The question of why we love Jane Austen so much has been pondered by many a scholar and reader over the past 200 years. But if you ask ten people this question, you will surely get ten different answers.
Some would say the plots are what they like best. Others read and admire Austen for her wit and humor. And what about her amazing insight into romantic relationships?
I would say what makes Austen so great is her characters. After you’ve read an Austen novel, you remember these vibrant people in the story that jump right off the page. We remember Elizabeth Bennett’s staunch individuality, or Marianne Dashwood’s vulnerable and romantic disposition. We think of Fanny Price’s morality, and of course, who could dismiss the all-time favorite Fitzwilliam Darcy, the broodingly handsome hero who saves the day, not only for Elizabeth, but for the entire Bennett family.
But what about the minor characters? Most people don’t even give them a second thought. Why? Minor characters are the foundation that holds up the major players in a story. The are foils; put there to do a variety of things. They make a major character look prettier, or even plainer; think of Isabella Thorpe next to Catherine Moreland in “Northanger Abbey,” or more heroic, which was George Wickham’s function in regard to Darcy.
I have always been intrigued by these characters, and who they could have been i.f they’d had a stronger voice, and went beyond mere support of the main characters. So I decided to start developing them by giving them a story of their own.
The first one I wrote about was Mrs. Dashwood from “Sense and Sensibility” in my novel “Mrs. Dashwood Returns.” This was because I always thought Mrs. Dashwood got what you might call “a bum rap.”
Why? Just look at the plot. The story begins with the tragedy of her losing her husband and her home. She is betrayed by her stepson through his greedy and evil wife, leaving her and her daughters with very little means. Let’s face it; Fanny Dashwood makes the evil stepmother in “Cinderella” look like Mother Theresa.
Mary is forced to move from Sussex to Devonshire, and live on the kindness of a relative. Her daughters are jilted by the men they desire. It seems to never end as Mrs. Dashwood goes from heartbreak to heartbreak.
In the end, it is implied Mrs. Dashwood is happy with her daughter’s good fortune, but what about her life? We assume John and Fanny Dashwood go back to Norland Park and their immense wealth. They suffer no consequence for the pain they caused. The same goes for Mr. Willoughby. Sure, he marries a woman he doesn’t love; but what is that to all the wealth he gains in the process? I just felt things weren’t right with the universe, if these villains were allowed to triumph. In other words, Mrs. Dashwood needed a win.
And that is where “Mrs. Dashwood Returns” begins. Living quietly in her Devonshire cottage ten years after the weddings of her daughters, she is content, until circumstances led her back to Norland Park. There, in confronting John and Fanny, she gets the opportunity to be recognized as someone of worth. She is able to look back on her life and put things in prospective. She still holds bitterness over her and her daughters travails, but finds that though kindness and forgiveness, which are part of her nature, she makes peace with those that harmed her and her family. She also finds the love and support of a mysterious man that unexpectedly comes into her life when she thought all possibility of that kind of love was gone.
Most of all, I wished to make her into someone who was fearless; and never afraid to stand up for herself and her family. She is a great matriarch without great wealth or titles.
I plan to examine more minor characters. Next time, I will bring to light Thomas Bertram, oldest son of Mr. and Mrs. Bertram, and the hero of my novella, “Becoming Sir Thomas.”