Persuasion 200: Mary Musgrove’s Complaint — 48 Comments

  1. Very nicely done. It seems Mary has a legitimate complaint. Anne is worth her wright in gold. She calmed her sister as well as making her feel better. This was good for Anne too. She shared a memory of their mother and she felt useful. Mary does need to control those boys better. Thank you for sharing your writing with us.

    Did you paint the picture at the beginning?

  2. Thank you, Deborah – I was trying to show that Mary’s complaints, instead of just being funny, might have some basis in medical reality, given the terrible state of medicine and the dreadfully high maternal death rate in those days. A minor obstetrical or gynecological problem today could have been lethal then. And yet, Jane Austen has Mary being quite well and cheerful at the end of the book, so I couldn’t depart too far from that! So it was an interesting exercise. The picture is by Niroot Puttapipat from the Folio Society edition. I absolutely think it is one of the best Jane Austen illustrations I have ever seen, don’t you? It so perfectly captures the relationship. Wish I could draw that well, LOL – but everybody can’t be Jane Odiwe!

    • I agree that the picture captures the relationship so beautifully. Like you I can’t draw either. My 4 yr old students always ask me what I’ve drawn. 🙂

  3. Poor Mary! It explains alot. The thought of giving birth even now frightens most women, but knowing that many women die daily during the process could make you unwell even contemplating being pregnant. I agree things that women today have medications or surgeries to “fix” must have been a nightmare for our ancestors. The fact that their mother was often in bed and then died must magnify every twinge for Mary. Great insight! Of course Anne is the steady, gentle “mother” here. I too love this picture. Must be the influence of grandchildren to love “pictures” with my stories again!

    • Maggie, I know, it seems like pointing out the obvious to say that in Jane Austen’s day you’d have to be crazy not to be terrified out of your mind by childbirth, but I think we need to be reminded of that! A nightmare indeed. I think of L.M. Montgomery, author of the Anne of Green Gables books, who suffered pitifully from cystitis for 30 years. No cure before antibiotics, endless shame and pain she was mortified to confide to a doctor – yet if you get cystitis now, it’s treatable.

      Interesting, but it makes sense, that grandchldren would make you more aware of illustrations. I won’t have grandchildren (my darling only son is a bachelor) but I’ve always felt like Alice in Wonderland about illustrations: “What is the use of a book without pictures and conversations?”

      Actually, Deborah, I sort of can draw…was an art student at High School of Music & Art in New York half a century ago, but threw my lot into writing instead, as I thought I was better at that. No regrets, as I certainly couldn’t have illustrated my own story!

  4. Why not break away altogether? if you are to make the important point, Mary may have had good reason to complain, you have to. Austen does not give her enough wisdom or interest in anything beyond status and frivolous amusements, but if we were to think about the nature of her enjoyments — what are these? — no wonder she’s bored. Charles likes nothing but hunting; there’s no where to go but relatives she clearly does not find any pleasure in being with, just goes to because she can’t think what else to do — like Mrs Morland endlessly rereading _Sir Charles Grandison_ in _Northanger Abbey_.

    • Well, I rather like Charles, Ellen – Jane Austen says “a more equal match might have greatly improved him” – and the Musgroves too. Mary certainly was not their superior, and her limitations of mind were not the fault of those around her. My point about her complaint was intended to be about what the medical reality might have been.

  5. I hit post comment too soon:

    To write a good sequel — a sequel is the kind of continuation or Austen-induced franchise where you stick with the specific characters and situation of Austen’s novel — it seems to me one must find some way to break away from Austen’s endings and some of her more egregious justifications of the status quo and attacks on those who protest it. One way is that of Jo Baker in Longbourne: you slide out by having the characters presences in the original novel who we don’t much see in the novel; another is P.D. James in Death Comes to Pemberley, begin at some time after the original novel closes.

    You can’t really make your point credible as long as you stay within Austen’s coordinates.


    • But I’m not aiming to write a sequel, Ellen, and would never have any wish to emulate either Jo Baker or P.D. James; they are not in my universe nor I in theirs. My method is to explore Austen while staying within her coordinates, as I described in my post for Sarah Emsley’s blog. It is different, more a form of study, while being entertaining, and works well for me.

  6. Poor Charles was probabbly embarrassed by such female things as courses– many men still are and shy away frm any mention of them. I shudder and wince in sympathy with mary about her pain having a large child– it is no fun even with modern medicine. Many women were caught between wanting marital relations but not wanting to be pregnant. The business of women taking to their couches in a sort of protest against a male dominated life is much mmore prevalent in the Victoran age. At the same time, Mary is the author of many of her ills as she doesn’t make an effort to make a life for herself, to make friends to find an interest or hobby. She is too self centered like her oldest sister and her father.
    Energetic boys ( and girls but boys especially) are enough to drain the energy ffrom the healthiest mother. It is much better for all concerned if that energy is channled properly.

    • A very true assessment of Mary’s situation, Nancy…she really had no resources, and in that she showed herself to be an Elliot indeed. And I’m sure Charles was embarrassed; indeed, I crossed a line in writing about such things, when they were not a fit subject for discussion, or depicted in fiction of the day. However, it seemed to me that two sisters might have such a discussion, in any century!

  7. The Lennox sisters apparently referred to it in their letters . They called their courses the French Lady. On a practical note, that time of the month must have been a real trial without modern sanitary napkins and tampons when the fashion of the day was for light colored and light weight fabrics.

    • Maybe it was called La Comtesse in JA’s family! (Just kidding.) I’ve always wondered about that side of genteel 18th century life, which is very hard to research…I guess that’s why I strayed into it, in this story!

  8. This has been an interesting discussion, and thank you, Diana for exploring these ideas! I, like perhaps many, only saw Mary’s complaints as the result of her own self-centeredness, and perhaps some depression from the confined life style of women of that time. And although I also like Charles, I do think being married to him would not be very satisfying with the shallowness of their relationship and his main enjoyment in life being hunting! It is good to have a fresh look at the story we love and you have added a lot by suggesting further considerations! I have also often wondered with dismay how women dealt with the issues of menstruation and such things as cystitis as mentioned above, in those days!

    • Thanks, Carol, I’m enjoying the discussion too. It really proves my point that you can get good talk and good ideas about Jane Austen and her novels, from the usually rather derided means of “sequel” writing. In these comments I’ve been given several new aspects to think about, which is fantastic.

      • I have been watching the post on this closely. Great discussion! I will always look at Mary a little differently now. As an old nurse who has spent most of the last 45 years with women and children her complaints really ring home. Given medicine in Austen’s day no wonder Mary, felt she had to complain…she was just a “woman”. Would have thought though she would have had more sympathy with Anne who was even worse off as a “maiden aunt”. During these “additional” chapters my opinon of the major female characters has really changed…except for Elizabeth of course. Thank you all for the new perspectives!

        • Maggie, maybe you know about a midwife’s diaries! I’d like to do a little reading about that. You raise a good point about Mary not sympathizing with Anne more. It is quite noticeable in the book that she doesn’t. She shows her complete lack of understanding and sympathy by saying things like, “What can YOU have to do?” Clearly this is because of her inability to think of anybody but herself, about how things may seem to anyone else. Anne doesn’t have HER problems – so she can’t have any problems worth mentioning, and Mary is even a little jealous of that. And when Anne marries, Mary isn’t joyful for her, she just competitively compares their situations to see whose is better. Jane Austen knew her human nature, all right…

  9. There is a web page on the history of menustration — i think it is called a museum. It is interesting if a bit “yucky.” I think some claims are made without sufficient documentation.
    Male doctors have either dismissed all claims of discomfort and pain or wanted to medicate or electrify or something. There is a book on Google books — I can’t get the titlle at present– by a doctor who galvanizes women for various female problems. He sends electricity through the lower abdomen.
    Feminine delicacy usually bars mention of the subject except in some diaries or letters to very close friends/sisters.

    • I’ve looked at that page in the past, Nancy, and it is interesting, but still doesn’t tell what I want to know about an 18th century woman’s life, satisfactorily. As you say, there is so little written on the subject, because people did not write about it back in the day. I’ve read all sorts of things (gross alert!), such as that women didn’t wear underwear, that they bled into their clothes, but all that is so far from how we envision the world of Jane Austen’s novels that I’m sure many of us have wondered how to justify the puzzling contradictions! Thin gauzy white gowns, no modern sanitation? At least, all those electrical treatments weren’t available in Austen’s day, not quite yet!

      • ” At least, all those electrical treatments weren’t available in Austen’s day, not quite yet!”
        Didn’t I make it clear that these were around in the 18th and 19th century. I have an ad from a newspaper of 1819 by a doctor advertising galvanizing treatments for all sorts of discomforts as well as blocked menses. John Wesley had electrical treatments in the 17 40’s. The book I saw was published during Jane Austen’s life time.
        As for bleeding to their clothes, I doubt anyone did it deliberately. A garment would be unwearable very shortly and the poorer sort couldn’t buy another or have that one washed.
        Many women spent 3 or 4 days a month on a sofa or day bed.

        • I guess so, Nancy…I was thinking the electrical treatments were just a little later, but you’ve done the research. Wonder if Jane Austen knew of them (or anything about electricity in general). Wonder if anybody’s done a paper about her scientific knowledge. Well, this is why you never run out of things to think about Jane Austen!

          Definitely it’s no wonder why the sofa looms so large in Victorian novels…

  10. I really love the discussion here. Some great points raised in response to your post Diana, which does the post credit. JA’s tendency towards satire sometimes makes her seem uncaring, but I remember reading somewhere that her mother was a bit of a hypochondriac and used her health as an excuse to manipulate those around her. Mr. Woodhouse in Emma is treated with more gentle humor. Perhaps in Persuasion, this novel of regrets, she may have lost patience with people who use their health that way and hence is sharper in her approach? I tend to think there is more anger in this novel than in any other, barring perhaps Mansfield Park, but that’s just a feeling I get.

    I love the fact that you try to redeem Mary, Diana, but then you like to redeem some of the “bad” characters, don’t you. As you say, the context of Persuasion 200 means you have to stick the the conventional narrative, but you still manage to fill in the gap in an insightful way. Thank you for the new perspective.

    • Fantastic, Monica – I had not made the connection with Mrs. Austen’s hypochondria at all, but Jane Austen may very well learned about “women’s troubles” from the ground up, simply through her mother! Who knows how it may have informed her portrayal of Mary Musgrove (among others – look at Sanditon!). Extremely interesting about the anger, too; I’m going to have to have a long think about that. And I’m amused by you pointing out that I do like to redeem the baddies – I guess I do! What that says about me I don’t want to know, LOL! Thank you for a very insigntful comment, which illuminates this thread even more!

  11. I agree! Fascinating conversation here. I always thought Mary’s constant complaints were mainly a way of getting attention from everyone – especially Charles. He’s a nice guy but he’s pretty much a man’s man and is always out doing something like hunting or fishing. Since she’s just a little too old to be close to Henrietta and Louisa, she’s pretty much on her own. Also, Mary has some of that “Elliot pride” and seems to think she’s a step above the Musgroves. I wonder if she might have done better in a different situation and with a different husband.

  12. Very interesting points here, and believable. I guess I never really gave Mary’s issues much thought or legitimacy. I always wrote her off as being an annoying hypochondriac. I don’t know that I’d ever like Mary but I can at least sympathize and understand her better here. She’s not wrong in pointing out that Anne can’t know all of what she’s going through, since Anne hasn’t had a baby. I’m sure Charles isn’t completely uncaring, he just probably gets that constipated deer in the headlights look when Mary mentions a female ailment and obviously can’t relate.

    Thanks Diana!

  13. Susan, I hadn’t thought about that either (and all these eureka moments are more than I usually get in a period of maybe six months!!!) – that not only does JA say that Charles would have done better with another husband, but Mary might, too. Perhaps one with more understanding of women, would have helped make her a more self-aware and mature person; but then again, would you doom somebody like Mr. Knightley to marriage with a Mary?

  14. I mean, of course, that Charles might have done better with another wife, and Mary with another husband…I’m not recommending a gay marriage here, the young Musgroves have enough to sort out as it is!

  15. Enjoying the above discussion.
    Everyone is made up of a million feelings and moods, nice to see Mary may have had reason to complain yet she definitely takes them too far. Anne handles people so well, she treats people like they should be treated but she herself is treated as an afterthought.
    Sweet moment between the sisters when Anne shared a story of their mother and her special tea.

  16. Thanks for this very interesting insight into why Mary might have complained as much as she did. I was never able to sympathize much with her character before. Great discussion here.

  17. Belated reply: I was talking offering a thoughtful critique of the way Mary Musgrove is understood. What I found interesting in the story is that it opens up the unfairness of Austen’s presentation and suggests a larger perspective which could generalize out to other women in her position. I see Austen’s presentation of Mary Bennet in the same light, only more cruel and self-flagellating for was not Jane a reading girl?

    On one level Austen’s presentation of Mary Musgrove makes fun of a stifled woman. She does the same to Mary Bennet. I grant she also presents Mary Musgrove as nasty and mean (think of what she says to her sister the first night they see Wentworth), a woman capable of the corrosive verbal knife to the heart in the manner of Mrs Norris. But she is also someone never given any education to make her otherwise than mean.

    Not so much Death comes to Pemberley the novel, but Death comes to Pemberley the film as well as Baker’s Longbourne register sharp critiques and developments out of Austen’s fiction which refreshingly go outside her coordinates. Instead of having endless demonstrations of how let’s say MP is against slavery by trying to tease meanings out of a text not quite there, you go beyond it.


    P.S. Hmm. I never thought of this: maybe the name Mary carries a hostile charge for Austen (as from Mary Lloyd Austen?)

    • Yes, I was just thinking about the two Marys, Musgrove and Bennet, Ellen, and I know we aren’t the first to put the two of them together, for there are similarities in more than name. Interesting point about Mary Musgrove not being given any education to make her otherwise than mean, but most of the female characters have about the same amount of formal education, e.g., not much, and meanness and kindness aren’t learned in the schoolroom anyway as much as they are by how a young person is treated growing up. Mary Musgrove had less of her mother than kind Anne did (Elizabeth of course had more but was obviously always Daddy’s girl), and felt deprived and abandoned. That if often what makes for nastiness, striking out in a wrongly judged way to get love; in my recent thinking about Mrs. Norris for my play, it’s seemed to me that she is just another example of somebody who becomes hateful because she feels deprived. About the names – obviously names meant something to Austen as they do to all of us, but it’s a hard study to know if names were weighted or she meant family references, or not. You know how she writes about “all the Marys and Elizabeths” the various peerage had married, and then she gives those names to these girls. Sort of random almost.

  18. I always felt Mary was looking for attention and knew of no other way to get it. Her upbringing worked against her with the lively and easy-going Musgroves. Anne has the patience of a saint and I loved how you not only gave depth to Mary’s ailments but also brought the sisters together with Anne’s reference to their mother. Having lost my mother at a very young age, no memory of her, anytime any relative spoke of her with stories always had my full and undivided attention.

    Thank you! I thoroughly enjoyed this chapter and the subsequent comments regarding how women may have dealt with their menstrual cycles. I always wondered… which makes we wonder if any midwife back in the 18th and 19th century ever kept any records?

    • Thanks for the comment, Carole. Now that you put it that way, I do see that’s what Mary was doing, looking for attention, only she has a most unfortunate way of trying to get it. Come to think of it, other Jane Austen’s characters are also unfortunate in their attention-getting ways (even another Mary, Mary Bennet!), and that’s one of the things Austen pokes fun at. I also lost folks at a young age, and know how a mention will change everything, so Anne and Mary had to share that feeling, and speak of it sometimes.

      I know I’ve seen a novel or two about midwives, and if you google a lot comes up about Martha Ballard, whose journals formed “The Midwife’s Tale,” but she was American. I haven’t researched this – does anybody know?

  19. “such miseries, such spasms”….I am hearing Mrs. Bennet. Nicely done – especially at the end where Anne has soothed and cajoled Mary into better spirits. Might we have a recipe (receipt) for that tea?

    • (dimples) Thank you, Sheila! But (tears hair) I KNEW someone would call me on that tea! I wrote this about twenty minutes before deadline and always have formatting challenges, so I had no time to research the kinds of herb tea ladies of that era might have cultivated and brewed! I am no gardener, either. Guess I was vaguely thinking of French tisane, but that’s not right. Anybody knowledgeable help us out here???

      • Chamomile tea is still used for calming people.
        There was one also used for easing morning sickness– Mary hints she is pregnant– but I can’t thik which one it is. I can’t even spell the names.

      • I second Nancy’s comment that chamomile tea calms… I drink it when my 17 4 yr olds get to me. Peppermint is good for the stomach and nausea reduction. My great aunt used to give it to me when motion sickness would attack.

        • Nancy, Deborah, Sheila, you are all correct. I have checked with Anne Elliot and her mother’s recipe for tea is certainly chamomile. I have checked with Wikipedia too, and it’s amazing all the things chamomile is good for – muscle aches, menstrual cramps, bowel problems, morning sickness, maybe even diabetes. Perfect for Mary, therefore. However, you note Anne uses a mixture of herbs, so it went like this:

          Mary looked up inquiringly. “What is in this, Anne? I know it is chamomile tea, but there is something more, something special about it.”
          Anne smiled. “Yes,” she said, “luckily you had all the things in your pantry. A little mint, lemon balm, and lavendar. That is how our mother used to brew it. She taught me how, and now I am telling you.”
          “I might give some to little Charles and little Walter,” said Mary meditatively. “It might put them to sleep.”
          “It would,” Anne agreed. “It won’t harm them, and then you will get some sleep too. I really believe, Mary, that a good sleep is all you need.”
          Mary sipped her tea. “You do know how to make me comfortable, Anne,” she owned.

  20. Now that is an herbal tea I would like to try! I’m not a fan of Chamomile tea but adding lavender, tea balm and mint would do the trick! This put a smile on my face on such a gloomy rainy day! Thanks!

    • Yesterday I saw a recipe for such a tea including lemon balm and lavender. Lavender is calming which is one reason it was often kept in the linen closet so that the pillow cases and bed linens would smell of it. Peppermint has been used to sooth upset stomachs and morning sickness for ever. Not sure about them all in the same glass
      Culpepper’s Herbal is great but doesn’t have a reverse index. That is one can look up different herbs to see their properties but can’t look in the index for “soothing” tea and see the name of herbs that are considered soothing.

    • Thank you, Carole and Nancy! I’m sort of wishing this thread would go on and on…but I guess I can just go console myself with a cup of chamomile tea…

      • I use Lavender oil on my person & clothing most mornings, to keep me calm, before I go into my classroom of 17 4 yr olds for 10 hrs a day. I swear it helps…especially with my 1 that kicks and hits me when he doesn’t get his way. I also bring chamomile tea for layer in the day. I believe they help keep me sane!

  21. This is very informative. So Mary’s complaints are for real, not her way of getting attention from her husband and her in-laws. Luckily for her, she can confide in Anne and her sister’s herbal tea makes her feel comfortable. Great job, Diana.

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