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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The reason why the Gardiner children don’t come to Longbourn at Christmas

In the Janeites group, Jane Fox raised a very interesting question over the course of three posts last week, which I’ve been waiting to respond to, until I could really think it all through:

First Jane wrote:  “When Mr. and Mrs. Gardener visit the Bennets at Christmas, they do not bring their children. The novel does not need the kids to be there, and I know Christmas did not become a huge family occasion in England until Victorian times. Still, I wondered whether leaving your children at Christmas would have been a bit odd. What festivities did occur in England in families of this class at the time?”
After receiving a few replies, Jane then wrote: “Yet the Gardeners did bring their young children to Longbourn when they went on their excursion with Elizabeth.”
And after another reply, she then finally wrote: “The notion that when she wrote P&P, Austen was not yet used to children being around, makes sense to me. In E and in P children even have bit parts to play in the story. But now that I think of it, in S&S children also play bit parts that illuminate character, and most unpleasant children they are. The Gardener children are not unpleasant, but is it only in E and P (the Harvilles rather than the Musgroves) that we see relatives who are affectionate toward small children but not destructively indulgent?”

Jane, after thinking your interesting question through, I now see that there’s a very simple explanation that works perfectly within a mainstream interpretation of the novel (i.e., one that doesn’t require delving into the shadow story)---an explanation derived from the text of the novel itself.

And that’s significant, because any explanation based on speculations about customs of the Regency Era involving traveling with young children would, as your second comment suggests, have to negotiate between the Scylla of the Gardiner children not coming at Christmas, and the Charybdis of the Gardiner children coming to Longbourn in July! Seems like a rhetorical shipwreck in the making, avoidable only if there was a very specific custom not to travel with children to visit close family at Christmas---which is, after all, a family holiday!---yet there would be a custom to drop four young children off in the summer while taking an excursion? That’s a very small head of a pin on which to dance.

Whereas my explanation occurred to me when I thought about what changed in the circumstances of the Bennet family between Christmas and March—and here is the textual evidence that tells you exactly what changed….in one of the characters. I begin with the following passage in Chapter 27, taking place in early March, when Eliza stops in London for a night en route to Hunsford:

“It was a journey of only twenty-four miles, and they began it so early as to be in Gracechurch Street by noon. As they drove to Mr. Gardiner's door, Jane was at a drawing-room window watching their arrival; when they entered the passage she was there to welcome them, and Elizabeth, looking earnestly in her face, was pleased to see it healthful and lovely as ever. On the stairs were a troop of little boys and girls, whose eagerness for their cousin's appearance would not allow them to wait in the drawing-room, and whose shyness, as they had not seen her for a twelvemonth, prevented their coming lower. All was joy and kindness. The day passed most pleasantly away; the morning in bustle and shopping, and the evening at one of the theatres.”

This passage tells us two important facts:
first, that Eliza must have been very concerned about Jane’s health when Jane left for London 2 months earlier, and knew that Jane would never complain, in a letter, about feeling unwell, and therefore Eliza was relieved to see, with her own eyes, Jane’s face seeming “healthful and lovely as ever”. Eliza’s concern comes as no surprise, given that Jane (as we all recall) fell ill at Netherfield in mid-November, and then, before Christmas, suffered the devastating emotional blow of Bingley’s abrupt departure at the height of their budding romance; and
second, that the Gardiner children, in March, had not seen Eliza for a year. Note that this caveat does not apply to Jane—and so we might reasonably speculate that Jane might well have paid a visit to London in the summer of the previous year without being accompanied by Eliza then, either.  So this already hints to us that Jane has a much closer relationship with the Gardiner children than Eliza.

But the real proof of the pudding re the decision to bring the Gardiner children is revealed in the following passage in Chapter 42, which takes place in early July:

“Four weeks were to pass away before her uncle and aunt's arrival. But they did pass away, and Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, with their four children, did at length appear at Longbourn. The children, two girls of six and eight years old, and two younger boys, were to be left under the particular care of their cousin Jane, who was the general favourite, and whose steady sense and sweetness of temper exactly adapted her for attending to them in every way—teaching them, playing with them, and loving them.”

I claim that the reason we hear so much from the narrator about Jane being the general favourite of the children, and how she is the perfect caretaker for them, yada yada yada, is, by negative implication, to explain why the children were not brought to Longbourn at Christmas—i.e., Jane was in a really bad way, both emotionally and physically, at Christmas, and the family powers-that-be decided not to leave it to Elizabeth to care for the kiddies during the Christmas visit, when their “general favourite” was in no condition to give them the usual TLC.

Now, isn’t that a clean, plausible, character-driven explanation for the little mystery that Jane brought to our attention? And all credit to Jane on provoking this process, because, while other Janeites have raised this question before, it was Jane who persisted, and also raised that excellent observation about the contrast between Christmas and March, and that’s what I required in order to solve the puzzle!
[The following added a few hours later, after I received the following response from Diane Reynolds]

Diane wrote: "While I like my explanation that Jane Austen was less interested in children during the early novels :), Arnie's very nonsubtextual explanation makes good sense too. But what strikes me on rereading both passages, both, I believe expressing Lizzie's pov, is her disinterest in the children: she hasn't seen them for a year, and we're told she spends the day in London pleasantly doing adult things, such as shopping and going to the theater. The children don't take up much of her time or attention. And while I am sure Jane was the perfect mother to her nieces and nephews while Lizzie was traveling in the summer, that passage also speaks of how easily Lizzie rationalizes away or puts a self serving spin on her chance to go on a holiday while her beloved sister gets stuck at home with four children and Mrs. Bennet. Of course, the two older sisters seem to take turns with the travel ops, but we don't see Lizzie ever left in charge of young children. This is a difference between her and Emma."
Diane, your second explanation (about Lizzy's pov) and mine are actually perfectly aligned and complementary, each is a buttress supporting the other! You are spot-on in noting that the dearth of discussion of the children by the narrator is a reflection of Eliza's own utter lack of interest in those children, which at least in part arises from her own selfish focus on her own concerns. And you are in particular spot-on re Eliza's selfish disregard for Jane's burden in taking care of those kids.
As you know, our first grandchild has now been in the world for over 8 months, and he is more than capable of absorbing the caretaking energy of four adults during the course of a day. I can't even imagine the job of one adult primarily watching four young children for 18 days!

And this relates to your observation about Jane Austen's real life ---I do believe that Cassandra bore a greater portion of the burden of the auntly caretaking at Godmersham, as between her and Jane--so perhaps this subtextual thread in P&P was Jane's way of acknowledging to Cassandra that she was grateful for all the times when Cassandra provided unpaid governess services at Godmersham, and allowed Jane to stay at Chawton and write, write, write.
And finally, a note on Austen scholarship--this interaction among Jane, me, and Diane illustrates why there is more firepower in this "amateur" setting than is given credit by the academic establishment. This sort of textual discovery happens a great deal in this group, and used to happen in Austen-L as well, when it was more active, precisely because of the creative thinking that occurs when an idea bounces from one person to the next to the next, each keeping the idea moving in the direction of solution. In no time flat (okay, less than a week), a perfectly toasted answer pops up in the intellectual toaster!

Cheers, and a Happy New Year to all,
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

Saket Suryesh said...

This is such a brilliant post. I so love that someone took pain to write such a great post about s great novel.