Today, I am wrapping up Jane Austen week with a quick overview of a minor character from each of the remaining novels.
Mansfield Park: Tom Bertram is the eldest son, set to inherit Mansfield Park. He regularly makes poor decisions, incurs nearly-ruinous debts, and has friends of the sort who would abandon him at the first sign of trouble. Yet, he still has John Yates, my favorite minor character of the novel. He makes quite an entrance:
The Honourable John Yates, this new friend, had not much to recommend him beyond habits of fashion and expense…. Mr. Bertram’s acquaintance with him had begun at Weymouth, where they had spent ten days together in the same society, and the friendship, if friendship it might be called, had been proved and perfected by Mr. Yates’s being invited to take Mansfield in his way, whenever he could, and by his promising to come; and he did come rather earlier than had been expected…. He came on the wings of disappointment, and with his head full of acting, for it had been a theatrical party; and the play in which he had borne a part was within two days of representation, when the sudden death of one of the nearest connexions of the family had destroyed the scheme and dispersed the performers. To be so near happiness, so near fame, so near the long paragraph in praise of the private theatricals at Ecclesford, the seat of the Right Hon. Lord Ravenshaw, in Cornwall, which would of course have immortalised the whole party for at least a twelvemonth! and being so near, to lose it all, was an injury to be keenly felt, and Mr. Yates could talk of nothing else.
Jane Austen likes nothing so much as letting us laugh at human nature, and here she sparkles with glee. In one paragraph, a character is built entirely in a series of deft descriptions. Mr. Yates is Tom’s theater-obsessed friend, the one who brings intrigue to Mansfield Park with an inappropriate play. And, with the play, he manages to disrupt relationships and turn over the solid stability of the conservative country house. Because of him, Maria’s relationship with Henry Crawford progressed further under the guise of theatricals than it might otherwise have. Mr. Yates finishes with a flourish, eloping with Julia Bertram and thereby becoming an official part of the circle of Mansfield Park. I like to imagine them living quite happily ever after, visiting a reformed Tom occasionally at Julia’s childhood home, and hosting merry parties and plays for their friends.
Northanger Abbey: Mr. and Mrs. Morland, who appear hardly at all in the novel, are the parents of our heroine, Catherine. They seem to be one of the better sets of parents written for a heroine in Jane Austen’s novels. Think, by comparison, of Sir Walter Elliot, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Mrs. Dashwood, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, and Mr. Woodhouse. Mr. and Mrs. Morland do not cause the drama of the novel. They do not interfere, are not overly anxious or emotional, are not downright neglectful, do not intimidate their children, do not demand that they marry rich. They are simply ordinary people with a few too many children, but who do their best to help and support them and allow them to have their own adventures. Indeed, Catherine, with her happy childhood, hardly seems born to be a heroine. Most of the action takes place away from home, in a world where Catherine cannot imagine people having hidden bad intentions because she was raised by good, honest people. Mr. and Mrs. Morland are, in my opinion, the best parents any heroine could have.
Persuasion: Captain Harville is a friend of Captain Wentworth, the hero of the novel. He has many deep conversations with Anne Elliot, including the one which led Captain Wentworth to hope that Anne might still care for him and brought about The Letter, one of the most stunningly gorgeous romantic letters in all of literature. According to Anne, good company is being with “clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation.” Captain Harville fulfills that requirement perfectly. Persuasion is a novel full of exceptional minor characters, a masterpiece that was finished but not yet polished, with plot ends not convincingly tied up before Jane Austen’s death. The characters do truly carry the novel, and Captain Harville is one of the most outstanding.