The Importance of Aunts

(in the 19th-century novel)

Colm Tóibín

In November 1894 Henry James set down in his notebooks an outline for the novel that, eight years later, became The Wings of the Dove. He wrote about a heroine who was dying but in love with life. ‘She is equally pathetic in her doom and in her horror of it. If she only could live just a little; just a little more – just a little longer.’ James also had in mind a young man who ‘wishes he could make her taste of happiness, give her something that it breaks her heart to go without having known. That “something” can only be – of course – the chance to love and to be loved.’ He outlined the position of another woman to whom the man was ‘otherwise attached and committed … It appears inevitably, or necessarily, preliminary that his encounter with the tragic girl shall be through the other woman.’ He also saw the reason why the young man and the woman to whom he was committed could not marry. ‘They are obliged to wait … He has no income and she no fortune, or there is some insurmountable opposition on the part of her father. Her father, her family, have reasons for disliking the young man.’ This idea of the dying young woman and the penniless young man, on the one hand, and, on the other, the young woman with no fortune and an obstinate father circled in James’s fertile mind. In his conception of the book, there was no moment, it seemed, in which the second young woman would have a mother; it was ‘her father, her family’ who would oppose the marriage; over the next five or six years James would work out the form this opposition would take, and who exactly ‘her family’ would be.

In Novel Relations: The Transformation of Kinship in English Literature and Culture 1748-1818, Ruth Perry examined the make-up of the family in the early years of the novel. ‘Despite the emphasis on marriage and motherhood in late 18th-century society,’ she writes,

mothers in novels of the period are notoriously absent – dead or otherwise missing. Just when motherhood was becoming central to the definition of femininity, when the modern conception of the all-nurturing, tender, soothing, ministering mother was being consolidated in English culture, she was being represented in fiction as a memory rather than as an active present reality.

The idea of the family as broken or disturbed, and the idea of the heroine as oddly alone or controlled and managed, are central to 19th and early 20th-century fiction. If the heroine and the narrative itself are seeking completion in her marriage, then the journey there involves either the search for support from figures outside the immediate family, or the escape from members of the family who seek to constrain her. To become part of a new family with her marriage, the heroine needs to redefine her own family or usurp its power. The novel in English during the 19th century is full of parents whose influence must be evaded or erased, to be replaced by figures who operate either literally or figuratively as aunts, both kind and mean, both well-intentioned and duplicitous, both rescuing and destroying. The novel is a form for orphans, or for those whose orphanhood is all the more powerful for being figurative, or open to the suggestion, both sweet and sour, of surrogate parents.

It is easy to attribute the absence of mothers in novels of the 18th and 19th centuries to the large number of women who died in childbirth, at least 10 per cent in the 18th century. The first wives of three of Austen’s brothers died this way, leaving motherless children. But this explanation is too easy. If it had suited novelists to fill their books with living mothers they would have done so – after all, Austen’s own mother outlived her. In Novel Relations, Perry suggests that the motherless heroines of the 18th-century novel – and all the play with substitutes and surrogates – derive from a ‘new necessity in an age of intensifying individualism’. The necessity was to separate oneself from one’s mother, or destroy her, at least symbolically, and replace her with a mother figure of one’s choosing. ‘This mother who is also a stranger,’ Perry writes, ‘may thus enable the heroine’s independent moral existence.’

Mothers get in the way in fiction: they take up space that is better occupied by indecision, by hope, by the slow growth of a personality, and – as the novel itself develops – by the idea of solitude. It becomes important to the novel that its key scenes should occur when the heroine is alone, with no one to protect her, no one to confide in, no possibility of advice. Her thoughts move inward, offering a drama not between generations, or between opinions, but within a wounded, deceived or conflicted self. The presence of a mother would breach the essential privacy of the emerging self, the uncertain moral consciousness on which the novel comes to depend. The conspiracy in the novel is not between a mother and her daughter, but between the protagonist and the reader, who watches her mind at work.

Austen’s last three novels all have motherless heroines. Austen doesn’t allow this to be dwelled on. Motherlessness is used instead to increase the heroine’s sense of self: it allows her personality to emerge more intensely in the narrative, as though slowly filling space which had been secretly left for that purpose. There is a mother in Pride and Prejudice, but there are also two aunts: Elizabeth Bennet’s Aunt Gardiner and Mr Darcy’s aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh. It is an aspect of Austen’s genius that, while the novel negates the power and influence of Elizabeth’s mother, neutralises her by being both comic and blunt, the two aunts are painted in considerably different shades, one allowed a calm, civilising subtlety, the other a histrionic sense of entitlement. They also represent a changing England.

Aunt Gardiner’s husband, who was Mrs Bennet’s brother, lived from trade. He was, we are told, ‘greatly superior to his sister as well by nature as education’ and it is pointed out that the Netherfield ladies, Mr Bingley’s sisters, superior and snobbish and alert to class difference, ‘would have had difficulty in believing that a man who lived by trade, and within view of his own warehouses, could have been so well bred and agreeable’. His wife ‘was an amiable, intelligent, elegant woman, and a great favourite with all her … nieces. Between the two eldest and herself especially, there subsisted a very particular regard.’ It is to her house in London that the sisters repair in that hushed interregnum when both Bingley and Darcy have disappeared and with them the prospects for Jane; and it is while travelling with her aunt and uncle that Elizabeth renews her relations with Darcy. It is through them that she discovers that Darcy has rescued her sister Lydia. In other words, they offer stillness, unforced opportunity, vital information – none of which is available from the girls’ mother, or indeed their father. This idea that the sisters have to be removed from the family home for the novel to proceed makes the role of their uncle and aunt essential in the book.

Austen feels free, on the other hand, to make Lady Catherine de Bourgh both imperious and comic, her wealth and power serving to make her ridiculous rather than impressive; but she is not meant merely to amuse us, or to show us an aspect of English society that Austen thought was foolish. She is an aunt who does not prevail; her presence in the book succeeds in making Darcy more individual, less part of any system. Her function is to allow her nephew, who refuses to obey her, a sort of freedom, a way of standing alone that will make him worthy of Elizabeth; and worthy, too, of the novel’s moral trajectory, which moves away from blood and inheritance and privileges instead the autonomous and personal. It is a trajectory that will become increasingly important in English life as the 19th century proceeds.

Austen understood the strange, fluid dynamic of an extended family. In her own family, both Jane and her sister Cassandra, as Marilyn Butler has pointed out, ‘played a key role as travellers between the households [of their brothers] and assiduous correspondents … Jane somewhat closer to and more preoccupied with two of the younger brothers – Henry, said to have been her favourite, who lived in London, and the sailor Frank, who reported to her from various war fronts … The sisters made good aunts and friends to the next generation.’ Austen cared for some of her nieces and nephews after their mothers died, and seems to have been remembered fondly by all of them. When one niece herself became an aunt Austen wrote to her: ‘Now that you are become an Aunt, you are a person of some consequence & must excite great Interest whatever You do. I have always maintained the importance of Aunts as much as possible, & I am sure of your doing the same now.’ Austen also lived in the hope of an inheritance from her mother’s brother, Mr Leigh-Perrot, who was married and lived in Bath. The Leigh-Perrots were childless and not amusing, but they had to be kept sweet. (Her uncle’s will, which in 1817 left Austen and her siblings £1000 after their aunt’s death, did not help Austen as she herself was ill and died soon afterwards.)

Since two of Austen’s brothers, Frank and Charles, went to sea and were away from home for long periods of time, it is easy to see the tender and constant feelings which Fanny Price in Mansfield Park has for her brother William, also away at sea, as being a fundamental part of Austen’s emotional world. The novel begins by breaking a family, by taking Fanny from her own impoverished family and handing her over, almost as a changeling, to the care of her two aunts. The fact that she is penniless leaves her unprotected and requires timidity, passivity. Since the opening of the novel has all the characteristics of a fairy tale, Austen must have been tempted to make Lady Bertram, the aunt in whose house Fanny will live, an evil ogre and to make Mrs Norris, the aunt who lives nearby, the kind and watchful one. Or to make them both ogres. What she decided to do was to hand all the badness to Mrs Norris. It is Mrs Norris who makes very plain to Fanny her precarious position as someone who is enough a part of the family to be given shelter but enough of an outsider to be regularly insulted. When Fanny refuses to take part in the family theatricals, Mrs Norris says: ‘I shall think her a very obstinate, ungrateful girl, if she does not do what her aunt and cousins wish her – very ungrateful indeed, considering who and what she is.’

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