From Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth to Austen’s Nightmare-Wife-Mrs Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, we see the pitfalls of ambition. Ambition for oneself is one thing but what about parents, who are ambitious for their children? Only recently the tiger mother has come into genesis but it is not a new concept. Is there something wrong with women or men who are wanting their children to fulfill a desire that they could not fulfill themselves, the father who wants his son to play cricket for Australia, England or India or the mother who wants her daughter to be the lawyer or doctor or the social butterfly that she did not become herself? Can wanting the best for one’s child get out of hand? I know that I wanted my children to be the best at times and many now admit that parenting has become a very competitive sport.
Nightmare-Wife-Mrs Bennet, from Pride and Prejudice” is unashamedly ambitious for her girls. If she can only have her girls married, “she will have nothing to wish for”. Here our sympathy is understandable. Women had few choices and as daughters were rarely independently wealthy they needed to marry to ensure security. And we cannot forget the famous entail that stipulates that on the death of Mr Bennet Longbourne will be lost. Mrs Bennet is a comic character fussing over her girls. Due to the limited opportunity for women, Mrs Bennet must confine her ambitions to the marriage market. But surely she is no different from the myriad of motivated mothers today driving their charges from swimming lesson, to music class, to extra tuition in a bid to jockey for position in the ladder of life. However, while Mrs Bennet’s obsession with seeing her daughters married is understandable it does not excuse her manipulative ways. We can understand her desire for a match between her daughter Jane and Mr Bingley, but sending Jane to his house on horseback (in threatening weather with the hope of her catching cold and having to stay at Netherfield) in a bid to bring Bingley and Jane together is quite indefensible. It is this type of behaviour we now recognise as emotionally unintelligent. It is comparable to mothers today scheming to get their children into the elite squad or school, with the right group of friends, or into the high status university course by multiple bouts of tutoring – commonplace but still slightly dubious. It is easy to laugh at Nightmare-Wife-Mrs Bennet and her antiquated, scheming ways but when we translate her into the modern world, behind the 4wd ferrying her progeny from A to B we should feel less smug and judgemental. Alas there are many pushy Mrs Bennets lurking in our neighbourhood and the past is not such a foreign country after all.
Should teenagers always be in need of entertainment? Is this where our typical headstrong teenager, Lydia from Pride and Prejudice has gone wrong? Typical-Teen-Lydia is the youngest of the five Bennet girls and the silliest. She is fifteen and full of verve; hell bent on having a good time and uninterested in anything of a more serious nature. Just talk of clothes or boys (i.e. the regiment stationed nearby). She is not at all different to some teenagers of today. When fifteen year old Lydia is asked to accompany an officer’s wife and wants to follow the regiment of soldiers when they move to a new town, Mrs Bennet can see no harm. The mother wants to satisfy all of her daughter’s desires, probably living herself vicariously. She tells her to go off and enjoy herself. Cyndy Lauper’s’s lyrics “girls just want to have fun” could be played in a modern version of this story. But is the sentiment so appropriate for parents of 15 year old girls to adopt? Is it appropriate when the consequences are potentially so severe, even today, yet alone in Georgian England? And fifteen year olds of any age can’t always foresee all the consequences of their actions. Today it is not about morality; it is about mental health and happiness. But Austen’s point remains true: it is our responsibility as parents to guide our children. We need to be more than their friend. We need to be the responsible parents by sometimes saying NO. (Or at least negotiating, putting off, procrastinating and maybe giving in later with some safety concerns built in!)
Through her character Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Austen tells us that Typical-Teen-Lydia “has never been taught to think on serious subjects. And for the last half year, nay for a twelvemonth, she has been given up to nothing but amusement and vanity. She has been allowed to dispose of her time in the most idle and frivolous manner, and to adopt any opinions that came her way”. Please don’t think this is a diatribe from the fun police, instead it is a plea for education for all girls the world over. We must put Lydia in the context of her time. Education was not a priority for her milieu. Lydia follows the regiment to Brighton. She stays with another family, the Forsters and she is put in the pathway of Predatory-Bad-Boy-Wickham. Elizabeth Bennet can see the folly of letting her go, but the father who she pleads with refuses to see the danger. He believes in the adage that we must learn by our mistakes. He says, “Lydia will never be easy till she has exposed herself in some public place or other, and we can never expect her to do it with so little expense or inconvenience to her family as under the present circumstances”. It is hard to believe that a father could talk about his own daughter so callously; he is abdicating his responsibilities by allowing his daughter to choose. The story of Lydia Bennet, our typical hedonistic teenager, is a perfect example of the consequences of neglect by the father and over indulgence by the mother and Elizabeth Bennet, our favourite heroine, can see this clearly when she says, “The mischief of neglect towards such a girl”.
It is a problem when parents’ desires for their children outrank the actual desires of the child. Ambitious-Matriarch-Mother Mrs Ferrars from Sense and Sensibility has high expectations for her son Edward, wishing for him a brilliance he cannot command. Alas, as Edward says, I have “no ambition, I well know”. He has no desire to be great, no ego to satisfy. He realises that happiness will come if he can live “in my own way. Greatness will not make me so”.
Honourable-Edward Ferrars disappoints his mother. Despite a change of heart he will not dump the girl he fell in love with as a young boy. Others are quick to break their promises but Edward is honourable and shows integrity. However, this does not satisfy his mother. Such wonderful human attributes do not rate with her. She wants her son to be a high achiever; a member of Parliament would be suitable, not merely honourable. And to get her way, she, like other parents, both within and without the Austen world, is prepared to bully, manipulate and control to get what their heart desires.
In Jane Austen’s world there are ample bad examples of parents. Luckily there are also “excellent parents” like Contented Couple Mr and Mrs Musgrove in Persuasion. Anne Elliot exclaims to Charles, “Your father and mother seem so totally free from all those ambitious feelings which have led to so much misconduct and misery in young and old”. Mr and Mrs Musgrove don’t try to impress, they genuinely care for all, irrespective of social status, welcoming all to join their happy circle. They seem to have learned to keep their ambitions for their children within the confines of happiness, rather than making wealth or status.
Allowing children to be who they need to be is difficult for any parent and of any age. Suppressing our own desires and allowing our children’s desires to reveal themselves can be a tricky balance. And of course letting them have independence but also to be safe is the dilemma of out time.