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.’

The reader is invited, then, to dislike Mrs Norris for her cruelty and to admire Fanny for her forbearance. Austen’s biographer Claire Tomalin sees Mrs Norris as ‘one of the great villains of literature’; Tony Tanner thought she was ‘one of Jane Austen’s most impressive creations and indeed one of the most plausibly odious characters in fiction’. All this is clear, at times rather too clear. What is not clear is what the reader should feel about the other aunt, Lady Bertram, the mistress of Mansfield Park. Tomalin dislikes her. ‘Fanny’s experience at Mansfield Park is bitter as no other childhood is in Austen’s work. Her aunt, Lady Bertram, is virtually an imbecile; she may be a comic character, and not ill-tempered, but the effects of her extreme placidity are not comic.’ Tanner takes a similar view: Lady Bertram, he writes,

is utterly inert, unaware, and entirely incapable of volition, effort or independent judgment. She is of course an immensely amusing character; but she also reveals the Mansfield values run to seed. In effect, she never thinks, moves, or cares: amiable enough in that she is not malicious, she is, in her insentient indolence, useless as a guardian of Mansfield Park and positively culpable as a parent. And it is her sofa-bound inertia which permits the ascendancy of Mrs Norris. Lady Bertram does not represent quietness and repose so much as indifference and collapse.

Lionel Trilling has another reading, claiming that Lady Bertram is a self-mocking representation of Austen’s wish to ‘be rich and fat and smooth and dull … to sit on a cushion, to be a creature of habit and an object of ritual deference’.

It is, however, possible to argue that rather than being merely a piece of self-mockery, Lady Bertram is one of Austen’s most subtle, restrained and ingenious creations. The novel, after all, is not a moral fable or parable; it is not our job to like or dislike characters in fiction, or make judgments about their worth, or learn from them how to live. We can do that with real people and, if we like, figures from history. They are for moralists to feast on. A novel is a pattern and it is our job to notice how the textures were woven and the tones put in place. This is not to insist that a character in fiction is merely a verbal construct and bears no relation to the known world. It is rather to suggest that the role of a character in a novel is never simple. A novel isn’t a piece of ethics or sociology. It is a release of certain energies and a dramatisation of how these energies might be controlled and given shape. Characters in fiction are determined by the pattern, and they determine the pattern in turn.

Lady Bertram in this context is easy to read; her role in the pattern of Mansfield Park is obvious. She is not good, she performs no good or kind act that matters; nor is she bad, since she performs no bad act that matters either. But she is there in the book, in the house, in the family. Fanny has already lost one mother, who has effectively given her away. Aunt Norris plays the role of the wicked aunt who appears now and then. Lady Bertram has four children of her own, and with the arrival of Fanny, she effectively acquires a fifth. Austen now has a problem. If she makes Lady Bertram merely unpleasant, Fanny will have to respond to her unpleasantness in scene after scene, because Lady Bertram is, unusually, an aunt in residence rather than an aunt who comes and goes. This will then become the story of the book: a simple story of cruelty and resistance to cruelty. And if Lady Bertram is actively cruel to Fanny, how will she treat her own children? If she treats them with kindness, then the intensity of their agency will be diluted and dissolved. If she is cruel to them too, then the singleness of Fanny, her solitude as a force in the book, will not emerge.

It would really make sense to kill Lady Bertram, or to have her not be there, allow her to be one of those unmentioned mothers in fiction, an unpalpable absence. But in that case, Fanny wouldn’t join her household and would miss daily contact with Edmund, who notices her and then doesn’t, releasing an important dramatic energy into the book. So Austen has to have Lady Bertram be there and not there at the very same time; she has to give her characteristics which are essentially neutral. Since her husband is away so much, and her children are there with her, as are her sister and her niece, it must have been tempting to allow her to have some role, to be silly or irritating or amusing like Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. But Austen has the ingenious idea of making the sofa, rather than the household, the realm over which Lady Bertram reigns, and making sleep, or half-sleep, her dynamic. She is too sleepy to care. When her husband is leaving for the West Indies, Austen writes: ‘Lady Bertram did not at all like to have her husband leave her; but she was not disturbed by any alarm for his safety, or solicitude for his comfort, being one of those persons who think nothing can be dangerous or difficult, or fatiguing to any body but themselves.’ She thinks about her own comfort but she does not dwell too much on the subject. It defines what she does not do rather than any of her actions. In fact, she hardly acts at all: ‘Lady Bertram did not go into public with her daughters. She was too indolent even to accept a mother’s gratification in witnessing their success and enjoyment at the expense of any personal trouble.’ She doesn’t merely ignore others, but most of the time ignores herself: she lives a gloriously underexamined life.

All this places Lady Bertram at precisely the opposite pole from Fanny, who notices herself with considerable, almost intrusive care, as though she were a little orphan novelist. Lady Bertram’s non-being, her presence as outline rather than line, her sheer inertia, her belief in the power of her own placid beauty: all these things allow other forces in the novel – the venality of some of her children, Edmund’s sincerity – to have their effect organically, because of the characters’ own natural will, not because of their mother or family or even in spite of their mother or family. And in the centre of the book stands a strange and insistent mass: the consciousness of Fanny Price. She has no vivacity, no wit; she is mainly silent. She repels as much as she attracts. Trilling dislikes her, as many do: ‘Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park. Fanny Price is overtly virtuous and consciously virtuous.’ This may be so, if we insist on looking at her from the outside as though she were human. What is more important is that the novel reflects her essence. She has a way of noticing and registering which has nothing to do with virtue, but everything to do with the novel’s pattern. Her uncertainty, and our uncertainty about how she will live, is what gives the book its strangely powerful momentum.

The novel, as a form, is unsure whether it is a story, told by a single teller, or a play enacted by a number of actors. It is both static and theatrical in its systems, a sphere in which a single controlling voice operates, or many competing voices. And since the novel is made up not of characters moving across the stage wearing colourful costumes and projecting their voices, but grim black marks on the page, one of the other purposes of aunts is that they allow for dramatic entrances and departures. All through the 19th century, aunts breach the peace and lighten the load. The departure of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, for example, is tremendously exciting. ‘I take no leave of you, Miss Bennet. I send no compliments to your mother. You deserve no such attention. I am most seriously displeased.’ Or the departure of Mrs Glegg in The Mill on the Floss, a book which includes a chapter entitled ‘Enter the Aunts and Uncles’, as though the page of the novel were a stage in the theatre: ‘“Well!” said Mrs Glegg, rising from her chair. “I don’t know whether you think it’s a fine thing to sit by and hear me swore at, Mr Glegg, but I’m not going to stay a minute longer in this house.”’ Or the row half a century later between Stephen’s father and his Aunt Dante on Christmas Day in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: ‘Dante shoved her chair violently aside and left the table, upsetting her napkin ring which rolled slowly along the carpet and came to rest against the foot of an easychair. Mr Dedalus rose quickly and followed her towards the door. At the door Dante turned round violently and shouted down the room, her cheeks flushed and quivering with rage.’ Thus aunts depart in novels as aunts arrive, changing everything.

Of all novelists, the one who comes most to mistrust the mother and make use of the aunt is Henry James. In his critical writings, his prefaces and letters, James wrote very little about Austen. Early on he made his admiration clear: ‘Miss Austen,’ he wrote, ‘in her best novels, is interesting to the last page; the tissue of her narrative is always close and firm, and though she is minute and analytical, she is never prolix or redundant.’ But he also wrote: ‘Jane Austen, with all her light felicity, leaves us hardly more curious of her process, or of the experience in her that fed it, than the brown thrush who tells his story from the garden bough.’ He alluded sarcastically to ‘the body of publishers, editors, illustrators, producers of the pleasant twaddle of magazines, who have found their “dear”, our dear, everybody’s dear, Jane so infinitely to their material purpose’. There are many ways of reading this, but it should be noted that James was not, in general, in the habit of praising other novelists; he saw his own work as a deeply self-conscious art, refined into a system, an exquisite tapestry. He did not notice anyone else working with his intensity and degree of deliberation. But he took what he needed, as any novelist does, from his colleagues’ work, and in his creation of aunts, in that fictional space where things move unexpectedly within the pattern, where there is much ambiguity and ambivalence, James took his bearings from Austen.

In James’s greatest works there is an absent mother who is replaced by a real aunt or by a set of surrogate aunts. In Washington Square Dr Sloper’s wife has died, leaving Catherine, his daughter, motherless. Her aunt becomes her helper and confidante: she is conspiratorial, mischievous, oddly kind and somewhat foolish, and always on the verge of being banished by Dr Sloper. In The Portrait of a Lady Isabel Archer is missing both a mother and a father, and she is found as an unprotected orphan by her aunt Mrs Touchett, who is eccentric, wilful, bossy, interesting, kind and brittle. Mrs Touchett takes over Isabel’s life, invites her to England and Italy, introduces her to a new world of possibility: the aunt is effectively the agent who causes the action of the novel to take place.

James’s interest in killing off mothers and replacing them with aunts could be easily misunderstood. He was close to his own mother, as he was to his Aunt Kate, who lived with the family for most of James’s upbringing, and travelled with them when they crossed and recrossed the Atlantic. But he also sought to get away from his mother, and managed to do so by settling in Europe. He was devoted to her and he arranged not to see her much, thus making the devotion all the more heartfelt as time went on. He wrote to her and about her with considerable filial tenderness. His response to her death was one of shock and grief. It may be that this connection to her, both close and tenuous, was one of the reasons he chose to erase so many mothers from his best work. It was an area he did not want to explore; it was complicated and raw, too complicated and raw to be easily shaped into narrative. And his replacing her with aunts or surrogate aunts may have had something to do with the constant presence of his own Aunt Kate in the household, and we may be led to this view because James tended to use the hidden or secret shape of his own life, of his own fears, and find metaphors for them in his fiction. Thus killing off your mother and replacing her with your aunt might have satisfied some hungry need which James had, which he kept locked in a cupboard in the house of fiction to be produced on special occasions.

But this is too simple and crude a reading, just as it is too easy to explore Austen’s own life as an aunt, or her need to assert herself in her fiction as someone who had no mother worth speaking about, and offer these as reasons why she did not have mothers in her last three books. There is another way of reading James’s reasons for sending mothers into eternity while his characters lived in finite time. It simply suited the dynamic shape of the story he was trying to tell; it was impelled by the novel rather than the novelist. In other words, it was a technical problem which the novel had, rather than a psychological problem of his own which James needed to address. He needed mothers to be absent simply because having them present would undermine his fictional enterprise. The protagonists of his best books enact a drama of self-reliance and self-invention; they live alone and unnurtured in their minds. James could make their aunts silly, foolish, capricious and eccentric, and thus make their arrival and departure interesting and delicious for the reader, but he could not bring himself to create a foolish or indolent mother as Austen had done in Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park. This was not because he didn’t have the heart or the urge – there are, after all, bad and capricious mothers in What Maisie Knew and The Spoils of Poynton – but because such an approach would not be subtle, would be too easily comic, would destroy the moral seriousness he sought.

Dr Sloper’s loss of his wife and first child in Washington Square is seen not only as a personal upset but as a professional failing. ‘For a man whose trade was to keep people alive he had certainly done poorly in his own family,’ James writes. When Catherine, his only living child, is ten, Dr Sloper ‘invited his sister, Mrs Penniman, to come and stay with him’. Mrs Penniman ‘had married a poor clergyman, of a sickly constitution and a flowery style of eloquence, and then, at the age of 33, had been left a widow, without children, without fortune – with nothing but the memory of Mr Penniman’s flowers of speech, a certain vague aroma of which hovered about her own conversation’. She is interested in melodrama and romance, she is a schemer, she has, James writes, ‘a taste for light literature, and a certain foolish indirectness and obliquity of character. She was romantic, she was sentimental, she had a passion for little secrets and mysteries.’ This, despite her efforts to be helpful and supportive, puts her in great opposition to Catherine Sloper. Mrs Penniman’s presence in the book allows Catherine to be more alone, allows her to become herself with greater force and conviction. Catherine knows how to feel, and as the short novel proceeds, what Catherine feels becomes more solid and more complex; she becomes almost heroic in her steadfast solitude, her single-mindedness, her stubbornness. James has taken not only the figure of Fanny Price, the young girl as dull and silent orphan, but also the orphan from folk tales, and he has given her a scheming aunt, a loathsome father and a pent-up sexuality. He has also offered her silence, the silence that only the novel can exploit with exact plenitude as it takes over her yearning spirit and allows her motives a painful complexity. Part of Catherine’s strange nobility comes from the fact that she is alone in the world: her mother is absent, her aunt is a fool.

In The Portrait of a Lady, written soon afterwards, Mrs Touchett, Isabel’s aunt,

was a plain-faced old woman, without graces and without any great elegance, but with an extreme respect for her own motives … She was not fond of the English style of life, and had three or four reasons for it to which she currently alluded; they bore upon minor points of that ancient order, but for Mrs Touchett they amply justified non-residence. She detested bread-sauce, which, as she said, looked like a poultice and tasted like soap; she objected to the consumption of beer by her maid-servants; and she affirmed that the British laundress … was not a mistress of her art.

The sentences chosen to describe both aunts, as indeed the very names chosen for these personages, Mrs Penniman and Mrs Touchett, must have been enjoyable to compose. They set a tone, but oddly enough, it is not a tone for the novel itself. They alert the reader that the heroine who will suffer in the book will be alone in her suffering: it will be done in silence, with no help from any woman of the previous generation. The generations have no common language, no communal system of feeling. For the heroine, nothing will be inevitable or easy, nothing will be inherited. These are novels which project the individual as alone in the world. The idea of generation is not sociological or biological: generation occurs as energy in the individual, as self-made conscience, and it happens there alone.

The Portrait of a Lady has greater energy than Washington Square partly because Isabel’s solitude is denser and richer than Catherine’s, but also because it is given more dramatic weight. In the preface he wrote more than 20 years later James analysed what he had done with Isabel Archer’s ‘inward life’, by examining that scene when both Isabel and the reader slowly come to realise what has been secret and dark up until then, hidden from both her and us. ‘I cannot think,’ James wrote, ‘of a more consistent application of that ideal,’ the ideal of making the inward life of a character as dramatic as external events,

unless it be in the long statement, just beyond the middle of the book, of my young woman’s extraordinary meditative vigil on the occasion that was to become for her such a landmark. Reduced to its essence, it is but the vigil of searching criticism; but it throws the action further forward than twenty ‘incidents’ might have done. It was designed to have all the vivacity of incident and all the economy of picture. She sits up, by her dying fire, far into the night … it all goes on without her being approached by another person and without her leaving her chair. It is obviously the best thing in the book.

The other scene that James mentions as being a key to the book’s dynamic is the one in which

Isabel, coming into the drawing-room at Gardencourt, coming in from a wet walk or whatever, that rainy afternoon, finds Madame Merle in possession of the place, Madame Merle seated, all absorbed but all serene, at the piano, and deeply recognises, in the striking of such an hour, in the presence there, among the gathering shades, of this personage, of whom a moment before she had never so much as heard, a turning-point in her life.

Madame Merle is presented to both Isabel and the reader as a surrogate aunt, who will take the place of Mrs Touchett, or augment her effort to direct Isabel towards her destiny. Isabel will be free, of course, to resist such direction, being less brittle and selfish than Mrs Touchett and less worldly and sociable than Madame Merle. What James then does is to allow the character of Madame Merle to shift in the book, or oscillate between being an aunt and being a rival. In a single scene, the confrontation over Lord Warburton, a moment of exquisite transformation takes place, and the older woman removes her guise as aunt.

It was not that her visitor had at last thought it the right time to be insolent; for this was not what was most apparent. It was a worse horror than that. ‘Who are you – what are you?’ Isabel murmured. ‘What have you to do with my husband?’ It was strange that for the moment she drew as near to him as if she had loved him.

‘Ah then, you take it heroically! I’m very sorry. Don’t think, however, that I shall do so.’

‘What have you to do with me?’ Isabel went on.

Madame Merle slowly got up, stroking her muff, but not removing her eyes from Isabel’s face. ‘Everything!’ she answered.

This sexualisation of an aunt figure is what gives the book its power. James radically destabilises the category, moves Madame Merle from being Isabel’s protector, who stands in for her mother without having a mother’s control, to being someone who seeks to damage and defeat her. He makes Isabel realise this by herself, through her own powers, thereby making her solitude a sharp weapon, a tactic almost, as much as a vulnerable condition.

There is another moment of transformation in the book, when figures who played one role move into another. It is in the very last chapter, after the death of Ralph Touchett, when Isabel embraces her aunt:

She went to her aunt and put her arm around her; and Mrs Touchett, who as a general thing neither invited nor enjoyed caresses, submitted for a moment to this one, rising, as might be, to take it. But she was stiff and dry-eyed; her acute white face was terrible.

‘Dear Aunt Lydia,’ Isabel murmured.

‘Go and thank God you’ve no child,’ said Mrs Touchett, disengaging herself.

Thus it emerges that Mrs Touchett, as well as being an intrepid and amusing aunt, has all the time been a mother, watching over the weakening Ralph as the book proceeds. Like Madame Merle, her role in a novel which is itself filled with duplicity is dual, and no category is stable.

In The Ambassadors, written more than 20 years later, Lambert Strether appears in the guise of uncle, as, initially, Madame de Vionnet appears as aunt. Thus Chad can play the role of nephew to both and can seem to have an interest in Madame de Vionnet’s daughter. Once again, as the novel develops, James plays with the dynamic of absence. Chad’s father is dead; his demanding mother is elsewhere. In the empty space left by absent parents, then, it is clear what must happen: the surrogate uncle will fall for the surrogate aunt, and the two young people will find each other attractive. The novel will, once more, be the story of the further exclusion of the mother, her annihilation all the more dramatic and satisfying because she is so needy. James has other plans, however, and he plays these out in a recognition scene of extraordinary subtlety. Strether, having made a random trip outside Paris, notices two figures in a boat, and slowly sees that they have noticed him too and that they are not Chad and Madame de Vionnet’s daughter, but Chad and Madame de Vionnet herself. In the way they notice him and seek as if to avoid him, everything becomes clear. ‘This little effect,’ James writes,

was sudden and rapid, so rapid that Strether’s sense of it was separate only for an instant from a sharp start of his own. He too had within the minute taken in something, taken in that he knew the lady whose parasol, shifting as if to hide her face, made so fine a pink point in the shining scene. It was too prodigious, a chance in a million, but, if he knew the lady, the gentleman, who still presented his back and kept off, the gentleman, the coatless hero of the idyll, who had responded to her start, was, to match the marvel, none other than Chad.

And so once more James has sexualised an aunt. It is as though Henry Crawford had come to Mansfield Park in search of Lady Bertram rather than Fanny; or Mr Darcy was found in the countryside in his shirt-sleeves with none other than Mrs Bennet; or Mr Bingley was found in a carriage with Lady Catherine de Bourgh. In other words, James took what was necessary for a novel in his time to have power and weight – the replacement of the mother by the aunt – and then saw what was possible, that the aunt could be made not simply an enabling figure, or a cruelly comic figure, or a passive figure, but a highly sexualised woman, and thus, within the dynamic of the novel, one capable of darting at will from one guise to another, causing havoc within the narrative confines created for her: she is exciting and subversive, dangerous, potentially explosive.

In The Wings of the Dove, Kate Croy goes to her rich Aunt Maud on her mother’s death, her mother having left her more or less penniless, and Aunt Maud makes her an offer. It is a version of the offer which is at the very basis of the novel from Austen to James. She wants her niece to make herself an orphan. Kate tells her father: ‘The condition Aunt Maud makes is that I shall have absolutely nothing to do with you; never see you, nor speak nor write to you, never go near you nor make you a sign, nor hold any sort of communication with you. What she requires is that you shall simply cease to exist for me.’ Having given up her father, Kate is now in the hands of her aunt, and these hands slowly mould her and come subtly close to corrupting her. Her aunt watches over her possessively, as Aunt Peniston does Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, published three years later. In neither book is the younger woman loved or offered unconditional protection by the older woman; in both books the aunt is manipulative and difficult. In Wharton’s book Lily Bart is brought to ruin; in The Wings of the Dove Kate Croy is allowed to ruin herself in a much more ambiguous way; in both books, the aunt hovers over the action, darting in and out of the narrative like a large, needy reptile.

Into the action arrives the young heiress Milly Theale, whose history, we are told,

was a New York history, confused as yet, but multitudinous, of the loss of parents, brothers, sisters, almost every human appendage, all on a scale and with a sweep that had required the greater stage; it was a New York legend of affecting, of romantic isolation, and, beyond everything, it was by most accounts, in respect to the mass of money so piled on the girl’s back, a set of New York possibilities. She was alone, she was stricken, she was rich, and in particular was strange – a combination in itself of a nature to engage Mrs Stringham’s attention.

Mrs Stringham is, of course, childless, old enough to be Milly’s aunt, and she becomes Milly’s surrogate aunt to match Kate’s aunt in this novel about two women, both orphans, both in the care of their aunts, both moving slowly towards destruction, one of the body, one of the moral spirit.

The idea of the family as anathema to the novel in the 19th century, or the novel being an enactment of the destruction of the family and the rise of the stylish conscience, or the individual spirit, has more consequences than the replacement of mothers by aunts. As the century went on, novelists had to contemplate the afterlives of Elizabeth and Darcy, Fanny and Edmund, had to deal with the fact that these novels made families out of the very act of breaking them. It was clear that, since something fundamental had already been done to the idea of parents, something would also have to be done to the idea of marriage itself, since marriage was a dilution of the autonomy of the individual protagonist. There is a line that can be drawn between Trollope and George Eliot and Henry James: all three dramatise the same scene, each of them alert to its explosive implications. What they are alert to is the power of the lone, unattached male figure in the novel, someone with considerable sympathy, who moves unpredictably. This male figure is not, in any obvious way, looking for a wife, and this is what makes him dangerous, more dangerous than any aunt has been. He can have an uneasy sexual presence, and an unusual way of noticing and listening. He can have the power of conscience, and the pure force of someone who does not have obvious desires. He can represent the novelist in the novel, but he is also from the future, from a world in which the making of marriages is no longer the main subject for a novelist. Again, it is his solitude that gives him power, as Darcy in Pride and Prejudice derives his power from his solitude as much as his fortune, until he marries Elizabeth.

There is a chapter in Trollope’s Phineas Finn, published in 1869, called ‘Lady Laura Kennedy’s Headache’, in which Laura tells Phineas that her marriage has been a mistake. In doing so, she uses his first name, not having done so before, and becomes oddly intimate with him while making clear, as she says, that ‘I have blundered as fools blunder, thinking that I was clever enough to pick my footsteps aright without asking counsel from any one. I have blundered and stumbled and fallen, and now I am so bruised that I am not able to stand upon my feet.’ As they talk she compares Phineas, who is young, sympathetic, handsome, free, with her dry, bullying husband. And as she does so, her husband approaches – they see him in the distance – and he bullies her further, in the presence of Phineas, who is now in possession of very dark knowledge indeed. In Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, published in 1876, Deronda comes into possession of the equivalent knowledge when Gwendolen, taking him into her confidence, tells him that she, like Lady Laura Kennedy, has married a bully.

In both books, the reader is made aware of how dangerous the Phineas or Daniel figure is, how much the bullying husband will resent him; and how much the wife, locked in a nightmare marriage, will come to depend on him not only in her dreams but in her construction of her own narrative. These two male figures, Phineas and Daniel, operate irresponsibly. A woman talking about her husband to another man offers an electric charge to the novel, a charge reflected in Gwendolen’s response to her own confession. ‘She broke off,’ Eliot writes,

and with agitated lips looked at Deronda, but the expression on his face pierced her with an entirely new feeling. He was under the baffling difficulty of discerning, that what he had been urging on her was thrown into the pallid distance of mere thought before the outburst of her habitual emotion. It was as if he saw her drowning while his limbs were bound. The pained compassion which was spread over his features as he watched her, affected her with a compunction unlike any she had felt before.

At all times, Grandcourt, the tyrant husband, so rich and charming, watches his wife and Daniel. ‘No movement,’ Eliot writes, ‘of Gwendolen in relation to Deronda escaped him.’ In a later scene, Gwendolen once more appeals to Deronda to understand what is happening in her marriage and he tells her: ‘My only regret is, that I can be of so little use to you.’ And then something changes in Eliot’s own language, which is usually so natural and controlled. ‘Words,’ she writes,

seemed to have no more rescue in them than if he had been beholding a vessel in peril of wreck – the poor ship with its many-lived anguish beaten by the inescapable storm. How could he grasp the long-growing process of this young creature’s wretchedness? – how arrest and change it with a sentence? He was afraid of his own voice. The words that rushed into his mind seemed in their feebleness nothing better than despair made audible, or than that insensibility to another’s hardship which applies precept to soothe pain. He felt himself holding a crowd of words imprisoned within his lips, as if the letting them escape would be a violation of awe before the mysteries of our human lot. The thought that urged itself foremost was – ‘Confess everything to your husband; leave nothing concealed’ – the words carried in his mind a vision of reasons which would have needed much fuller expression for Gwendolen to apprehend them, but before he had begun to utter those brief sentences, the door opened and the husband entered.

By the time he began The Portrait of a Lady in 1879, James had followed the serialisation of Daniel Deronda. He read the book carefully, disapproved of it, and then took what he needed from it. In Ralph Touchett he created another male whose role was both playful and pivotal, whose scepticism and illness undermined the very idea of attachment. He operates as a sort of surrogate novelist, conspiring with his father to leave Isabel a fortune so that he can amuse himself watching what she might do with freedom. When Isabel marries Osmond, Ralph is the one who guesses how unhappy she is, and how bullying and cold her husband is. As Ralph lies dying, once more the unhappy wife finds in a single, unattached figure a saviour, someone who will help her break the glass of her marriage. ‘I believe I ruined you,’ he says, and she replies starkly: ‘He married me for the money.’ Later in the scene she simply says: ‘Oh yes, I’ve been punished.’

Soon Ralph dies, and the family is broken. When his mother hears that Madame Merle has gone back to America, she offers one of the truest and funniest lines of the book: ‘To America? She must have done something very bad.’ And Isabel returns to her husband. But there is a sense, here at the end, that she has not returned to be his wife, part of his family, but comes with a new power she has found, a resource which will allow her to resist him, repel him, move in the world alone and free not only of the family she inherited and the one she came into, but the one she chose and sought to make.