The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Family visits — 3 universally acknowledged truths by Jane Austen

Summer is the time when displaced people often visit or are visited by their families, and because of the distances involved, this usually means more than just popping round for a quick cup of tea.

As easy air travel is a fairly recent innovation, it’s tempting to think of these lengthy visits as recent also. They’re not, of course. A hundred-mile trip by horse and carriage two hundred years ago to see family was as tiring as a flight from Heathrow to Sydney now, and visits would last several weeks.

It’s only the mode of transport that has changed, though.

Take it from Jane herself.

1. Eliza Bennet Syndrome

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a displaced person in possession of a new abode in slightly exotic location, must be in want of visitors from home.

I feel sorry for Eliza Bennet. Despite marrying the richest man in Derbyshire and living in a house only slightly smaller than that county, she would always bear the burden of her awful relatives.

Even Pemberley wouldn’t have been big enough when they came to visit — and visit they surely would, as Jane Austen’s characters spent much time in the company of relatives scattered around England.

Evidently, it was dangerous to do otherwise – a visit with a mere friend to that iniquitous den, Brighton, resulted in social and financial ruin for Lydia Bennet when she eloped with Mr Wickham.

A decorous horse-and-carriage trip through Derbyshire with a respectable aunt and uncle, however, rewarded her sister Eliza with a good-looking (if emotionally constipated) husband, and her share of his ten thousand a year.

The moral, gentle reader: If you do not wish to be blamed for the consequences of young visitors searching for a good time with unsuitable handsome army officers, ensure that your foreign abode is in a quiet backwater where the only entertainment is weekly bingo in the church hall. Don’t live near a British bar in Ibiza. If you can find a house big enough so the raucous tones of your visiting mother cannot be heard by you or your neighbors, so much the better.

2. Mr Woodhouse Syndrome

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that some people will never visit on your own territory, and when you visit theirs, it is never for long enough to keep them happy.

Some people will never visit you, believing flights only travel in one direction, or that you live somewhere foreign and unhealthy. It is, therefore, your duty to visit them, since you were thoughtless enough to move away in the first place.

Emma Woodhouse’s father fell into this category of people. Although his married daughter, Isabella, lived only sixteen miles away in London, he disliked visiting her because

“…the truth is, that in London it is always a sickly season. Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be. It is a dreadful thing to have you forced to live there! so far off!–and the air so bad!”

Instead, to see her father, poor Isabella had to drag her entourage of five children to Highbury, where Mr Woodhouse would offer her a nice welcoming bowl of gruel.

She had nothing to wish…but that the days did not pass so swiftly. It was a delightful visit;–perfect, in being much too short.

Too short for her father, that is. Not Isabella. She was just being polite. Take it from me.

The moral, gentle reader: Bring your own bottle. You’re going to need it, especially if all your folks have to offer is gruel for supper.

3. Fanny Price Syndrome

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the longer you have lived away, the more foreign your home country will feel, and at some point you will ponder the issue of whether it is possible to go home again.

Fanny Price, protagonist of Mansfield Park, and a lesser-known heroine than Eliza Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, understood this better than most.

At the age of nine, Fanny was booted from her home in Portsmouth to live at Mansfield Park with her advantageously-married aunt, to make room for yet another baby in her own family. Desperately homesick and missing her beloved brother William, Fanny is the Cinderella of her adopted family, mocked by her society cousins, and used as whipping-girl and general dogsbody by her two aunts. It wasn’t quite Charles Dickens territory — Fanny was given proper food — but it wasn’t far off.

She did, however, have a raging crush on her cousin, Edmund. Enough said.

Regardless of Fanny’s feelings for her cousin, one might assume that she would one day be glad to leave her aunt’s house and visit her family in Portsmouth. When she eventually did, it was many years after her first arrival, and as her uncle’s punishment for refusing to marry Henry Crawford, an upper-class philanderer. The implication was that, just as Fanny had been raised in society by her uncle, so could she once again descend to her miserable roots if her uncle chose.

While Fanny’s visit in no way persuaded her to marry that cad, Henry, she did realize that her spiritual home was no longer with her parents and siblings. Her parents, whom presumably she had loved at one time, and who had never mistreated her, were a huge disappointment to her. She perceived her mother as

a partial, ill-judging parent, a dawdle, a slattern.

So, conveniently forgetting the unkindness of her Aunt Norris and her cousins, and the indolent neglect of her Aunt Bertram,

[Fanny] could think of nothing but Mansfield, its beloved inmates, its happy ways. Every thing where she was was in full contrast to it. The elegance, propriety, regularity, harmony — and perhaps, above all, the peace and tranquility of Mansfield, were brought to her remembrance every hour.

The moral, gentle reader: Are you sure you can never go home — or are you, in fact, suffering from Stockholm Syndrome?

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Img: 1869 engraving of Jane Austen, based on a sketch by her sister, Cassandra Austen (WikiCommons)

One response to “Family visits — 3 universally acknowledged truths by Jane Austen

  1. ML Awanohara September 6, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    @Kate
    Our cyber-telepathy with Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s Writerhead blog continues! #4 in her series of writing prompts for expat writers, published on Saturday, was to

    Make some sense of your feelings about being far from family.

    As I mentioned in my comment on Kristin’s post noting this happy coincidence, it’s interesting that Jane Austen, who was a bit of homebody, can help us with this. I think it’s because she understood so well the familial ties that bind us…

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