The Novels of Jane AustenIt is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters. – Pride and Prejudice
Anybody who knows me knows how much I love Jane Austen, considered by many to be the greatest female writer of the English language. It was just a matter of time before I would feature her on my blog, and since 2013 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice it seems appropriate to do so this year. Pride and Prejudice was my first Austen novel; I read it for the first time about 15 years ago and since then have tried to read one Austen novel every year. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Pride and Prejudice is a book that I think every Christian should read, but it is one of my all-time favorite books and I do highly recommend it. Rather than review one of Austen’s books in particular, I decided instead to write about the main subject that runs through all of her books – marriage.
As hard as they may try, feminists cannot claim Jane Austen as one of their own, for she supported the institution of marriage and believed strongly in the differences between male and female, and in the traditional gender roles in the family and in society in general. One writer describes Austen’s view of marriage as,
the institution into which a woman entered expecting to be guided and protected by her husband, to look up to and to please him, and to be responsible for the management of a household and the nurture of children – as both the most usual and the most intense source of female happiness (Dr. Elizabeth Kantor, The Politically Incorrect Guide to English And American Literature).
Of course marriage does not guarantee happiness. In Austen’s novels, unhappy marriages are often the result of husbands who have neglected their role as the head of the household and headstrong or silly wives who lack self-control and don’t respect their husbands (see Ephesians 5:22-29). Whereas feminists rant that women are suppressed and don’t have a voice in our culture, if you’ve read Austen, you can see that she believes that women need to learn restraint and self-control when it comes to their tongues. She also illustrates with these outspoken females that, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things” (Matt. 12:34-35). Their tongues give away their values, attitudes and character flaws, and in Austen’s novels, it’s the women who are too vocal that are the most annoying and unlikeable. On the other hand, the men we most disdain or laugh at are those who refuse to take responsibility, fail to stand up for themselves, or allow themselves to be controlled or manipulated by their wives or daughters.
In all of her novels, Jane Austen depicts with wit and insight the attitudes and practices of her day about marriage. The characters’ dialogue and decisions reveal various views of marriage. Some characters handle matrimony as if it were a business transaction; others treat it more like a sport than as a lifetime commitment. Regardless of the individual attitudes, it is taken for granted that every young girl will marry, if at all possible. Surrounded by such attitudes and social pressure, Austen’s young heroines must decide for themselves what they will require to make a happy, meaningful marriage. I think Austen’s books can be read as her personal observations and commentary on the contemporary views of marriage and as a warning to young people who are contemplating marriage.
It’s important to keep in mind that English law was (and is) very complicated regarding wills and property inheritance, and this plays a part in several of Austen’s novels, such as Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion. For example, Sense and Sensibility focuses on two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, who lose their fortune and security when their father dies, and this lack of fortune potentially jeopardizes their chances of a good marriage. A woman without money of her own had few options, so it was crucial that she “marry well” in order to secure her future and position in society. A good marriage by societal standards meant one that was respectable (at least of the same class, if not above) and financially stable (preferably wealthy). Elinor hesitates to admit her growing feelings for Edward Ferrars because she realizes, “there would be many difficulties in his way if he were to wish to marry a woman who had not either a great fortune or high rank.” And Edward’s sister, Fanny, tries to intimidate the two sisters by informing them that her mother intends to see both her sons respectably married.
In families that value social status, matrimony is handled like a business deal. In some cases, parents attempt to choose for or impose mates on their children. In Sense and Sensibility for example, Mrs. Ferrars tries to bribe her son Edward to marry the desirable Miss Morton, threatens to disinherit him if he marries Lucy, and then punishes him for refusing to comply with her. In an act of revenge, Mrs. Ferrars rewards her younger son with the inheritance, only to have him marry against her wishes as well. In spite of her interference, bribery and threats, both the Ferrars brothers succeed in marrying based on their own choice.
It also seems that young people in Jane Austen’s day were encouraged to marry as young as possible to secure their place in society. Young girls are prime targets for matchmakers in Austen’s plots, and Sense and Sensibility is no exception. Marianne Dashwood, at just seventeen, is constantly being paired up and pushed towards marriage. Mrs. Jennings and Sir Middleton have fun teasing the girls about men, turning marriage into a game or sport. When the Dashwoods arrive at Barton, Sir Middleton apologizes for “being unable to get any smart young men to meet them.” Mrs. Jennings is described as a woman who, having two daughters married, “had now therefore nothing to do but to marry all the rest of the world.” The pressure put on young people to get married may cause them to become emotionally attached before they are mature enough for a serious commitment.
Romantic girls like Marianne Dashwood are especially vulnerable and naïve, and easy prey for disreputable men. Austen shows how easily adolescents can get drawn into “youthful infatuations.” Lydia in Pride and Prejudice is a good example of this, and in Sense and Sensibility, both Edward and Lucy admit that the engagement formed when they were younger caused them much regret and grief. Lucy admits, “I was too young and loved him too well to be so prudent as I ought to have been,” and Edward says that his “first boyish attachment” was a “foolish, idle inclination.” Perhaps Austen’s intent is to warn families that young people may not be mature enough to make wise marriage choices, so they shouldn’t be pressured into getting married before they are ready. Young people are bombarded with advice and suggestions for attracting and selecting a spouse, and under family and societal pressures to “marry well,” they can easily make an unwise decision. Another observation that we can make from Austen’s novels is that men should be the leaders in courtship as well as in marriage. In her stories, when a female is forward, presumptuous or indiscreet with men, the situation never turns out well. Marianne Dashwood and Willoughby, Lydia and Wickham, and Maria Bertram and Henry Crawford (Mansfield Park) are just a few examples.
So, what exactly is meant by a “good” marriage anyway? Mrs. Jennings’ two daughters supposedly made good, respectable marriages, yet Charlotte’s husband ignores and berates her, and the incompatible Middletons share nothing in common but their spoiled children. At one point Elinor wonders at the “strange unsuitableness” she often observes between husbands and wives. A good match by social standards often results in a married couple who is miserable together. Poor Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice settles for a marriage lacking respect and affection for the sake of security. When fortune is the main goal of marrying, character qualities and mutual affection seem to be of minimal consideration. In the eyes of the shallow and silly in society, money and beauty seem to be of primary importance, while love, intelligence, and personal character exist further down the list of desirable qualities in a mate.
The more intelligent and sensible characters in Austen’s novels take marriage as a serious commitment, not a game or a commodity. They consider love essential to marriage, not optional. Fortunately for her daughters, Mrs. Dashwood rejects the idea of marriage without mutual affection and would never compel her daughters to marry for money or security only, “It was enough for her…that Edward loved her daughter, and that Elinor returned the partiality.” Marianne also disapproves of marrying merely for convenience, stating, “In my eyes it would be no marriage at all …it would seem only a commercial exchange, in which each wished to be benefited at the expense of the other.” When Mr. Bennett learns of Elizabeth’s desire to marry Mr. Darcy, he remarks to her, “I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable, unless you truly esteemed your husband; unless you looked up to him as a superior.” And certainly Elizabeth and Darcy’s union is among the happiest of all of Austen’s couples. It’s evident by Austen’s novel endings that she believes that mutual love and respect are the necessary ingredients for a happy, successful marriage, not money, youth, or beauty.
Some people may think that Jane Austen’s novels are old-fashioned and irrelevant to our day, but there are definitely some principles that remain true. In America, marrying within one’s social class isn’t an issue as it was in England. Girls now have lots of options regarding education and career paths, and they don’t have to rely on a husband to provide for them. Young people are not under as much pressure to get married and are getting married at a later age, but I think that’s partly because our society doesn’t value or respect marriage as it used to.
Here is a summary of what we learn from Jane Austen about marriage that I believe is still true for today (some points borrowed from Elizabeth Kantor’s book mentioned above):
- “It’s reasonable for women to look to marriage for happiness.” (Kantor)
- “Societal conventions exist for our protection; we discard them at our own risk.” (Kantor)
- Marriages are happier when the husband is the leader and the wife respects his authority.
- Mutual love and respect are critical ingredients for a happy marriage.
- Marriage isn’t a business deal or a game. It’s a serious matter of the heart and a lifetime commitment, and isn’t a decision to be made lightly or spontaneously.
- It’s wise to have a stable income before getting married, but marrying only for financial security will not ensure happiness.
- Parents should offer guidance and advice about marriage but should never intimidate, manipulate or force their children into marrying someone.
- Be sure the person you plan to marry has the qualities you are willing to spend the rest of your life with.
- “If you’re a woman, ‘finding your voice’ probably isn’t going to improve your life.” (Kantor)
Not exactly Biblical marriage counsel per se, but practical advise nonetheless.
Related sites and articles
- Jane Austen’s Works in Detail (austenprose.com)
- The Republic of Pemberley (www.pemberley.com) – the complete text of Austen’s six novels are available here and also at Project Gutenberg
- Celebrating Pride and Prejudice (bfgb.wordpress.com)
- Marriage, Pride and Prejudice (www.breakpoint.org)
- Sense and Sensibility (whisperinggums.com)
- Timeless Lessons we learned from Jane Austen (hellogiggles.com)
- What Matters in Jane Austen? (diaryofaneccentric.wordpress.com)
- What churches can learn from Jane Austen (thechristianpundit.org)
- Jane Austen movies (www.imdb.com)