Literary Learnings

Jane Austen and Marriage

By Carol L. Wright

Jane Austen (1775-1817), arguably the most famous author of England’s Regency Era (1811-1820), has only grown in popularity in the more than two centuries that have followed. During those few years, Austen published four full novels: Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1815). Two more were published in 1817 following her untimely death at the age of 41: Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.

Instead of focusing on Britain’s near-constant wars with France and the United States, Austen’s novels depict the social and economic realities of life of an English country village. She was part of the English middle class—possessing no titles or great wealth, but part of a family well off enough to pay others to handle the drudgery of life. One of eight children (6 boys and 2 girls), she received a good education for a woman of that age and showed an early interest in writing.

While Austen never married, she, like other single women of the period, remained with her parents. Even as a successful author, she did not earn enough to live independently. If an unmarried woman had no family and was sufficiently educated, she could work as a governess or a lady’s companion—jobs that paid poorly, granted no job security, and were not highly regarded. (This was the presumed fate of Jane Fairfax in Emma eliciting the sympathy of some, but not all, of the other characters.)

If a woman lacked education, her options were fewer still. Unless she inherited a substantial sum, she could very well fall out of the genteel class and become a maid, shop girl, or even a farm worker. Gasp! As Jane said in a letter written in 1816, “Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony.” Therefore, by necessity, an advantageous marriage was the goal for nearly all young women, without much regard for romantic love.

It is no wonder that each of Austen’s novels ends with the heroine’s engagement to a stable man—offering her heroines financial security and a measure of social status without having to delve into the realities of married life. In early19th century England, marriage did not ensure bliss. Wives might expect to give birth at an average rate of about one child every two years during their fertility—so long as they were not one of the all-too-frequent women who died in childbirth. Even worse, up to one-third of those children did not live past their fifth birthday.

According to common law, the husband and wife were considered one person—and the husband was the one. Wives had no control over property, including anything they owned prior to marriage, could not keep their own wages, and had no right to sign a contract. While men could divorce their wives, an unhappy wife found it extremely difficult to divorce her husband. If she ever chose to leave a husband, she had to leave her property and her children behind. Children were considered the property of the father. Society would lay the blame for an unsuccessful marriage on the wife, marking her as a pariah and further limiting her options for supporting herself. The patriarchy was alive and well.

All of Austen’s novels reflect this reality. In Northanger Abbey, Austen compares marriage to dancing, saying “You will allow, that in both, man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal.” So, to attract the right sort of mate, young women were expected to have attained many “accomplishments,” as she describes in Pride and Prejudice:

“It is amazing to me,” said [Mr.] Bingley, “how young ladies have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are. . . . They all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses. I scarcely know any one [sic] who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time without being informed that she was very accomplished.”

Grooming daughters to be accomplished benefitted not only the young women, but their families. As Pride and Prejudice’s Mrs. Bennet, never known for tact, said of a hoped-for beau for her eldest daughter: “Now, there will be a great marriage! And, you know, that will throw the girls into the path of other rich men.”

Also in Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas, the best friend of heroine Elizabeth Bennet, understood this harsh reality. She readily accepted an offer of marriage from Mr. Collins, a man the heroine had previously (and emphatically) rejected. Elizabeth saw him as a “conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man” with whom, she was convinced, Charlotte could never be happy. Charlotte’s view, however, was more practical:

“I’m not romantic, you know; I never was. I only ask a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connection, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.”

Practicality over passion appears in Persuasion, wherein the heroine, Anne Eliot, was persuaded by a family friend to decline the proposal of a young navy man she loved, because he lacked wealth. In this case, however, Anne also refused a subsequent offer of marriage to a wealthy man because her heart still belonged to the man who had since gone to sea for many years. When the sailor finally returned, having made his fortune, his heart was still Anne’s and, after many missteps, they got back together for their happy ending.

It is sometimes difficult to distinguish Austen’s practical maiden from a fortune hunter. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland, accompanies family friends, Mr. and Mrs. Allen, to Bath. Isabella Thorpe, mistakenly believing the Allens to be wealthy, cultivated a friendship with Catherine to “throw her in the path” of Catherine’s supposedly rich brother, James Morland to whom she was swiftly engaged. Poor James was unceremoniously dumped, however, when Isabella learned he was not as rich as she thought.

The difference between Isabella Thorpe and Anne Eliot appears to be that one married for love, while the other sought only wealth. But even Anne did not marry the poor man she loved. Austen, often called a feminist, appears to warn that a woman should use her head in deciding her future and whom to love.

This is never expressed more clearly than in Mansfield Park. Mrs. Price, the mother of the novel’s heroine Fanny Price, married a working-class man for love. They proceeded to have more children than they could afford, which led to them sending Fanny to live with one of Mrs. Price’s sisters, Lady Bertram. This fortunate sister had married a man with a title who provided her a life of luxury—a life she mostly spent in a drug-induced stupor, coddling her pug dog, and neglecting her four children. Neither love nor money alone was enough to ensure happiness.  

Sense and Sensibility, Austen’s first novel, delineates this theme of combining love and more practical concerns when marrying even more clearly. The younger sister, Marianne Dashwood, gets swept away by passion for an unworthy man and ends up with a broken heart. The elder, Elinor Dashwood, falls in love with a man set to inherit a fortune, but who has already become engaged to a fortune hunter.  She also ends up with a broken heart. But it doesn’t end there. Austen always offers her heroines a happy ending. Marianne, sadder but wiser, eventually weds a man who offers her true affection as well as wealth and security. The object of Elinor’s love is disinherited and then dumped by the fortune-hunter, thus clearing the way for him to marry Elinor. He becomes a clergyman and the sisters, we suppose, live happily ever after.

Only one of Austen’s heroines has no need of a man to support her. Emma Woodhouse, the heroine in Austen’s fourth novel, lacked neither wealth nor status. In discussion with her friend, Harriet Smith, Emma said:

“I am not only, not going to be married, at present, but have very little intention of ever marrying at all. . . . I have none of the inducements of women to marry. . . . Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want. . . .”

Of course, even Emma falls in love with a good man and changes her views on marriage.

The romances in Austen’s novels still resonate with readers today, but I think there is more to her popularity than just a happy-ever-after tale. Twenty-first century women live a life Austen might envy. There are myriad options open to them, with or without marriage. They have more control over the number of children they will bear, can acquire education, hold professional positions, manage their own affairs, and, in the US, have been voting for more than a century. So, what is it about those stories of societal oppression that keeps modern women reading, watching, and adapting these six novels?

If asked, today’s married women say they married for love, but also used their heads. Since the 1960s, the age at which people commit to their first marriage has risen almost a decade. Young couples, attracted by love, prepare for a long-term commitment. They establish themselves in their careers. Some jointly invest in a home before tying the knot. They consider whether or when they might want to have children. They take their futures into their own hands—and, we hope, live happily ever after. Just as an Austen heroine was meant to live.

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