Hello, Ladies & Gents! Today’s guest post is all about marriage (that inescapable theme) in the works of Jane Austen. It comes to us from the wonderful Sarah of The Every Day Reader. Please give her a warm welcome!
Austen’s major works have many commonalities, but there is one glaring similarity that stands out above the rest: Marriage. All of Jane’s heroines begin their stories unmarried and end it married to a man they not only love, but who are an advance in social status and/or wealth.
Why was marriage so important to them? The heroines of Austen are strong women, who face trials that we would today see as completely unconnected from the marriage institution. Yet, marriage was important enough that Charlotte Lucas accepts Mr. Collins. Why? Because for them, marriage was more than a love match. It was their salvation.
Financial Security: Austen lived and wrote in a time without pensions, unemployment, health insurance or social benefits. Women also had extremely limited opportunities for independent employment and those they did have, such as being a live in governess, were not well-respected or well paid. Mrs Elton in Emma expresses her surprise that Emma’s former governess is ‘so very lady-like.’ Marriage to a wealthy (or at least financially secure) man was the dream, because it gave Austen’s heroines their only realistic chance at a secure life. Austen knew what a strain financial insecurity could be, spending several years traveling between relatives and friends with her mother and sister after the death of their father.
An Escape from their Family: It would have been unheard of in Austen’s time for a woman to live alone, or with friends. Family, or family approved guardians were the only options. Jane Austen herself would have known the reality of such a situation, never leaving the companionship of her family. Austen was blessed with a family that she enjoyed the company of, but if a woman of her time wasn’t so blessed, marriage would be her only permanent escape. Imagine Elizabeth Bennet’s reaction if she had to resign herself to spending her life in the company of her mother!
Social Status: Connections-connections-connections. Life then, as is now, was just as much about who you knew as what you knew (in fact, perhaps even moreso than now). Advancing up the social ladder was also far more difficult than it is today. Men could do so by earning a fortune through trade or being promoted within the military, though would still be looked down upon by those who hadn’t had to earn it. For women, advancement was through marriage. Making a fortuitous connection not only immediately advanced their own status in society, but meant their children would likely have opportunities that they had not.
A House of their Own: The importance of this factor can not be underestimated and goes far beyond escaping family or having financial security. Being able to manage their own home was a woman’s greatest chance at independent action. These were the days before vacuum cleaners, online shopping, Chinese made clothing and disposable lifestyles in general. Managing the household, especially a large one, was a career in itself. Even Elizabeth Bennet would have found a match for her quick mind in the management of Pemberly and indeed, it is seeing the estate which first makes her rethink her attitude to Darcy.
From Jane Austen’s point of view: It is well-known that Jane Austen never married, despite having at least one serious offer (and another mutual attachment that was never acted upon because of that darned financial insecurity). It’s nice to think that by marrying off her heroines Austen was giving them the future she never secured for herself. Although she later expressed relief at having avoided the pitfalls of married life (especially the risks of childbirth) her heroines still all hit the jackpot. They have everything that could have been desired in a late 18th century marriage and something more besides. They had love, which Austen believed to be the most important factor of all. Indeed, many scholars believe was the true reason she never married. Marriage was important to Austen not only because of societal constraints, but because of the relationship that it represented in its best manifestation.
Thanks, Sarah, for these great thoughts on Marriage in Jane Austen’s books! What do you all think? Have you noticed anything similar in your reading this month? How do the Austen works (or reimaginings) that you’ve read this month, or are reading now, treat marriage? Are there any differences in the marriage of Austen’s works versus marriage in the more contemporary remakes? Let’s discuss!