Excerpt from book:
Jane Austen, Henry James and the Death of the Mother
In November 1894 Henry James set down in his notebooks a sketch for the novel that became The Wings of the Dove, which was published eight years later. He wrote about a possible 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.” In his outline James also had in his 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 be loved.” James also noted as a possibility 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, then, of the dying young woman and the penniless young man on one side and, on the other, of father, family and young woman with no fortune circled in James’s fertile mind. There was no moment, it seemed, in which the second young woman would have a mother; it was “her father, her family” that 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 her book Novel Relations, Ruth Perry looked at the makeup of the family in the early years of the novel. “Despite the emphasis,” she wrote, “on marriage and motherhood in late eighteenth-century society, 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.”
In nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century fiction, the family is often broken or disturbed or exposed, and the heroine is often alone, or strangely controlled and managed. If the heroine and the narrative itself are seeking completion in her marriage, then the journey there involves either the searching for figures outside the immediate family for support, or the breaking free from members of the family who seek to confine or dictate. In creating the new family upon marriage, the heroine needs to redefine her own family or usurp its power. In attempting to dramatize this, the novelist will use a series of tricks or systems almost naturally available to Jane Austen and the novelists who came after her; they could use shadowy or absent mothers and shining or manipulative aunts. The novel in English over the nineteenth century is filled with 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 ripe for orphans, or for those whose orphanhood will be 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 eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the large numbers of women who died in childbirth, as high as 10 per cent in the eighteenth century. The first wives of three of J
“Tóibín is a masterly novelist who is also a fine critic…powerful.”