Friday, 4 March 2016

Sir John Middleton and Lady Middleton in Jane Austen's 'Sense and Sensibility'

Usually, Jane Austen gently mocks but does not condemn. Many of her characters are superficially irritating but, if they are essentially sociable, good-hearted people, she respects them as worthy souls. Annoying habits do not prevent them from enhancing the lives of those around them. Take Sir John Middleton of Barton Park. He is typical of those extrovert, over-hearty characters (Mr. Weston is another) of whom Jane Austen does not entirely approve, but whom she recognizes as being far more lovable than the mean and mean-spirited.

Good-looking, Sir John Middleton is gregarious and loves to see people happy. He is hospitable and generous to excess. He is the Dashwood ladies' landlord and, as Marianne jokes, The rent of this cottage is said to be low; but we have it on very hard terms, if we are to dine at the Park whenever any one is staying either with them or with us. Like his wife, Sir John lacks talent and taste, but this is partly because he lives within a very narrow compass

Jane Austen gives us a wonderful account of his behaviour when Marianne entertains on the pianoforte:

Sir John was loud in his admiration at the end of every song, and as loud in his conversation with the others while every song lasted.

While the words make fun of his insensitivity, they also illustrate his efforts to exude good-will in all directions. We see the same characteristic in his sister-in-law, Mrs. Charlotte Palmer, who admired Elinor's drawings so much that she 'could look at them for ever' and then 'very soon forgot that there were any such things in the room'.

Sir John's mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings, is the female of the species. A 'good-humoured, merry, fat, elderly woman', she talks a great deal, is always happy and is 'rather vulgar'. Her pleasure is to tease young ladies about possible lovers. (She is the first to suggest that Colonel Brandon and Marianne will become man and wife.) She irritates and embarrasses but Jane Austen makes clear that her heart is in the right place; she deserves the affection which even Marianne comes to feel for her. On balance, Jane Austen likes such people well enough. 

Lady Middleton is insipid and, although she opposes nothing her hospitable husband proposes, she contributes nothing to the happiness of those around her, so little did her presence add to the pleasure of the others, by any share in their conversation.

Interesting conversation is highly valued by Jane Austen; unintelligent, buttery or sycophantic talk is despised:

no poverty of any kind, except of conversation, appeared – but there the deficiency was considerable. John Dashwood had not much to say for himself that was worth hearing, and his wife had still less. But there was no peculiar disgrace in this, for it was very much the case with the chief of their visitors, who almost all laboured under one or other of these disqualifications for being agreeable: – Want of sense, either natural or improved – want of elegance – want of spirits – or want of temper.

Incidentally, Sir John Middleton is about 40 and his wife, Lady Middleton, is 26 or 27. Quite a few couples in Jane Austen's novels seem to be satisfactorily matched despite a considerable age difference. Think not only of Marianne and Brandon but especially of Emma and Knightley. 

The Middletons’ characters (notably their lack of interests with which to occupy themselves) are well summed up in Jane Austen’s typical one-sentence manner: He hunted and shot, and she humoured her children; and these were their only resources.