Essay, Pages 13 (3221 words)
This essay is comparing the portrayal of family relationships in Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’ (written pre 1914), and Adeline Yen Mah’s ‘Falling Leaves’ (written post 1914)
The two books are very different and consequently have very different settings – ‘Persuasion’ is set in 19th century England, with the central characters being born into riches and nobility whilst scorning those who are not, whereas ‘Falling Leaves’ is set in 20th century China, with the main characters being the Yen family, prosperous due to success in business while constantly aware of the effect the revolutionary times they live in is having upon their lives.
The setting plays an important part in both books, as the characters reflect on their surroundings, travel and are separated from family members, in ‘Falling Leaves’ Adeline’s separation from her aunt and in ‘Persuasion’ Anne’s father and sister’s removal to Bath. Setting is often discussed in both books, for example the removal of the Elliot family to Bath, the Yen family moving from Shanghai to Tianjin to Hong Kong, or the need for passports to leave Hong Kong and travel to America, Canada or Europe.
Setting also affects the families’ relationships, for example in ‘Persuasion’ Anne becomes increasingly distant from her father and sister after their removal to Bath,
“All the toil of keeping up a slow and unsatisfactory correspondence with Elizabeth fell on Anne”
And, upon her arrival at Camden place,
“Anne had always felt she would pretend what was proper on her arrival”
This shows the lack of affection the family members feel for each other, and although Anne is never particularly close to her father or elder sister, they seem to grow further apart during the few months they are separated, while Anne remains at Uppercross, as they establish themselves in different circles and seem to find it difficult to speak of mutual topics afterwards, so conversation consists almost invariably of that discussing Mr Elliot.
In ‘Falling Leaves’ Adeline attempts to continue contact with her family as much as possible, but by the end of the book she seems to know very little about her two eldest brothers except basic facts, for example the country the reside in or who they are married to.
Political unrest causes her to be unable to visit her aunt for several years, and she makes numerous references to the political reform in China throughout the book. I think she does this because she feels that too little is known about the political situation in China at the time and what life was like for the millions of people, like herself, living in a constantly changing country in times of great uncertainty. Before I read ‘Falling Leaves’ I knew very little about the Chinese revolution and so I found that the references she makes very insightful, and I think that her motives for writing the book were to impart the message of what her life was like to a large number of people who were previously unaware.
Although the settings are very different, there is a definite common theme, that of the heroine desperately seeking the love and acceptance of her family, even though none may seem apparent.
This is definitely more obvious in ‘Falling Leaves’, as Adeline repeatedly tries to win the love and approval of her father and stepmother – without success. She attempts to achieve as highly as she possibly can throughout her education, winning the class medal almost every week during her time at St Josephs school and is delighted when her father recognises this achievement,
“Father would say teasingly, ‘something is so shiny on your dress. Its blinding me!’ I lapped up his words”
However she regains her disappointment when her family fails to attend the ceremony at which she receives the award for receiving the medal the most times during the term.
” There was warm applause and delighted laughter from the audience but no one from my family attended, not even father.”
As she says “not even father” it shows that it is the opinion of her father she is most concerned about. She continues to seek the approval of her parents even as an adult.
“And any remaining money was spent on expensive gifts for my parents”
She continues to spend her life doing as her parents tell her, or trying to win their approval until their deaths. This seems to imply that she was convinced that her parents were concealing their true emotions, and that if she achieved highly or did as they wished they would apologise for the lack of affection she was shown as a child and that everything would be alright in the end as it was in the T’ang poetry she loved. I think she portrays her sense of desperation well and
That the reader can identify well with Adeline as she talks directly about her emotions, for example her distress when her pet duckling is killed, the cruelty of her family is discussed in a tragic yet not overdramatic way. I think that this is one of the advantages of an autobiography, as, if it is written honestly, it can tell the story in a more realistic manner than some fiction as the experiences in it are true to life not contrived or exaggerated.
However she is eventually rewarded for her devotion when she discovers her fathers will, which, although worthless, leaves to her a portion of his estate equal to that received by her eldest brothers Gregory and Edgar and greater than that of her sister Lydia who received nothing. This shows that her years of seeking her father’s approval eventually left her successful in winning his approval. This gives the book a happy ending which balances the tragic tale of Adeline’s childhood and means the story in general is more inspiring than depressing which makes it more enjoyable for the reader.
The same applies to Anne in ‘Persuasion’, as she is initially ignored, though not to the same extent Adeline was, and overlooked by her father and older sister. She also eventually succeeds as her family (and Lady Russell) give their approval for her marriage to Captain Wentworth, and in becoming married (and older than Mary) she becomes of higher status than both her sisters, leaving Elizabeth (the daughter favoured by their father) unmarried, of less social importance than both her sisters and gradually becoming too old to marry, a thing considered to be done only by those who were of low social status or highly unattractive.
Anne succeeds in making her father reconsider his initial judgement of preventing her marriage to Captain Wentworth, who was previously not considered to be rich enough or of high enough status is now described as-
“Captain Wentworth, with five-and-twenty thousand pounds, and as high in his profession as merit and activity could place him, was no longer a nobody. He was now esteemed quite worthy to address the daughter of a foolish, spendthrift baronet.”
This shows Wentworth’s far superior character in comparison to Sir Walter. Jane Austen seems to be mocking the character of Sir Walter as he has nothing but pride and a title.
As well as their triumphs in winning the approval of their families, the heroines also have in common the fact they both lost their mothers at a young age. They also gained a replacement mother figure, Anne’s being the respected and sensible Lady Russell who does not underestimate Anne as her father and sister do and is always willing to give Anne advice.
Adeline’s, However, is her stepmother Niang, an imposing figure who brought her up from a very young age as Adeline, unlike Anne, never knew her real mother. Throughout Adeline’s childhood the environment she lives in is very unequal, with encouraging attention and material possessions lavished upon Niang’s own two children, while the despised stepchildren received only her contempt and punishment, and are constantly reprimanded throughout the book.
After her grandmothers death Niang takes total control of the household, causing her unfavoured stepchildren to receive little of even basic essential items, such as food and clothing.
“We received no pocket money and had no clothes except for our school uniforms. We were also required to walk to and from school daily. Trams ran almost from door to door.”
Saying “Trams ran almost from door to door” shows that organising transport would not have been difficult, inconvenient or expensive and that if they had been given the small amount of money required for tram fare they could have saved a huge amount of time and effort.
“Dinner was our only decent meal, and was a formidable affair”
This was not simply due to poverty but purely Niang’s hatred of her stepchildren. Her own children were given more food or possessions than they could possibly want, resulting in Franklin throwing food off his balcony to the dog waiting below, as he did not wish to eat all of his ‘afternoon tea’.
Although she does not appear to like any of her five stepchildren, Niang clearly despises Adeline the most. She is excluded from family outings and often severely punished. She continues this hatred throughout her life, resulting in her decision to leave Adeline nothing in her will, although she owned money and property amounting to the value of around $30 million.
She has almost total control over Adeline during her childhood and retains this stranglehold until her death. Adeline finds her stepmother degrading her even as an adult, yet still does not know how to combat it.
“Though I was now a grown woman and a physician, Niang ignored me as if I were a child”
Adeline seems convinced that the way her father treats her is purely due to the influence Niang has over him. This, in my opinion, is why she has such unrelenting faith in him, even when he gives her absolutely no cause to do so. She says
“He was becoming like Ye-Ye”
This shows she believes that her father is really like her warm hearted, soft-spoken grandfather who she loved dearly.
Anne’s maternal figure is, however, very different, Lady Russell is almost an idealistic character; she does however make mistakes, and errors in her judgement which make her more realistic and believable. In Lady Russell Jane Austen has succeeded in creating a strong, intelligent role model for Anne, who has all the good points of a traditional, fictional mother, but with power and character. She is not only all this but also created in such a way that the reader would not doubt her for being too perfect. Lady Russell, like Anne’s biological mother, favours Anne above Elizabeth, while caring for them both, although her father quite obviously favours Elizabeth.
Both books deal with the subject of marriage, for love and for financial/ social reasons, although it is more central in ‘Persuasion’. Both heroines are determined to marry for love and not material possessions.
After realising her mistake of allowing her relatives to persuade her not to marry Captain Wentworth, due to his poor social status and lack of wealth, Anne is determined not to make the same mistake again. She proves this when her family express their wishes that she should wed Mr Elliot, without knowing his true character. This shows her family trying to make her marry for financial reasons, and also social ones, as if she married Mr Elliot she would gain possession of Kellynch hall, the family’s esteemed place of residence, which they would lose upon the death of Sir Walter. Anne refuses to marry Mr Elliot in spite of this due to her determination not to marry for money.
I think Jane Austen uses this situation to voice her strong personal opinions that marriage should be for love, as she also does in her other books, for example ‘Pride and Prejudice’. She also uses several parts of the story line to convey chapters of her own life, for example the family’s removal to Bath, as she herself was made to relocate to Bath when she was young. I think she also uses Captain Benwick as a metaphor for herself, as she also fell in love died before they could marry. She was then proposed to by a wealthy man who she was not in love with. At first she accepted but then later called off the engagement. This is where her story differs from that of Benwick as he then married Louisa Musgrove. I think she uses Captain Benwick to show how she felt at the time and to explain her reasons for not marrying, and using her characters’ strong reactions to support her logic. As Captain Wentworth says
“Fanny would not have forgotten him so!”
Another similar point is that none of her heroines seem to have brothers. I think this is because of the shame she felt about her own brother who was mentally disabled. Marriage is dealt with differently in ‘Falling Leaves’. Most marriages in the book are arranged, such as the one between Lydia and Samuel, or that of Adeline’s grandparents, where the people who marry may never have met before the wedding.
These marriages vary greatly in how successful they are, some lasting many years and being reasonably happy, such as that of her grandparents, or the other extreme of unhappiness and the marriage only lasting due to the fear of getting a divorce. An example of this is Adeline’s sister Lydia, who was forced into an arranged marriage at a young age and spent her life having constant arguments with her husband.
Adeline seems to wish to defy this tradition, as she marries after her move to America, choosing a relatively poor man who worked in a restaurant. She does not tell her parents of her marriage until afterwards, so they cannot try to stop her marrying or, as happened at her sisters wedding, have Niang take any wedding gifts she wished for. However, ironically, she ends up doing almost exactly what she set out not to do. As she says
“In a rare reflective moment shortly after the ceremony, I calculated the time Byron and I had spent together was less than ten hours. I rationalized my marriage by telling myself that most arranged marriages in China would have started out the same way.”
Due to the fact she was so anxious to prove to her parents that she could be successfully married her marriage soon became a sham. However she refuses to admit this, as she is so afraid of failure and the fact that her parents may not permit a divorce, as it would bring shame to the family. This shows the power that her parents still have over her in being able to control her life to such an extent. She does eventually remarry, and her second marriage is a happy one as she marries for love, so, like Anne, she is triumphant at finding someone to marry out of love despite the views of society or her family.
In both societies marriages were generally arranged, with several references to ‘marriage brokers’ in ‘Falling Leaves’. However, in Jane Austen’s time marrying for love was going through a transitional stage and was gradually becoming socially acceptable. I think Chinese society had a similar view on the subject, for example, it was seen as acceptable for Adeline’s father to marry Niang, although he was only attracted to her due to her western heritage and beauty, not money or business/ social connections.
Women in China were generally unfavoured by families and were frequently killed as children. Those who survived either became concubines, married or very occasionally had a career and could remain unmarried, for example, Adeline’s ‘Grand Aunt’ who founded the Shanghai women’s bank, or her aunt Baba who never married and became financially dependent on Adeline’s father and stepmother before gaining employment at the Shanghai women’s bank. This seemed much less common in Jane Austen’s time, where women almost invariably became married and cared for children. This may only be true for high society though as Jane Austen was a spinster but also poor.
The role of women in families also varies greatly. In ‘Falling Leaves’ Niang takes over the household and becomes undisputedly in charge of the family, however many other young women were given very little status when married, such as when Adeline’s grandparents marry and her grandmother is told by her father that she should
“Become the willing piss bucket of the Yen family”
This usage of strong language shows the lack of status she is to achieve after marrying and that she should do as she is told, as that is the way she will do best. In Jane Austen’s time men treated women in high society almost as equals, although women had less power. I think that the book is written in this way so that the reader finds the conversation easier to follow, and the conflicts in personality, which are central to the storyline, become more apparent.
Even though there are many contrasts in society and the treatment of characters is also different, there is a lot that the books have in common, such as the heroine’s deceased mothers or the way they both are overlooked by older siblings or other family members but still have someone on their side, Anne’s Lady Russell and Adeline’s Aunt Baba.
An interesting point is that both books focus strongly around a central issue, Adeline’s desperation for her family’s acceptance and love or Anne’s family persuading her not to marry Captain Wentworth, however when the issue is resolved nothing much is said of the consequences. The entire book of ‘Persuasion’ leads up to Anne’s marriage to Captain Wentworth, but when she finally marries him it says nothing of whether their marriage is successful or if they are happy or not, and offers no insight into their married life. In ‘Falling Leaves’ Adeline speaks a great deal about her childhood but says almost nothing about her own two children, in fact she only briefly mentions her daughter once. This can be a good point as it means that neither book is over long or takes a long time discussing irrelevant subjects and it also gives the reader an opportunity to imagine what would happen in parts of the plot not mentioned in the book.
I enjoyed reading both books, and I found ‘Persuasion’ much easier to read than I thought I would, as I did not know much of the society or the vocabulary used at the time, but I found it surprisingly easy to read while still remaining challenging and by the end of the book I had developed a genuine interest in the characters, although before I was worried that I would not understand or appreciate them properly.
Of the two books I enjoyed ‘Falling Leaves’ the most. I found it easier to read and more engrossing as it involves stronger emotions and I found the characters easier to identify with. I also liked the fact it was autobiographical, as knowing that the mentioned events really took place seems to add an extra fascination to the book. In conclusion I feel that although both books are different they both portray family relationships in an interesting and provocative manner, which can genuinely captivate readers today, whether the book was written before or after 1914.