Jane Austen & The First Gen Y

Are the dilemmas of young people in 2000 so different from those of 1813?

By Dave Kopel of the Independence Institute

7/11/00 9:40 a.m., National Review Online. More by Kopel on literature and books.

Want to know what's really troubling Generation Y? Then crack open a pair of books from 1813-14: Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park. You see, the most important thing that's wrong today was wrong then, too.

Pride and Mansfield both describe the coming-of-age problems of wealthy twenty-somethings and teenagers in rural England in the 1810s. Like today's Generation Y Americans, they are fabulously wealthy, beyond the dreams of most people who have ever walked the earth. Austen's Brits have more servants, while Gen Y has telecommunications; but for both groups, there's little material worry, and a great deal of leisure time.

Yet all is not copasetic. In Austen's books, it is nearly impossible to trust anyone over thirty. The five Bennet girls are the subject of Pride and Prejudice. Their mother is an empty-headed chatterbox. She is just as happy blabbering about (and temporarily ruining) one daughter's potential marriage to a fine young man as she is making arrangements for another daughter's wedding to an impecunious scoundrel.

The negligent father has much more common sense, but he shares too little of it with his children. Instead, he retreats into his library, smirking at his wife's foolishness.

The Bertram family of Mansfield Park is even worse. The mother is supremely lazy. The live-in aunt spoils the two daughters, and turns them into mean-spirited snobs with elevated ideas of their worth. The father — when he's not away from home superintending his West Indian slave properties — does nothing to control the aunt, but instead attempts to "balance" the over-indulgent aunt by maintaining an attitude of formal severity toward his two daughters, two sons, and live-in niece Fanny (the heroine).

The rest of society is even less helpful to the young people. The ministers (Mr. Collins in Pride and Mr. Grant in Mansfield) are shallow greedheads. The most illustrious characters, at the top of the social food chain, are particularly mean-spirited and self-centered; thus, all but one of those associated with Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and the Admiral in Mansfield are highly damaged.

It is through this moral wasteland that the young must travel, attempting to create their own futures. Their peers, products of this opulent but morally-empty society, tend to be charming while remaining thoroughly callous.

The results are predictably disastrous: a young man nearly kills himself with drinking and carousing; a young girl convinces a contemptible liar to run away with her; another girl marries a rich man whom she coldly despises, and then is soon discovered in an adulterous liaison with an equally unprincipled paramour.

Even the young people — who have, despite their dysfunctional families, cultivated a good character — see their futures nearly destroyed through critical misjudgments about prospective spouses.

Yet, while the judgment of the good young is often obscured by pride or prejudice, these people do eventually succeed. They enter into marriages, and manage to pull some (but not all) of their younger siblings out of danger.

And through all these troubles, toils, and snares, the parents making up the rest of society are of essentially no help. They are too self-absorbed, too passive, too busy with their own concerns to assist their children. They may occasionally do something direct about misconduct (Mr. Bertram shuts down the rehearsals of Lover's Vows in Mansfield; Mr. Bennet searches London diligently for his slutty and missing daughter in Pride) — but there is no adult who provides any long-term moral guidance. Nor does any adult provide the most important kind of moral leadership — by modeling a good life through a meaningful, loving relationship with one's spouse.

Are the dilemmas of young people in 2000 really so different from those of 1813? Television, a culture of vulgarity, and broken families have aggravated problems, of course. Yet isn't the real tragedy found in the fact that so many members of Generation Y are missing exactly what the young people of Jane Austen's time were missing: an authentic relationship with parents who know and care about their lives — and parents whose own marriages provide a sound example for young people searching for their own mates.

Today, authors like Dr. Laura Schlesinger offer a remedy. You do not have to accept (and I certainly do not) everything that Dr. Laura says about working mothers to agree with the subtitle of her new book, Parenthood by Proxy: Don't Have Them If You Won't Raise Them. There are far too many three-year-olds in institutional, heartless day care centers, and too many seventeen-year-olds who never sit down to a family dinner, and who almost never have five consecutive minutes of meaningful conversation with a parent. The parents in Jane Austen's day did better on the family dinners, but they too relied on servants, tutors, and other hired help to do the very large share of child-raising.

Manners and clothing styles may change, but Miss Austen and Dr. Schlesinger remind us that the fundamentals do not: Children need real parents — not just people who supply genetic material and material affluence.

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