Anne De Bourgh and Anne Elliot: Depression In Jane Austen’s Fiction
It is a truth universally acknowledged that any reader who opens the pages of Jane Austen’s novels will find characters with traits that we, as modern readers are still able to relate to after 200 years. This not only applies to the main protagonists of the novels, but also to their parents.
Any reader familiar with Austen’s writing will note that the parental figures with her novels are often flawed. Perhaps it is because the majority of her heroines are between the ages of 17 and 21, when we are figuring out who we are as individuals, separate from the identities cultivated within our families.
The genesis of my theory comes from two separate breakout sessions from the 2013 JASNA Minneapolis AGM. The first session, concentrated on how Jane Austen’s relationship with her father influenced the relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and her father, Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. The second session inquired as to what was the cause of the ill health of Anne De Bourgh, also from Pride and Prejudice.
The best of these parents are Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Mrs. Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. Despite their own personal failings, both have tried to raise their daughters as best they could. The worst of these parent are Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion and Lady Catherine De Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice. Austen seems to have cut both characters from the same cloth.
The focus of my thesis is of the mistreatment of Anne Elliott and Anne DeBourgh by their respective parents and how that mistreatment leads to depression.
The symptoms of depression include: *Low or irritable mood most of the time, a loss of pleasure in usual activities, trouble sleeping or sleeping too much, a big change in appetite, often with weight gain or loss, Tiredness and lack of energy, feelings of worthlessness, self-hate, and guilt, difficulty concentrating, slow or fast movements, lack of activity and avoiding usual activities, feeling hopeless or helpless and repeated thoughts of death or suicide.
Both Sir Walter Elliot and Lady Catherine De Bourgh are of aristocratic backgrounds, single parents, overconfident and outspoken, almost to the point of bullying everyone around them. While their daughters were provided with the material comforts of life, they were not provided with self esteem and self respect. Self esteem and self respect, I believe are as important, if not more important than material comforts.
In Volume 1, Chapter 1, Austen describes Sir Walter as the following:
*“His good looks and his rank had one fair claim on his attachment; since to them he must have owed a wife of very superior character to any thing deserved by his own. Lady Elliot had been an excellent woman, sensible and amiable; whose judgement and conduct, if they might be pardoned the youthful infatuation which made her Lady Elliot, had never required indulgence afterwards.–She had humoured, or softened, or concealed his failings, and promoted his real respectability for seventeen years; and though not the very happiest being in the world herself, had found enough in her duties, her friends, and her children, to attach her to life, and make it no matter of indifference to her when she was called on to quit them.–Three girls, the two eldest sixteen and fourteen, was an awful legacy for a mother to bequeath; an awful charge rather, to confide to the authority and guidance of a conceited, silly father.”
Within the first chapter of the novel, Austen uses only two words to describe Sir Walter’s opinion of his middle daughter “only Anne”. These words set the stage for the person who Anne is when we meet at the beginning of the novel. Her mother is dead and her father clearly prefers his eldest daughter.
Sir Walter places little value in his younger daughters, Anne and Mary. Anne’s only support comes from her mother’s close friend, Lady Russell, who despite her good intentions sees the world from the same point of view as Sir Walter.
In her book, The Glass Slipper: Women And Love Stories, Susan Ostrov Weisser tells us the following about Lady Russell “In Persuasion, the heroine, Anne Elliott, must choose between her desire for her lover and a tradition order of moral rules that govern a woman’s life, including respect for and obedience to authority, represented by Lady Russell”. In short, Anne is a good girl and follows the rules that have been taught since childhood. By following these rules, she is going against her own desires and needs. She is clearly suffering from low self esteem and guilt, having learned that is easier to submit to other needs and desires than to speak up for herself.
Anne seems to be very much her mother’s child, based on the little bit of information we have of the late Lady Elliott. Loosing a parent at any age is difficult. But to loose a parent at a tender age and left with a father who chooses not to emotionally engage himself in his daughter’s lives sets the stage for an unhappy adolescence and an unhappy adulthood.
Lady Russell may have been the one who convinced Anne to break her engagement with Captain Wenworth, but I believe it Sir Walter who Anne is trying to please by breaking her engagement. Depressed and not yet confident in her own decision making, Anne gives up the man that she loves to please a father who will never be pleased.
In Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine De Bourgh and her daughter, Anne is often spoken by Mr. Collins, but we do not meet them until Volume II, Chapter 6.
Lady Catherine is described as
*“A tall, large woman, with strongly-marked features, which might once have been handsome. Her air was not conciliating, nor was her manner of receiving them such as to make her visitors forget their inferior rank. She was not rendered formidable by silence; but whatever she said was spoken in so authoritative a tone as marked her self-importance, and brought Mr. Wickham immediately to Elizabeth’s mind; and from the observation of the day altogether, she believed Lady Catherine to be exactly what he had represented.”
Anne De Bourgh is described as:
*“She could almost have joined in Maria’s astonishment at her being so thin, and so small. There was neither in figure nor face any likeness between the ladies. Miss De Bourgh was pale and sickly; her features, though not plain, were insignificant; and she spoke very little, except in a low voice to Mrs. Jenkinson, in whose appearance there was nothing remarkable, and who was entirely engaged in listening to what she said, and placing a screen in the proper direction before her eyes.”
We know that Lady Catherine is the daughter of an Earl; her sister was the late mother of the novel’s leading man, Fitzwilliam Darcy. She is a widow, her husband, Sir Lewis De Bourgh, has been dead for an unknown number of years. Austen does not provide her readers with any details about Sir Lewis or his relationship with his wife and daughter.
Based upon what little information we have about Sir Lewis, I believe there are one of two theories about Sir Lewis and his relationship with his daughter. The first is that he learned early in his marriage to acquiesce to his wife’s demands. His daughter also learned at an early age that it was simply easier to let her mother get her way, rather than speak up for her own needs.
The second theory is that Sir Lewis was his daughter’s companion and protector. When he died, his daughter lost the emotional support she did not receive from her mother. In her novel Mr. Darcy’s Diary, Amanda Grange illustrates this possibility
“Poor Caesar. I had forgotten about Anne’s exploits. She was much more lively as a child, when her health was good” I remarked.
“And when she has Sir Lewis to defend her”.
Sir Lewis had always been fond of Anne, and she in turn had been fond of her father. It had been a sad blow to her when she died.”
Anne De Bourgh, like Anne Eliott suffers from depression. Her symptoms include loss of pleasure in usual activities and a big change in appetite, often with weight gain or loss. Her appearance, in addition to her silence in the novel, to me, are indicative of a woman that learned long ago that it was better to be silent rather than arouse her mother’s temper.
Jane Austen was a writer ahead of her time. She was also an observer of her fellow human beings, noting both their strengths and their weaknesses. Of the two Anne’s, only Anne Eliott is able to break from her depression, build up her confidence and trust herself to make her own decisions. Anne De Bourgh, we are told at the end of Pride and Prejudice remains as she is when we meet her at Rosings half way through the book.
Could it be coincidence that she named two of her characters, Anne, both who suffer from depression and live with parents who are unable to provide their daughters with the necessary emotional support? Or has Austen discovered that the secret to raising children who will become successful adults is to teach their children self respect and self esteem?
*-Italics notes text from the novel and supporting information. All text from the original novels are from www.austen.com
* Mr. Darcy’s Diary, by Amanda Grange
*-The Glass Slipper: Women And Love Stories, by Susan Ostrov Weisser.