Children Of Fortune

As someone who likes to pick up on the habits of writers and the patterns of speech they use (being a writer and a speaker with definite patterns of vocabulary that reflect deeper connections and identities), I thought it would be worthwhile today to reflect on a little noticed connection between three “late” Jane Austen novels. Since I am not a scholar of the Regency period, nor am I intimately aware of any Regency era authors apart from Jane Austen, there is a matter I have seen briefly and significantly dealt with in Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion, in such a way that I think it a bit of a touchstone to how those characters are to be viewed by the reader, as well as how they were viewed by Austen.

In particular, there are three people referred to, one in each novel, as a “child of fortune,” or described in similar language, and all of them share specific characteristics. Let us examine each of them in turn and then see what tentative conclusions can be drawn from the connection. These tentative conclusions are all the more tentative because it is possible that the expression child of fortune is used by Jane Austen in a way that reflects some sort of societal viewpoint concerning fortune. If that is so, I know nothing of it. At the very least, there are enough indications that, at least after the publication of Pride & Prejudice that Jane Austen herself had some definite ideas of what it meant to be a child of fortune.

The expression first comes in a sarcastic reference by the heroine of the story, Fanny Price, in her own thoughts to Mary Crawford’s good fortune in having Tom Bertram die so that Edmund can inherit the fortune of the Bertram family himself [1]. Here Mary Crawford is called a “child of luck” for her good fortune. As it happens, Mary does not turn out to be a child of fortune, at least not with Edmund Bertram, because Tom does not die, Henry Crawford breaks up the marriage of Edmund’s sister Maria with Mr. Rushworth, and then Mary shows herself to be less than morally upright herself in Edmund’s eyes, allowing Fanny to take his melancholy heart and become his wife, showing herself to be a true child of fortune despite her awful childhood.

In Emma, the link is even more explicit. In the last part of Frank Churchill’s long letter to Mrs. Weston at the end of Chapter 50, Frank Churchill connects the two elements of being a child of fortune in quick succession, saying that Emma had called him a child of fortune often, and saying that he is happier than he deserves by being with Jane Fairfax publicly and securely at last. It is intriguing to note that it is again the heroine (in this case Emma Woodhouse) who calls the character a child of fortune, and in this case it is explicitly connected with being happier than one deserves.

It is also noteworthy to note, though, that George Knightly, who is significantly older than Emma, is himself a bit puzzled or dissatisfied by the reference to ‘child of good fortune’ even though he certainly recognizes that Jane made him happier than he deserved [2]. It would suggest that his disparaging references to child of fortune suggest that the term did not have universal acceptance, but rather suggests some sort of romanticism that Mr. Knightly was not privy to. Let us remember this link between being a child of fortune and being happier than one deserves, as it will reappear soon.

In Jane Austen’s last (mostly) completed novel, Persuasion, we see one more example of a child of fortune, this one being Captain Frederick Wentworth. Of him it is said in Chapter 4 that he was always lucky, having no fortune but being lucky in his profession. Sure enough, after Anne is persuaded out of her engagement with him, he is lucky in his profession, gaining 20,000 pounds from his share of prize winnings. And, after he wins Anne’s heart (which he rather always had), and she wins his, at the end of chapter 23 has has to “brook himself being happier than he deserved.” That is, after all, the fate of those who are children of fortune.

Here again we see some parallels with the account in Emma. Here it is not the heroine, specifically, but the narrator, presumably in sympathy with the heroine (who is portrayed in a very positive way throughout), who makes the comment of the luck of Captain Wentworth. And, as was the case with Frank Churchill, it is the man himself who considers himself more fortunate than he deserves. And he is right, because he has the heart of a beautiful young lady and the expectation of a lifelong happy marriage. Are any of us so worthy?

Admittedly, three characters out of seven completed Jane Austen novels is a rather slender thread to draw concerning Jane Austen’s conception of characters being children of fortune. However, all three of the characters are vital characters. One is a rival of the heroine, another an apparent rival of the hero, and the third is the hero himself. We are not talking about minor characters being referred to here, but characters at the core of each story.

In addition to the centrality of the “children of fortune” to the story is the similarity between the concept of being children of fortune and being luckier than you deserve, especially with that luck referring to love. Mary Crawford would have been luckier than she deserved to end up with the upright Edmund, but she missed her chance and Fanny would not miss hers. Frank Churchill, a young man who while engaged to one proper young woman openly flirted with another young woman in front of his secret fiance, was way happier than he deserved to wind up with the first young woman and maintain the friendship of the second. And Frederick Wentworth almost got himself entangled with Louisa Musgrove, managed to escape and then got the demure and lovely Anne Eliott. Well played, Captain Wentworth.

Let us add one other way in which the three characters are children of fortune. Mary Crawford, the daughter of a naval family, almost attached herself to a very wealthy family and to the man who could have been its heir. Frank Churchill was the son of the relatively poor Mr. Weston and ended up being the heir to a great fortune, that of the childless Churchills, his uncle and aunt. And Captain Wentworth came from a family with no fortune and ended up a respected and wealthy captain and married a baronet’s daughter. Being a child of fortune, in the eyes of Jane Austen, appears to refer to both love as well as wealth. Let us not forget that Jane Austen was not only the author of romantic novels, but she was also a sharp and keen-eyed observer of matters of wealth and social class as well. It is quite possible she meant fortune both for material/social as well as for romantic reasons, as it would add a layer of depth to the thread she draws for these particular characters.

[1] Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, Ch. 45, paragraph 3, sentence 1.

[2] Jane Austen, Emma, Ch. 51, paragraphs 29 & 31.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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