One of the most notable traits of Jane Austen’s fiction is its gently ironical attitude towards many of its own readers. Consider Emma, for instance. Here is Austen’s description of the key event in Emma Woodhouse’s life: “It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!” Every reader of the novel (myself included) will tell you that this is a glorious moment. But note: the novel consists of 55 chapters, and this decisive moment occurs in the 47th of them; in the 49th Mr. Knightley proposes to her and is accepted; and so everything that the reader most cares about is wonderfully sorted out. But six whole chapters remain. And why is that? Because Jane Austen is interested in certain matters that her audience is not especially interested in – but (she thinks) ought to be.
Or consider Mansfield Park, in which Austen signals her deviance from popular expectation in a different way. Fanny Price has carried her torch for her cousin Edmund helplessly and hopelessly for several hundred pages – this is the longest of Austen’s novels – and then, a mere seven paragraphs from the end, we get this:
I purposely abstain from dates on this occasion, that every one may be at liberty to fix their own, aware that the cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments, must vary much as to time in different people. I only entreat everybody to believe that exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny as Fanny herself could desire.
As much as to say: “Oh, you still want Edmund and Fanny to marry, do you? Well, if you insist, be it so – but I really can’t be bothered to narrate their courtship.”
What Austen cares about – what she devotes her extraordinary intellectual energies to – is the moral and intellectual formation of young women. Austen perceives her society to be one in which people have great expectations for young women, and place exceptionally great demands upon them, but does almost nothing to prepare them to meet either the expectations or the demands.
In Mansfield Park Sir Thomas Bertram, the head of the family with whom the story is concerned, is a good man, an admirable man in many respects, but is regularly described as “cold” and “severe”; his wife, Lady Bertram, is called “indolent”; and Lady Bertram’s sister, the Mrs. Norris, who has the greatest influence over their daughters precisely because the parents are either cold or indolent, is “indulgent.” In Emma, Emma’s mother is dead and her father a hypochondriac whole manifold sensitivities make him, in his own way, as indolent as Lady Bertram.
Pride and Prejudice is more conventionally structured around the marriage of its heroine – which is perhaps why Austen thought that “The work is rather too light, bright and sparkling: it wants shade” – but even there one might argue that Elizabeth Bennett suffers in several ways from the moral idiocy of her mother and the ironic detachment of her father. But these, I submit, are not the typical dispositional errors of parents: the typical ones are laid out in Mansfield Park: severity, indolence, and indulgence.
Fanny Price and Emma Woodhouse from their childhood have older men in their lives who provide them guidance, counsel, and (in the end, as we have seen) matrimony. But along the way to that conventional Happy Ending they suffer many vicissitudes, painful episodes that, Austen suggests, they might not have suffered if their parents had provided them with consistent and loving guidance. When parents are badly formed, Auden consistently indicates, their children will be badly formed as well; and while poor moral formation is unfortunate for any children, in that particular society the girls consistently paid a bigger price. And not many girls are fortunate enough to have the regular attention of a Mr. Knightley or cousin Edmund.