Ask Jane

by Maria on August 27, 2005

As I was sucking back my daily dose of Starbucks and Ask Amy this morning and feeling amiably distant from all things European, I came across a problem that Amy described as Dickensian. The dilemma – a comfortably-off American couple with no grandchildren who wish to lavish affection and a college fund on their cleaner’s daughter – is in fact more accurately in the mode of Jane Austen. Then, scrolling down the page, I found another letter to Amy from no less a personage than the president of the Jane Austen Society of North America who congratulated Amy for recommending Emma to a previous reader. If Amy had taken her own advice, and read Mansfield Park before she advised the petitioning would-be grandmother to get counseling, she might have answered differently.

First off, Ask Amy is brilliant – much flintier and funnier than the Ann Landers-type blue-rinse she succeeded. Amy seems quite mainstream which means she gets the problems of the middle-aged or middle of the road who probably find Carolyn Hax too free and easy. (Though in truth Hax is anything but – her advice is as consistent as a metronome.) Sometimes Amy plays this in-between card to great effect. Yesterday, to an old curmudgeon complaining about the youth of today ‘shacking up’, Amy responded that she presumed his generosity in preaching the noble bonds of marriage also extends to the gay community. Priceless.

But today Amy’s a little bit off. She does put her finger on exactly what’s queesy-making about a comfortably off couple effectively ‘renting’ a grand-daughter, and gives good advice to how to practically help the immigrant family along their way to building a successful life in America. But the problem-writer’s emphasis on money and college sounds to me more like a proxy for love and speaks of a deeper understanding that the putative grandparents would reap back in love and affection far more than they could ever spend in material or affectionate terms.

Jane Austen knew all about this. Mansfield Park is the story of the neglected children of a couple who married for love but floundered in poverty. Ultimately, three of the Price children are adopted by wealthier families who can give them a better start in life. This experience echoes Jane’s own family life, where her older brother Edward was adopted by the Knight family and enfolded into the life of the landed gentry. Although Mansfield Park’s priggish Fanny Price is emotionally neglected by her adoptive family, she grows up in an atmosphere of relative peace and comfort and is appalled when she returns to her original family home. One of the possible lessons of Mansfield Park is that sufficient love and affection can come from unlikely and even absent sources, and the heroine will work out just fine as long as she has the physical and material space to grow into her own true self. Which isn’t a very contemporary message, at least in a society where sheer abundance both glorifies material concerns and relegates them to the background when it comes to self-actualisation. But it does remind us of the uncomfortable message that freedom from poverty is, at the least, a necessary but insufficient condition for knowing oneself and expressing one’s will. Maybe we affluent westerners neglect this principle because we have the luxury of taking it for granted.

Which is not to say that money can buy you love. But Amy gets it very wrong when she says that Jane Austen’s favourite theme is love. It isn’t. Jane Austen’s overwhelming theme and anxiety is the few and narrow ways intelligent women can survive in a genteel but brutally unforgiving world. Most of her heroes are (well-read and gallant) men who appreciate but look beyond social stratification to discover qualities of the heroines overlooked by others. Of course much of a reader’s enjoyment of the Cinderella story is in wish fulfillment, but the message is clear. Marry for love, but marry well.

Contemporary popular culture is full of stories of unlikely friendships between social unequals (often with the complicating factor of race thrown in). Most of the comic and dramatic engine is powered by the ‘superior’ being plunged into an invisible world that runs alongside her own and having her assumptions challenged and overthrown. (I’m thinking of Driving Miss Daisy, Maid in Manhattan, and any number of other popular movies.) Unfortunately these stories’ comforting resolutions always emphasise the deeply conservative message that while friendship and even marriage between unequals is possible and may enrich some individuals’ lives, it does not threaten the social order.



Vance Maverick 08.27.05 at 6:20 pm

You need to fix that link.


Aidan Kehoe 08.27.05 at 6:53 pm

I’d love to have a fly-on-the-wall perspective from some genteel evening in the early 1800s where someone brings up Miss Austen and points out that class being [ultimately] a matter of money, no more and no less, is a cornerstone of all her work. I can imagine lots of indignant disagreement from the nobility.

On a parallel issue, I only realised on reading Malcolm Gladwell’s recent New Yorker article what a significant class marker good teeth is for those in the US. It does make the emphasis on orthodontics among their middle classes much easier to understand.


Maria 08.27.05 at 7:17 pm

Fixed. Thanks, Vance.


Maria 08.27.05 at 7:20 pm

Fixed. Thanks, Vance


Kaleberg 08.27.05 at 7:33 pm

My impression is that Jane Austen always wrote about MONEY. She may have mentioned a title or two, but she usually characterized people as 10,000 a year, or hoping for a 150 pound a year living as a parson. In fact, modern writers tend to be much less up front about money. When was the last time a hero or heroine was characterized in a popular as holding 11.5 million shares of class A voting stock trading at $12 a share?

Of course, Jane Austen was writing about a vanishing England. The industrial revolution was on, and the old fashioned land capitalists were merging with the new breed of factory capitalists. The courts were throwing out all those entailed wills that Ms. Austen was so fond of.

Jane Austen was the Sholom Aleikem of a certain part of pre-industrial England.


Sherwood Smith 08.27.05 at 8:07 pm

Well, Jane Austen understood what it meant to have a wealthy couple adopt a child and give them a boost in the world–it happened to one of her brothers. And, like in EMMA, the brother took the name of the new family, just as we do in legal adoptions, in order to inherit.

I also think that within the boundaries of gentility and comfortable circumstances Jane Austen was writing about women having not just freedom of choice, but freedom to make mistakes, learn by them, and choose again. (In her world that meant choosing a mate, since there were no opportunities outside of service for women.) Nowadays the ways she was gently but firmly subversive are invisible because we have gained all the points she raised.


dp 08.28.05 at 3:57 am

This may be way out of line, but the wannabe fairy godmother comes across as more than a little voyeuristic, indicative of someone who is looking for a life by proxy, who projects that life onto a third party, and not least, seems to have forgotten the dictum about not mixing with the servants.

I also note that Amy never says why it it unethical, perhaps because she wants to avoid alienating her readership.


Ophelia Benson 08.28.05 at 2:31 pm

Just to reinforce Maria’s point that love is not Austen’s chief theme – a small quibble –

“Mansfield Park is the story of the neglected children of a couple who married for love but floundered in poverty.”

Actually Austen never says the couple married for love – she says Frances Ward married to disoblige her family. Love is entirely omitted from the picture. In fact it’s omitted from the account of the marriages of all three Ward sisters. The whole account sounds more like a set of business contracts. Classic Austen irony.

Mind you, in another way her theme is love. A large part of the burden of MP is how misguided and disastrous it is to marry for money and position in the entire absence of love or even respect – as Maria does, and as Sir Thomas so very mistakenly and cruelly tries to compel Fanny to do. Sir Thomas ends up with a very bad conscience about allowing Maria to marry Mr Rushworth when he strongly suspected that she couldn’t bear him.


MQ 08.28.05 at 3:08 pm

Saying “Ask Amy” is brilliant means your brilliancy standard is seriously defective. I especially like how she uses “unethical” as a synonym for “icky”.


Maria 08.28.05 at 3:47 pm

Hmm. I don’t have my copy of MP to hand, and my belief that the Price marriage was a love-match gone sour probably comes also from my memory of a secondary source – Imagining Characters – albeit a quite reliable one.

JA allows for reasonably successful marriages of secondary characters where material comfort outweighs physical revulsion, e.g. the ever-practical Charlotte Lucas’ marriage to Mr. Collins in P&P. But on the whole she requires affection/respect and sufficient wealth for her heroines.

I think Ophelia’s being a little harsh on Sir Thomas B., though. Firstly, JA makes it clear that Fanny seriously considers Henry Crawford as a potential husband, and even hints that Fanny’s influence might have redeemed the man. Though his failure to persevere just once more in his courtship of Fanny is telling. And as well as being unfairly angry and bullying, Sir Thomas also seems genuinely perplexed and concerned that Fanny would refuse such an attractive suitor. But anyway, these re-readings are part of what makes JA’s work so enjoyable.

By the by, I remembered this morning another JA character who’s adopted and brought up by a better-placed relative – Emma Watson in JA’s unfinished work The Watsons.


Tracy W 08.28.05 at 6:52 pm

Do friendships and marriages between different social classes actually, in the real world, threaten the social order? I am trying to think through all the matches I know of, and the social order seems either tougher, or more flexible, than that.

Changes in social order seem to be driven by far bigger changes, in say economic realities or political ideas. E.g. the change in the relative status of dairy and sheep farmers in agricultural NZ is being driven by a relative difference in returns to the different forms of farming over the last few decades, not by marriages and friendships. Social orders are quite capable of carving off exceptions for marriages and friendships, e.g. my father whose marriage to the daughter of a Taranki dairy farmer was accepted despite his being a soccer player, and without impacting Grandad’s general belief that soccer playing is proof of all sorts of moral depravity and physical weaknesses.

As for the desire for a granddaughter – I think the letter-writer could achieve her aims much more cheaply. When I was very little I spent large chunks of time at the house of our next-door neighbour who also lacked grandchildren of her own – she would take the time to peel apples for me while my mum maintained that the skin was good for me. Sadly she died before we could find out if that early friendship would last after I could wield a paring knife myself. Leaving aside the nutritional issue, would such a way of developing a relationship cause any ethical problems?


Ophelia Benson 08.28.05 at 6:59 pm

I just happen to have re-read MP in the last week or two, so the characterization of the Price marriage sticks in my mind.

I no doubt am unfair to Sir Thomas…but Austen does plant a lot of little ticking bombs. He is quite dreadful in many ways.

I have to disagree about Charlotte Lucas and Mr Collins though! That is a nightmare marriage, and a real degradation for Charlotte. A clever person married to an idiot was one of Austen’s worst nightmares. She makes comedy out of them, but they’re also real nightmare.

(Frank Churchill is another adoptee.)


Sebastian Holsclaw 08.29.05 at 3:15 am

In an interesting twist in my own life, I was the adopted grandchild– adopted by a Japanese grandmother and grandfather who couldn’t have children. They didn’t pay for college (though they did take me on a trip to see the World Expo in Canada). Does the fact that they gave time and love instead of money change things. It kind of depends on what they want out if it I guess.

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