?

Log in

No account? Create an account
Autumn - sunlitdays

sea_thoughts


The Sea of Stars

Water-stained pages, pebbles and traces of stardust


Previous Entry Share Next Entry
The Jane Austen Money Scale
Thoughtful - helensheep
sea_thoughts
A few weeks ago, I had a debate with one of my friends on Twitter. It involved comparing the Austen heroines with the Charlotte Bronte heroines, specifically Jane Eyre. My friend said he preferred the Austen heroines because they never complained about their upbringing or whined about how unfair their lives were.

I was floored by this. I didn't think you could compare Jane to an Austen heroine. It would be like comparing an apple to an orange. I pointed out that Jane grows up with relatives who hate her and take every opportunity to make her life a misery (why hello there, Harry Potter, same upbringing and same anger management issues!) and gets dumped in a school where humiliation is part of daily life and then wakes up to find that her only friend has DIED in the night. While he conceded this point, my friend's statement made me think about Austen's heroines. Just how easy do they have it?

All of Austen's major heroines grow up with at least ONE parent alive, even if that parent is not actually much of an authority figure. Most of her heroines grow up in families that can at least provide for their basic needs: food, clothes, a certain level of education. The one exception to this is Fanny Price, also Austen's least popular heroine. Although both Fanny's parents are alive, her father was released from the navy due to an unspecified disability. Therefore he never made any money from his commission and the only money he receives is half pay from the navy, most of which is spent on drink. There are eight other children in the household. As the eldest girl, Fanny's lot would normally be to care for her younger siblings i.e. become the household drudge as her mother was never taught how to take care of a house and doesn't have the energy or will to make the best of her situation. It's unlikely Fanny would get much education, so Mansfield Park really is her salvation. Nevertheless she pays a price for this rescue: constantly humiliated by her aunt, Mrs Norris (hey there, Harry), made to feel small and insignificant by three out of her four cousins, ignored by her uncle and constantly ordered around by her other aunt. When she is sent back to her family over ten years later, it's a rude shock. Fanny's family live on if not below the poverty line and she no longer fits in there (if she ever really did). Fanny takes a few leaps up the social ladder with her own marriage. She will be comfortable and never have to worry about going hungry as she would have done in her original home.

Above the Prices, I'd place the Morlands from Northanger Abbey. Catherine Morland is probably the luckiest Austen heroine in that both her parents are alive and they're both sensible, decent people. Okay, her father is a vicar on a modest income and they have had 10 children, which isn't exactly prudent, but they make do. They're certainly competent enough that in order for Catherine to get into scrapes, Austen has to send her heroine to Bath with Mrs Allen, who might possibly beat both the two younger Bennetts and Charlotte Palmer for sheer lack of brains. Catherine definitely has enough money to have a good time in Bath and there's enough to send her oldest brother to Oxford, though her sheltered background means that she's easily taken in by the way the Thorpes flash their money and General Tilney's carefully acquired stately home. But neither of them are rich enough for the Thorpes and Catherine certainly isn't rich enough for Henry Tilney. It's only when Eleanor Tilney marries a man with enough money that Henry and Catherine are 'forgiven'. Catherine definitely moves up the social ladder a notch or two (not that she even cares about that kind of thing).

I think the Dashwoods come next. Although they were once richer than the Bennett family, the entailment of their father's estate and the manoeuvrings of the evil daughter-in-law mean that the first part of the novel is about the women coming to terms with genteel poverty (or not, in the case of Mrs Dashwood). Thanks to Elinor, they do have a roof over their heads, they aren't completely outcast and they're more sophisticated than the Morlands, even if circumstances have laid them low. They are often invited to the big house, which the Morlands wouldn't be, and are able to go and stay with Mrs Jennings for a season in London. However, the death of their father leaves Elinor and Marianne without a formal protector; Elinor takes over the role of the family manager, as her mother finds it hard to accept the change in their circumstances. Elinor ends up marrying a clergyman with a steady living and Marianne marries a colonel. Neither of them will ever want for anything.

After the Dashwoods, the Bennetts. They live in Longbourn, a house with a few acres, which none of them can inherit because they're girls. The older girls seem to have been given a decent standard of education, even if they weren't made to practise their 'accomplishments' as strictly as if they'd had a governess. They are a respected family in the local area but are easily lumped in with the local bumpkins by newcomers. Both Jane and Lizzie are bright and beautiful, but the behaviour of other family members (especially their sisters and mother) constantly hinders their matrimonial chances. Nevertheless, they both make very good matches and end up in lovely stately homes with adoring husbands.

Next is Emma Woodhouse. The Woodhouses are definitely one of the richest families in the area. Emma is queen of all she surveys. She has been mistress of the household since she was young. Her mother died when she was little and her father is a hypochondriac. As such, her only authority figure is Mr Knightley (poor Mr Knightley!). Despite her personal flaws, Emma makes a good housekeeper, and always knows what to do and how to do it, even when she would much rather not. Her marriage keeps local society balanced.

Finally, we have Anne Elliot. Socially, Anne is the highest of all Austen's heroines as her father is a baronet and entitled to be called 'Sir' Walter Elliott. Unfortunately, all the family's problems stem from this title and the enormous pride that it engenders in Sir Walter. Nevertheless, a family that has to 'rent out' its ancestral pile and then take a large flat in Bath is hardly doing badly for itself, whatever Sir Walter might think.

Interested to know what my literary friends have to say about this scale. Do you agree? Or do you think some families need switching around?
Tags: ,

  • 1
I just have to chime in and say that I love Fanny Price. I'm a sucker for a good Cinderella story and I think she is one. And if I remember right, Austin said Mansfield Park was her favorite book.

And yes, I think you're right about your income scale. Of course the Austin heroines didn't complain about their lives being unfair (well, Mrs. Bennett complained a lot about the estate being entailed, but I get the feeling that's to show how out-of-it she is, that she seemed to think something could be done to fix the system of entail just for her) - they're well-off and they pretty much know it!

Edited at 2011-08-16 02:17 am (UTC)

I have a soft spot for Fanny, too. I think anyone who's been bullied will recognise themselves in Fanny. Even though she's adopted by her aunt and uncle, she's constantly made aware that she doesn't belong at Mansfield, that it will never truly be her home, that she is not as good as her cousins and never will be. Mrs Norris constantly puts her down; in fact, you could probably classify what she says to Fanny as verbal abuse. :/

A lot of the things that go wrong for Austen heroines are things that can't be helped or that they can't change because they're female.

I don't recall Jane whining-- she related the events of her life, and they were unhappy. But she also spoke of her overcoming all of the obsticals placed in her way.

I think he was also annoyed that she ended up marrying Mr Rochester. I did try to point out that marrying St. John would have been MUCH worse.

Was he making feminist case against Rochester behavior. If so, he has a point? That Mad woman theme, for the male protagnonist to get an excuse to get a new spouse, is troublesome, especially coming from a culture where we know divorce law long favored males, and women could be locked away whether the charge of mental disorder was geniune or not. And in spite of the times, there was protest of these attitudes. But he would also have to fully illustrate that Rochester abused his first wife.

It's been so long since I've read Jane Eyre, I don't recall St. John, other than Jane was settling rather than marrying for love. I'll have to dash over google books and take a peek.

He was infuriated that Rochester tried to commit bigamy with Jane without appraising her of the full facts. I agreed that his behaviour was infuriating but I do understand his reasons even if I don't agree with him. Honestly, given the madhouses of the time, I think the first Mrs Rochester was treated well. Depends if you believe she was mad BEFORE being incarcerated, though.

Well, those actions did some doubt as to the quality of Rochester's Character, and I might hesitate about marrying a man willing to hide something like that in order to fulfill his passions. The alternative, applying for a divorce, would have taken time, but wasn't the wait worth it?

No, because you could only get a divorce by proving infidelity. Jane wouldn't commit infidelity with Rochester and Bertha wasn't going to commit infidelity, just murder.

Yeah, I recall that. What a boon for him when Bertha conveniently burnt the house down. Those Bronte Women did love their drama.

Edited at 2011-08-16 07:40 pm (UTC)

While I can't comment on Austen's characters beyond the Bennetts because I've not read any of the other Austen novels (SHAME, I know), I think comparing Jane to any one of them is a little ridiculous. The books have a vastly different style and the characters' lives are completely different. Saying "Jane's a whiner about her past" reminds me a little of rich people who complain about junk cars in their neighborhood, that sort of "you should be glad for what you've got" attitude you only get from the rich!

Besides, I think there's a lot of "life's not fair" inherent in Pride & Prejudice when it comes down to it. Look at Mrs. Bennett, who is single-mindedly obsessed with the girls marrying well or else, and her scandal every time it looks like one won't/can't. If anything, all the whining in that book just happens to be hers. (I never liked Mrs. Bennett. She reminds me of my mother, just, you know, sober.)

I think you would be interested in Persuasion, Kate. The heroine of this story suffers a great deal because of her family and she's a bit older than other Austen heroines, a bit sadder and wiser, but she gradually recovers herself throughout the novel and becomes stronger and stronger.

I agree that there's a lot of subtle but strong "life's not fair" in P&P. If life were fair, one of the girls would be able to inherit. I honestly think Mary would be best. She's a bit up herself but managing an estate would soon force her to look outside herself and take interest in others. Whenever I read about/watch Mrs Bennett, I laugh but I laugh with a touch of There but for the grace of God, because if my mother been like her, I would probably have gone insane.

I have to admit, until recently, I never had much sympathy for Mrs. Bennet. What changed my mind was the situation in Sense and Sensiblities and one could undertand her fear. Proverty, homelessness, disinheritence, if her girls didn't marry was the woman's reality.

Edited at 2011-08-16 07:44 pm (UTC)

Tell your friend to read Thomas Hardy, come back, and see me.

Jane Eyre is just meant to conjure up different emotions than Austen. Some social outrage/indignation is in both, but Jane Eyre is a novel of passion and windswept moors and... stuff. Fire and ice. Less so the Austen I've read.

Also, your scale is great. I'm gonna run it by my Jane Austen loving friend. :D

*LOL* I will! Tess and Jude DEFINITELY have a lot to complain about...

Jane Eyre is just meant to conjure up different emotions than Austen. Some social outrage/indignation is in both, but Jane Eyre is a novel of passion and windswept moors and... stuff. Fire and ice.

Indeed! As Charlotte herself wrote after reading 'Pride and Prejudice': "I got the book. And what did I find? An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck." I remember the first time I read this response. I remember thinking 'Wow, Charlotte, you really missed the point'. It's a bit like criticising Agatha Christie for not being Raymond Chandler. There is passion in Jane Austen, it's just not OBVIOUS.

And thank you! Hope your friend likes it!

Agree with what you say about 'Persuasion.' Maybe Charlotte would have had a different opinion if she'd ever read that book... do notes exist? Anne is basically a fairly meek character who gradually grows stronger until she has changed her situation entirely through small means that are perfectly natural to her.

Apropos of nothing, there is a TV Tropes page for Emily of New Moon pardon me I have work to do...

I've already made a trope page for Woman with the Velvet Necklace to finally get my revenge on that darned book.

Yay for Emily! And where is this Velvet Necklace page? Link please!

Jumping in with a raised hat!

Ducky linked me to this post, 'cos we both like to read, and she suggested I post my thoughts here, so here goes!

This is a tangent off your topic, since I recently finished reading all the Brontes' novels, and they were still fresh in my mind. The one thing I wanted to say was: they are not only different from Austen's heroines, but they also never struck me as whiny!

I don't think the Brontes' heroines whined at all. In fact, I think that their heroines are so very interesting to their contemporary readers because they are women who insist on doing what they want to get what they need/want--even if it means going to hell to avoid being separated from Heathcliff, as Catherine says she would. At the other end of the spectrum, the poorest heroines would probably be Lucy Snowe (an orphan!), Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey (intact, frugal loving family; her mom lost her inheritance when she chose to marry a nice, wise poor clergyman against her father's riches. They do get poorer during the course of the novel). The other heroines do not have to worry about poverty. (There's also a hero whom we won't count.) I would say that none of the heroines whine. In fact, they are all steady-minded and determined to be self-sufficient. Even the mopiest heroine I can think of, Caroline Helstead, who is the second heroine of Shirley (the eponymous Shirley being rich and beautiful and generally compassionate) doesn't whine about having to make a living. She doesn't need to! She lives with her uncle and is most likely to inherit most of his wealth. She mopes over her romantic interest, her cousin who is himself trying to make enough money so he can show an interest in her!

...Pleased to meet you too.


Ducky's friend~

Re: Jumping in with a raised hat!

Welcome, welcome! Always happy to meet new book-loving friends! :)

I definitely agree with you, I would never see any of the Bronte protagonists as 'whiny'. I have read all the Bronte novels (with the exception of The Professor) and one thing that all of the characters have in common (even Caroline) is a very strong will. I mean, Caroline wills herself to die and nearly succeeds; Cathy actually manages it! The irony is that Charlotte based Shirley on Emily and Caroline on Anne... but I personally think Anne was the stronger of the two. Indeed, along with Jane Eyre, the strongest Bronte protagonist for me is Helen Graham, the eponymous heroine of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Edited at 2011-08-16 05:09 pm (UTC)

Re: Jumping in with a raised hat!

Just pitching in to say, I'm more than halfway through Tenant of Wildfell Hall (and I fully expect it to end with a wild pursuit through a thunderstorm, on horseback, and possibly ending with a duel; any less and I will be disappointed), and I still say that Helen Grahame is something of a Byronic Heroine, gloomy and keeping away from society and transcending its social mores in the process.

Re: Jumping in with a raised hat!

I think Helen is a bit more proactive than your usual Byronic hero but I take your point. You can view the whole book as a commentary on Wuthering Heights: her husband is definitely a response to Heathcliff. "What would marriage to Heathcliff really be like? Hell!"

  • 1