Philosophers, the world over, from east to west, from radical to traditional, dwell on this question. Obviously one’s childhood has an effect. Children from happy and stimulating homes do well in life. But what about children who have to struggle? Can this also be a motivator? A child can have all the advantages and fail. How many children from extremely successful parents lose their way? And why do men like Bill Clinton, or Barak Obama, men from some-what struggling single parent families, rise to be Americans presidents? Why do some children with all the advantages sometimes go nowhere? What about children who are brought up with all the advantages and have a sense of entitlement and superiority to others? Do they sometimes lose their way in the relationship stakes because they have always blocked out the needs of others? And is living just an ordinary life nowhere? A happy childhood with all our needs met seems to be one answer to a successful life but ironically, a life of hardship and struggle can also lead to success. What is it in our childhood that makes us an emotionally intelligent adult with the tools and resilience to achieve a happy life?
Austen’s characters’ childhoods are part of the rich tapestry of her novels. In Mansfield Park, Henry Crawford, the serial seducer, is used to getting his own way. Serial Seducer Henry loves to play games with the women he meets. He is charming, and impressive. He has not the physical features of a handsome man but after listening to his witty conversation both men and women swoon. Women who remain uninterested in his charms become a challenge and leaving a trail of heartbroken women is his hobby in life. He makes both the Spoilt Princess Bertram sisters fall in love with him, and once they are bagged he makes a play for their poor cousin, Nauseatingly Nice Fanny. Having seen how this man operates, Fanny is one woman who is not fooled. She rejects him unequivocally. But this is akin to a challenge for the serial seducer so he makes his play honourable and asks her to marry him. But Fanny is not interested in spending her life with such a man, even if he is socially accepted and rich and a better catch than anyone would have thought she could entice.
As a child, Serial-Seducer-Henry Crawford lived with the Admiral, a man of unexplained but assumingly selfish ways. As Henry himself says, “Few fathers would have let me have my own way half so much”. He has been spoilt. Jane Austen makes it clear that the childhood he was given must in some way have caused his lack of feelings for others; the childhood in some way must be responsible for the self-absorption and self indulgence of the adult. Childhood is important in the scheme of life.
Like Serial Seducer Henry, the Spoilt Princess Bertram sisters grew up having all they could desire in terms of status and lifestyle; knowing that they are ‘of consequence’. They are Important-White-Male-Sir Thomas Bertram’s daughters and as such they expect and get special treatment from all around them. Their cousin Fanny in contrast is treated almost like a servant while they are feted and spoilt by their nasty Aunt Norris, benefiting from governesses and drawing masters. They are sophisticated and learned in the skills that society values for women of that time. Yet with all these advantages, the authorial voice of Jane Austen ironically shows surprise that despite such benefits, “they should be entirely deficient in the less common acquirements of self knowledge, generosity and humility”! Having all that one desires may not always be to a child’s long term advantage. As we ferry our children from one activity to another, and become their friend and advocate when things do not work out perfectly, it might be insightful to reflect on this set of sisters.
What is surprising to us is that Henry fools so many others. Important-White-Male-Sir Thomas Bertram, the worldly travelled man, is confounded by the fact that Henry, a respectable man, wants the niece that he and others had never valued. It is Fanny’s good nature that makes her almost fall for Henry. But she remembers him as “the clandestine, insidious, treacherous admirer of Maria Bertram” and knows that Henry can’t change. He is a wolf dressed up in charming clothes but a wolf nonetheless. Henry is incredibly attractive and this is what makes him so dangerous. The only feature to Henry’s credit is he sees the value in Fanny. “You are infinitely superior to me in merit” he says to Fanny. But Henry’s spoilt childhood has led him to be a spoilt adult and he must take his pleasures where he can; his own needs are paramount.
Another character who begins well but disappoints reader and heroine alike by the end of the novel is Prince-Charming-Willoughby from Sense and Sensibility. Willoughby is also a serial seducer, and like many such men he dresses as Prince Charming. He speaks the jargon of romance but acts the opposite. Prince-Charming-Willoughby rides into the novel and the heroine’s life on a metaphorical white horse ready to rescue the heroine, Spontaneous-and-Sentimental-Marianne. He is almost following the Cinderella script, but Austen is subversive, warning the readers that a woman must beware of the charming princes: commonly they disappoint. To hope for a good result from the Prince Charming is to be fooled. What made the Austen heroes have integrity and honour and the villains’ selfishness and imprudence? It seems that Austen senses that childhood has a role to play. Prince-Charming-Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility is a fashionable man about town. He is happy to be the serial seducer and allow others to suffer the consequences. He left one poor girl, Eliza, pregnant. His character is explained thus, “irreparable injury which too early an independence and its consequent habits of idleness, dissipation and luxury had made in the mind, the character and the happiness of a man who, to every advantage of person and talents.” Willoughby had so much natural advantage but was destined to compromise his happiness. Sometimes the child or teenager who has everything they need and want, and need not strive for anything, is the one that is ultimately disadvantaged. Such a child has not had the opportunity to build up resilience or even patience. His natural advantages did not bring the happiness we would expect. “The world had made him extravagant and vain; extravagance and vanity had made him cold hearted and selfish”. A childhood that had skilled him better might have seen him in the shoes of the hero rather than the villain.
The question asked clearly in Jane Austen’s novels is how did the Prince Charming come into genesis? Like Serial-Seducer-Henry Crawford, Willoughby, has been able to satisfy himself when young. Sometimes having all we desire does not lead to happiness. Alas as with everything Austen balance and moderation is the key. This is not to suggest that Austen would recommend an austere childhood. Amongst the Austen Six are childhoods full of fun and plenty as well. It is just that sprinkled throughthe Austen Six there are several villains who are selfish and it is interesting that Austen’s back story of these characters shows they were spoiled as children.