Parents in Austen fall into one of three categories: “rich (or aristocratic) & overbearing”, “useless”, or “dead”. Oh, there’s also a fourth, “absent”, but in that case there’s usually a parent substitute who comes under one of the other three categories.

Here’s how it breaks down:

Northanger Abbey: Mr & Mrs Morland, absent; parent substitute: The Allans, useless. Mrs Tilney, dead; General Tilney, rich & overbearing.

Pride and Prejudice: Mr & Mrs Bennet, useless. Lady Catherine (prospective mother-in-law for Darcy as well as his aunt – sort of mother substitute), rich & overbearing.

Sense and Sensibility: Mr Dashwood, dead. Mrs Dashwood, useless (well, somewhat. She certainly doesn’t give the girls the guidance they need; Elinor has more sense than her mother and has to be the adult for most of the story). Mrs Ferrars, rich & overbearing.

Mansfield Park: the Prices, both absent and useless. Parent substitutes: Sir Thomas, rich & overbearing (although mildly so), and Lady Bertram, useless.

Emma: Mrs Woodhouse, dead. Mr Woodhouse, useless.

Persuasion: Lady Elliot, dead. Sir Walter, aristocratic & overbearing.

It’s quite striking that it’s especially the mothers who are either dead or useless. There is not one mother figure in the whole of Austen who would give the young heroine the guidance she needs to navigate the waters of finding her way in life (and a good husband). Mrs Dashwood and Lady Russell, the two mother/mother figures who are most beloved in the stories, both distinguish themselves by giving bad advice based on their own ways of thinking, rather than paying attention to what the young ladies under their care really need.

Every last one of Austen’s heroines is on her own – and that, I suppose, is what makes the stories what they are. We root for this girl who is struggling against the odds with no one older and wiser to take the burden from her. Fortunately, it does all work out in the end, but that’s no thanks to the parents. One wonders if there’s some autobiographical background to any of this.


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