A few weeks ago, I had a debate with one of my friends on Twitter. It involved comparing the Austen heroines with the Charlotte Bronte heroines, specifically Jane Eyre. My friend said he preferred the Austen heroines because they never complained about their upbringing or whined about how unfair their lives were.
I was floored by this. I didn't think you could compare Jane to an Austen heroine. It would be like comparing an apple to an orange. I pointed out that Jane grows up with relatives who hate her and take every opportunity to make her life a misery (why hello there, Harry Potter, same upbringing and same anger management issues!) and gets dumped in a school where humiliation is part of daily life and then wakes up to find that her only friend has DIED in the night. While he conceded this point, my friend's statement made me think about Austen's heroines. Just how easy do they have it?
All of Austen's major heroines grow up with at least ONE parent alive, even if that parent is not actually much of an authority figure. Most of her heroines grow up in families that can at least provide for their basic needs: food, clothes, a certain level of education. The one exception to this is Fanny Price, also Austen's least popular heroine. Although both Fanny's parents are alive, her father was released from the navy due to an unspecified disability. Therefore he never made any money from his commission and the only money he receives is half pay from the navy, most of which is spent on drink. There are eight other children in the household. As the eldest girl, Fanny's lot would normally be to care for her younger siblings i.e. become the household drudge as her mother was never taught how to take care of a house and doesn't have the energy or will to make the best of her situation. It's unlikely Fanny would get much education, so Mansfield Park really is her salvation. Nevertheless she pays a price for this rescue: constantly humiliated by her aunt, Mrs Norris (hey there, Harry), made to feel small and insignificant by three out of her four cousins, ignored by her uncle and constantly ordered around by her other aunt. When she is sent back to her family over ten years later, it's a rude shock. Fanny's family live on if not below the poverty line and she no longer fits in there (if she ever really did). Fanny takes a few leaps up the social ladder with her own marriage. She will be comfortable and never have to worry about going hungry as she would have done in her original home.
Above the Prices, I'd place the Morlands from Northanger Abbey. Catherine Morland is probably the luckiest Austen heroine in that both her parents are alive and they're both sensible, decent people. Okay, her father is a vicar on a modest income and they have had 10 children, which isn't exactly prudent, but they make do. They're certainly competent enough that in order for Catherine to get into scrapes, Austen has to send her heroine to Bath with Mrs Allen, who might possibly beat both the two younger Bennetts and Charlotte Palmer for sheer lack of brains. Catherine definitely has enough money to have a good time in Bath and there's enough to send her oldest brother to Oxford, though her sheltered background means that she's easily taken in by the way the Thorpes flash their money and General Tilney's carefully acquired stately home. But neither of them are rich enough for the Thorpes and Catherine certainly isn't rich enough for Henry Tilney. It's only when Eleanor Tilney marries a man with enough money that Henry and Catherine are 'forgiven'. Catherine definitely moves up the social ladder a notch or two (not that she even cares about that kind of thing).
I think the Dashwoods come next. Although they were once richer than the Bennett family, the entailment of their father's estate and the manoeuvrings of the evil daughter-in-law mean that the first part of the novel is about the women coming to terms with genteel poverty (or not, in the case of Mrs Dashwood). Thanks to Elinor, they do have a roof over their heads, they aren't completely outcast and they're more sophisticated than the Morlands, even if circumstances have laid them low. They are often invited to the big house, which the Morlands wouldn't be, and are able to go and stay with Mrs Jennings for a season in London. However, the death of their father leaves Elinor and Marianne without a formal protector; Elinor takes over the role of the family manager, as her mother finds it hard to accept the change in their circumstances. Elinor ends up marrying a clergyman with a steady living and Marianne marries a colonel. Neither of them will ever want for anything.
After the Dashwoods, the Bennetts. They live in Longbourn, a house with a few acres, which none of them can inherit because they're girls. The older girls seem to have been given a decent standard of education, even if they weren't made to practise their 'accomplishments' as strictly as if they'd had a governess. They are a respected family in the local area but are easily lumped in with the local bumpkins by newcomers. Both Jane and Lizzie are bright and beautiful, but the behaviour of other family members (especially their sisters and mother) constantly hinders their matrimonial chances. Nevertheless, they both make very good matches and end up in lovely stately homes with adoring husbands.
Next is Emma Woodhouse. The Woodhouses are definitely one of the richest families in the area. Emma is queen of all she surveys. She has been mistress of the household since she was young. Her mother died when she was little and her father is a hypochondriac. As such, her only authority figure is Mr Knightley (poor Mr Knightley!). Despite her personal flaws, Emma makes a good housekeeper, and always knows what to do and how to do it, even when she would much rather not. Her marriage keeps local society balanced.
Finally, we have Anne Elliot. Socially, Anne is the highest of all Austen's heroines as her father is a baronet and entitled to be called 'Sir' Walter Elliott. Unfortunately, all the family's problems stem from this title and the enormous pride that it engenders in Sir Walter. Nevertheless, a family that has to 'rent out' its ancestral pile and then take a large flat in Bath is hardly doing badly for itself, whatever Sir Walter might think.
Interested to know what my literary friends have to say about this scale. Do you agree? Or do you think some families need switching around?