What have Dame Elisabeth and Jane Austen got in common?

Dame Elisabeth Murdoch as a young woman and later, enjoying the simple pleasures
Dame Elisabeth Murdoch as a young woman and later, enjoying the simple pleasures.

Sometimes the modern dilemma may be that we cannot see outside ourselves and our own worries. Naturally our worries can take up an inordinate amount of time. Just this week I listened to a woman say that it is impossible to be focused on oneself if you think about others; when you are actively helping another, your own concerns seem to drift away. Is this why our very special Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, who passed away peacefully in her sleep this week, was so happy? Sure she had a fortunate life, but she chose to use her talents and her wealth to help others. She could have been jetsetting around the world partying with the hoi polloi  but instead she dedicated her life to others and lived a quiet domestic country-style life that reminded me of the values that I have so enjoyed in the Austen Six. Did you hear the story that her cleaner, Queenie, was finding it hard to manage her duties for Dame Elisabeth? So Dame Elisabeth got Queenie to move in to Cruden Farm. No doubt Dame Elisabeth employed another cleaner but I imagine these two older women muddling along together, having a laugh and enjoying each other’s company. Dame Elisabeth can not have been a snob! And so the post for this week speaks of these sorts of values that permeate the Austen Six; values that espouse philanthropy and learning to help others.

In Mansfield Park, Nauseating-Nice-Fanny knew that she had to reason herself out of loving her cousin Edmund. He obviously was attached elsewhere. It just wasn’t going to happen. To get over such a loss, she knew she had to use several strategies. One of them was to concentrate on others. Supportive-Sister-Susan became a priority to her while she was in Portsmouth. Instead of wallowing on the injustices of a family not at all sensitive to her own needs or her adopted family trying to blackmail her into marrying someone she didn’t care about, she simply concentrated on helping those around her.

Interestingly also in Mansfield Park, it is when Serial-Seducer-Henry Crawford starts telling Fanny of his good deeds that he becomes most attractive to her. Initially it was in getting her brother the position of lieutenant but was added to when he told her of doing his duties to his tenants on his estate. He was aiming to impress Fanny and impress her he did. “To be the friend of the poor and the oppressed!” This had raised him in her eyes. Not only did it help him to concentrate on someone else besides himself,  it suggests that helping others is sexy.

Tom, the indulged elder brother also in Mansfield Park, has led a life of thoughtlessness and selfishness. I’m sure much of it had its pleasures but paradoxically it didn’t bring happiness. However, Binge-Drinker-Tom Bertram finds happiness when he learns to live for more than himself. “He had suffered, and he had learnt to think, two advantages that he had never known before”. Instead of continuing on the path of just satisfying himself, he “became what he ought to be, useful to his father, steady and quiet, and not living merely for himself.” And in doing this he became happier.

However, this doesn’t mean that one must allow others’ low spirits to dominate your own life. Or that we have to live a life dedicated to self-sacrifice. This is the traditional female role and women have well and truly renounced it. But men and women can be compassionate without being subservient. When Virtuous-Anne visits her sister, Discontented-Wife-Mary in Persuasion, she is immediately asked to help broker a better relationship with her sister-in-laws and others. “How was Anne to set all these matters to rights?”  Well, intelligently she realised that “she could do little more than listen patiently, soften and hint”. She need not take on the difficulties herself.

Eighteenth century women of the Austen social position were always expected to help the poor. Even if you were in straightened circumstances there was an expectation that you would do what you could to help those less fortunate. The Bennet sisters, Flawed-but-Fabulous-Elizabeth and Optimistic-Jane, in Pride and Prejudice were often thinking of the poor; they might sew something for a family with too many children. Again balance is the key. In Emma, Princess-Emma was well aware of her duty to visit the poor villagers. And Straight-Talking-Mr Knightly was always thinking of the widow   Poor-but-Popular-Miss Bates. If there was a small offering that didn’t injure her pride, like a bag of apples during apple season, that could be delivered to her doorstop, he would endeavor to do it.

We have come through a period where we believe the state should take responsibility to equalise our relative social positions. And this is just. It is not fair that some can have so much while others have so little. Thankfully Lady Bountiful has been thoroughly discredited, however,  philanthropy is still essential. The state has a role to play but shouldn’t we also be realistic that so do we? Life is always going to treat some people more fairly than others, and the least we can do is show our compassion by engaging in philanthropy. It is so inspiring today to see more and more people beginning to do this in their everyday life from the celebrities to our very ordinary selves. And Jane Austen was right. It does make you feel better and it does take away a little of our solipsistic tendencies.



Filed under Resilience

3 responses to “What have Dame Elisabeth and Jane Austen got in common?

  1. Louise

    Great post! I can imagine these two women could have been strong friends. From what we read/see of them, both have a real twinkle in the eye and a healthy sense of humour, finding a creative outlet – writing for Jane and gardening for Dame Elisabeth – which fits within their assigned place in society.

  2. Greg Beel

    I want to be a happy 100 yr old having a latte with my friends. I remember an interview Dame Elisabeth gave where she said that having her friends dying was very depressing. My brother in law used to see (from his office)Dame E and a carer walking in Franston a few years ago.

  3. Cassy Rooney

    Dame Elisabeth was a wonderful lady, who did so much for so many people.

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