is not a grandparent in sight, we see that Sense and Sensibility gives us two widowed grandmothers, Mrs. Jennings and Mrs. Ferrars, and one very funny scene in Volume 2, Chapter 12 of these two nearly coming to blows over the relative heights of two of their grandchildren, only one of whom is present. For Mrs. Jennings, the affectionate grandmother, the novel also provides a new baby, “a son and heir” for the daughter to whom she is closer, Mrs. Palmer (Volume 2, Chapter 14). At the novel’s end, there is also an almost coy nudge to the reader, an arch bit of indirection about Elinor’s pregnancy, hinted at via their need for “rather better pasturage for their cows” (Volume 3, Chapter 14). This child will have both Mrs. Dashwood and Mrs. Ferrars as grandmothers, and both women are widows. Thus, like the Middleton children and Harry Dashwood, Edward and Elinor’s baby will have no living grandfather.
In Pride and Prejudice we are spared seeing how either of the Bennets would anticipate either a Bingley, or a Darcy—or, horrors, a Wickham—baby. That is outside the book’s scope. But there is the “young olive branch” of Charlotte and Mr. Collins. One has great hopes for the humor and good sense with which any child of Charlotte’s will be brought up; and that baby will have two grandparents, in the Lucases, presumably spending more time than ever calculating how long Mr. Bennet is likely to live.
Mansfield Park, as I’ve suggested, operates almost actively against a parent’s natural wish for grandchildren: the wedding we see ends in bitterness and shame, and two prospective marriages between Bertrams (if Fanny here counts as a Bertram, as she seems to when her uncle is pressing for the marriage) and Crawfords fail to come off, and though the marriage between Mr. Yates and Julia turns out to be less catastrophic than circumstances suggested it might, one feels they both need to grow up themselves before any children would be a blessing.
But with the same coyness—or is it archness?—the sly indirection, the faint nudge, as in Sense and Sensibility, closes the novel as Fanny and Edmund “had been married long enough to begin to want an increase of income, and feel their distance from the paternal abode an inconvenience” (Volume 3, Chapter 12). The plot—Dr. Grant’s bathetic death from over-eating, and the expectation of a grandchild, never made explicit—moves them to Mansfield parsonage, so much easier for the new grandparents. Here is another living pair—this baby will have both grandfather and grandmother. We might note that the move closer to Mansfield is not a move closer to Portsmouth, where there will be another grandparental pair. It seems likely that Mrs. Price will content herself with a note saying she will knit something when she can find some time, and that the Bertrams, deprived of other grandchildren by their parental failings, will reap the grandparental benefits of their generosity in adopting Fanny.
Emma, on the other hand, could almost be thought to have been devised with the grandparental relationship in mind, as Mr. Woodhouse has five grandchildren. Unlike the other young mother of a large family whom we see in the novels, Mrs. Gardiner, who is calm and confident, Isabella Knightley is forever anxious about her own and her family’s health and takes them with her everywhere. Thus Hartfield at Christmas, unlike Longbourn, is full of children. And then in the early summer Emma and her father are left in charge of the two eldest Knightley boys. We see Mr. Woodhouse in action as a grandfather—as much as we see him in action in anything!—mostly fretting about that holiday at the seaside and its threats, then fussing over Mr. Knightley’s tossing the little boys high up into the air, but also enjoying the little word game Emma has made for them, at which he is probably pretty much at their skill level, or not so much below them that it is no fun for anyone but him. Just as he was an anxious father he is an anxious grandfather, although he is a devoted, attentive one. Sadly, we see no scenes of his supervising their eating, which must require much sleight of hand on Emma’s part to get the requisite calories into a pair of hungry boys.
Like so many of Jane Austen’s grandparents, Mr. Woodhouse is widowed, as is the novel’s other grandparent, his “worthy old friend” Mrs. Bates (Volume 3, Chapter 9). The household over the shop in Highbury is therefore all female, and includes three generations. I think we need to take some time to think about Jane Fairfax’s difficult situation in that too-small house with the endlessly talking and thoroughly well-meaning Miss Bates. Mrs. Bates’s deafness may be a trial to her daughter, though she does not complain, only describes (“I say one thing, and then I say another,” says Miss Bates, which the reader has no difficulty believing [Volume 2, Chapter 9]). But surely Mrs. Bates’s great age and her extreme deafness may sometimes produce the blessed effect of total silence. Mrs. Bates seems quite content to be left out of things, and there must be times when Miss Bates is out, or talking to Patty in the kitchen, and then one imagines Jane pressing her aching head, silently, to some cushion and neither having to speak nor to listen. At times the deaf old lady may have been her best friend and a desperately needed resource.
There is, of course, no sly allusion at the end of Emma to possible babies—who, with Emma, would dare? Beyond the seaside honeymoon all else is outside the novel’s scope; that is, all but perfect happiness. Perfect happiness is in store for the rather more deserving Anne Elliot, too, at the end of Persuasion, but, like Emma, Persuasion is a book about grandparents and grandchildren. The warm, unaffected Musgroves offer the reader the opportunity to observe a grandparent’s trials, perhaps more than a grandparent’s rewards. Parents themselves almost beyond count, the older Musgroves have not been prepared by their own (mostly) happy and contented children for dealing with the consequences of Mary’s sulky, erratic mothering, as Anne learns on arrival at Uppercross: “Oh! Miss Anne, I cannot help wishing Mrs. Charles had a little of your method with those children. . . —Bless me! how troublesome they are sometimes” (Volume 1, Chapter 6). “Troublesomeness”—which the reader sees again and again, which steadily advances the plot and helps control the novel’s action as it slowly turns and turns, returning Anne and Captain Wentworth to a right knowledge of their own feelings.
Many readers have been struck by the physical intensity of the scene in which the toddler is clinging stickily to Anne’s neck until a whirling moment in which “she found herself in the state of being released . . . someone was taking him from her . . . Captain Wentworth had done it” (Volume 1, Chapter 9). Maria Edgeworth, for example, wrote to a friend in 1818, “Don’t you see Captain Wentworth taking the boisterous toddler off her back as she bends over the sick boy on the sofa? Or rather don’t you feel it?” (quoted in Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas ).
Persuasion is the novel in which Jane Austen risks more of these high-intensity, shatter-the-surface moments. The last one at the White Hart inn in Bath will leave Anne, in Charles’s Musgrove’s honest, affectionate words, “rather done for” (Volume 2, Chapter 11), as the moment of Anne’s release from her nephew leaves most readers.
Another exceptionally rich moment that focuses on grandchildren is the Christmas scene at Uppercross Hall. This time, the grandparents are securely in control, and the scene has no role in the plot except to demonstrate to the reader how Anne has learnt, in the months at Uppercross, to relax and enjoy herself. The scene bears comparison, lean and concise though it is in style, with the glorious hyperbolic Christmas at old Fezziwig’s that haunts Scrooge in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol:
There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled, and there were mince-pies, and plenty of beer. But the great effect of the evening came . . . when the fiddler . . . struck up “Sir Roger de Coverley.” Then old Fezziwig stood out to dance with Mrs. Fezziwig. Top couple too; with a good stiff piece of work cut out for them; three or four and twenty pair of partners; people who were not to be trifled with; people who would dance, and had no notion of walking.
This section is about a page long; Uppercross Christmas, so trim it is easy to miss, is a paragraph in Chapter 2 of Volume 2, and depicts the visiting Harville children, the Musgrove children home from school. The girls gather around the table, “chattering” and “cutting up silk and gold paper,” while at a host of other tables “bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies . . . riotous boys were holding high revel,” and the scene is “completed by a roaring Christmas fire.”
Without the sensory overload—the “more” and “more” of the Fezziwig scene—there is nevertheless a quality of perfectly judged sensory delight here: one hears the “chatter,” and almost hears the scissors snipping, sees the pleasurable flimsiness and flash of gold and silk, smells those pies, and all is brought together with care by the solidity of the tables and trestles, and the sound of the fire, which gives the reader gratifyingly more than just enough, but never too much.
But we would want to note that even in the midst of this idyll there is grandparental labor to be done, the “sedulous guarding” of the well-brought up young Harvilles “from the tyranny of the two children from the Cottage, expressly arrived to amuse them.” As with the list of pleasures, every word here describing the pains of family life is placed with care, and the irony of “tyranny”/“amuse” speaks very clearly to the reader who has paid attention to those unruly young boys. Affection and fun—Mr. Musgrove shouting into Lady Russell’s ear while small children clamor on his knees—but “guarding,” too. This “fine family-piece,” as the paragraph concludes, is also a fine grandparental piece.
If this is an almost symbolic moment, renewing the early admiring tones about the elder Musgroves being formed in “the old English style” (Volume 1, Chapter 5), the famous picture with which the novel opens, of Sir Walter Elliot reading his own entry in the Baronetage, has its symbolic aspect, too. From the image of Sir Walter reading we are moved right into looking over his shoulder to read exactly what he is reading, and also to see what, in the past, he has written into this moveable feast of a book. And if we see the Musgroves through their commonplace everyday pleasures, we see Sir Walter through his—and through the pleasures and pains he has avoided.
Sir Walter has amended the entry—“improved it by adding, for the information of himself and his family, these words, after the date of Mary’s birth—‘Married, December 16, 1810, Charles, son and heir of Charles Musgrove, Esq. of Uppercross, in the country of Somerset,’ and by inserting most accurately the day of the month on which he had lost his wife.” One feels intuitively that Sir Walter would have beautiful penmanship. There are no blots or splodges there. And well-known though it is, the paragraph—the corrected paragraph in particular—gives us much to think about. He has not added the births of his grandsons, who, of course, do not carry the Elliot name. They are not in line to inherit the baronetcy, or Kellynch Hall. Neither will they be dependent on the now-shaky Elliot finances for their own start in life. Whatever of “pride—the Elliot pride” (Volume 1, Chapter 10) Mary manages to pump into them will not be enhanced by their grandpapa’s efforts.
His total silence here about the grandchildren is echoed throughout the novel, as Sir Walter nowhere—nowhere—acknowledges that he is a grandfather. Can it be his vanity, his unwillingness to consider himself old enough for the grandfather role? Possibly. But possibly it is something even less active, and more repellent: Sir Walter does not seem to remember that his grandsons exist. The messages sent to Mary by Sir Walter and Elizabeth do not mention the boys—something which the narrative highlights by contrasting Mrs. Clay’s “more decent attention, in an inquiry after Mrs. Charles Musgrove, and her fine little boys” (Volume 2, Chapter 6). In every inquiry after the Cottage household it is only Mary—the Elliot—who is mentioned, though even there neither father nor sister waits to hear the answer. When Mary and Charles arrive in Bath the boys are not mentioned. Since we have no quoted or reported speech from the two little Cottage boys—or any other child—it isn’t really possible to estimate the importance the Elliot side of the family has in their imaginations. It feels as if Sir Walter may have as little presence in their lives as they have in his.
Neither side could have the role the cultivated Austens played in their grandchildren’s lives, of inspiring reading and writing. The male Musgroves cheerfully accept their limitations, to “sport; . . . without benefit from books or anything else” (Volume 1, Chapter 6), while the ladies focus on household matters, dress, a little light music. But despite all the pride, we are assured that Sir Walter never reads anything but the Baronetage, and every time we see Elizabeth with a book she is closing it. And I think we can feel reasonably sure that Mary’s delight with the Lyme circulating library is not caused by her finally being able to get hold of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women! Where the depiction of grandparents may reflect Jane Austen’s own experience, though, is in the Musgroves, however commonplace and rough-hewn they are, because they are shown, as the Austens are in the letters and the family Memoir, in loving connection with their grandchildren, not just at Christmas, but every day. The chilly blank of Sir Walter’s lack of connection thus has in the Musgroves a moral yardstick—but also something more.
For one thing of which Sir Walter is not accused by the world who would call him a “foolish, spendthrift baronet” (Volume 2, Chapter 12) is a lack of family pride. Yet, just as the novel shows from the outset that his pride in Kellynch Hall is something of a delusion (as he deserts it at the first opportunity), it also shows him—and it is in the treatment of his living descendants that it shows him—essentially without the real family pride that keeps the Baronetage going.
The “book of books” is steeped in dynastic drive. Those marriages to “Marys” and “Elizabeths” that made and marred fortunes and futures, the “exertions of loyalty” “mentioned in Dugdale,” though set in the past, were made by men and women who thought not only of their family name but about the future of that name—about their legacy, their descendants (Volume 1, Chapter 1). Some of the Elliots of the past must have been violent men and determined women, carving out a dynasty, not a race of courtiers and fops gazing into an endless series of mirrors. Sir Walter cannot be blamed for—like Mr. Bennet—failing to produce a male heir. (The reader feels sure poor Lady Elliot, leaving three daughters, bore the brunt of that blame.) But he can be blamed, and is, in the novel, both by his own grandparental blanks and the Musgroves’ steady exertions: their undemonstrative energy—they are an old county family that is rising in the world, not falling—is contrasted with Sir Walter’s and Elizabeth’s stasis.
In the White Hart scene which gives so much warmth and bustle, chatter and action to the second volume of the novel, there is the unforgettable eruption—missile-like—of Sir Walter and Elizabeth which effects a physical drop in temperature, “a general chill . . . an instant oppression” of the happy group spirit which shames Anne (Volume 2, Chapter 10). Throughout the novel we see her, though a dutiful and loyal, uncomplaining daughter and sister to these worthless people, shamed by their callousness and irresponsibility. That Anne, thoughtful Anne—and like Jane Austen Anne is a loving aunt, who even in her darkest hours can take some pleasure in having been of use in caring for the little boys—does not reflect, as far as the reader knows, on her father’s shortcomings as a grandparent. She is aware of his failings in upholding the values of “an ancient family,” and sadly certain the Elliot tenants and other dependents will be better looked after by the incoming Crofts: she “felt the parish to be so sure of a good example, and the poor of the best attention and relief, that however sorry and ashamed for the necessity of the removal, she could not but in conscience feel that they were gone who deserved not to stay, and that Kellynch Hall had passed into better hands than its owners’” (Volume 2, Chapter 1). And of course the childless Admiral Croft, in a scene with the little boys, behaves much more like an indulgent grandfather with them, than even Mr. Musgrove does (Volume 1, Chapter 6).
At the opening of Volume 2, “the little boys at the cottage”—left to the care of servants as the family from the big house leave to support Louisa at Lyme—are presented in an almost symbolic way, an analogue to Anne’s own neglect. In reality, of course, elements are already in motion which will transform her condition, and in a few months she will be “a sailor’s wife” who “glorie[s]” in her situation (Volume 2, Chapter 12). And the boys at the Cottage—one imagines them stuffed with cake while the servants gossip and flirt—probably enjoy the license of their temporary situation, which Christmas, as we’ve seen, will transform. It doesn’t seem likely that they suffer from the temporary neglect here any more than from the steady neglect by their maternal grandfather. But, like the one-book reading list and the mirrored dressing room and the reduction of meaningful connections to the family member who most resembles that dressing room, this grandparental inertia defines Sir Walter’s character, and shows him failing not only as a paterfamilias—that would mean nothing to him—but as an Elliot. And that would shame even Sir Walter.
Quotations from Austen’s novels are from Mollands.net.
Here are the links to the other guest posts Nora wrote for my blog:
“. . . the snow in Emma is one of those events which provides everyone present with the opportunity to act intensely in character. . . .”
“. . . the ‘pause’ is often a moment when a character is suppressing a laugh, or an angry reply: it stands for a rebellion that does not take place, or takes place only internally.”