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Marriage and Social Realities in Pride and Prejudice

A sophomore literature student who loves conversing about books from a political, social, and feminist lens.

Matrimony in Pride and Prejudice

Published in 1813, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice satirically and realistically depicts the economic and social realities of the Regency Era (1795-1837). The class structure, combined with regressive and repressive laws concerning gender, sexuality, and marriage, was rigid enough to intertwine with one’s identity. Austen, positioned “on the fringes of the gentry” (Todd) holistically portrays the English society foreshadowing the upcoming Victorian Era.

Marriage is portrayed on the one hand as a pre-arranged alliance, to ensure that economic and social ascendancy would stay between influential families (Ms. Anne as a suitable partner for Mr. Darcy or the keen interest of Caroline Bingley in Darcy). Secondly, marriage is shown to be a possible escape for security (Charlotte Lucas “who accepted [Collins] solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment”). Thirdly, it can be out of societal obligation (Collins premeditating to marry among the Bennet sisters—“coming into Hertfordshire with the design of selecting a wife”—and to set an example within his clergy). Fourthly, it is shown to possibly lead to an improper match, as a result of folly and haste (Lydia and Wickham). Lastly, a luxury accorded to very few, matrimony can come as a declaration of love (a wider choice available to Jane and Elizabeth because of their beauty.)

Jane Austen

Jane Austen

Laws of Entailment

Amrita Bhalla notes, the estates were entailed on to the eldest nearest male relative, and daughters were eligible for capital sums. This gave rise to a precarious position for younger sons and daughters, for instance, the constant apprehension of the Bennet estate being entailed to Collins after Mr. Bennet’s death. Depicted in Sense and Sensibility, where John Dashwood forsakes his sisters, who are entirely dependent on “his charity” after their father, Henry Dashwood’s death. Colonel Fitzwilliam says, “Younger son must be inured to self-denial and dependence…[they] cannot marry where they like[1]”. However, it becomes noteworthy that younger sons could enter a profession: law (John Knightley[2]), military (Colonel Fitzwilliam), clergy (Edmund Bertram[3]), landowner (George Knightley[4]), church, business, army officers, or navy (Captain Frederick Wentworth[5]). Such opportunities were non-existent for women- “only honorable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, [marriage becomes] …their pleasantest preservative from want”[6]. Thus, forcing them to adorn the “feminine ideal” to entrap a contenting household- “[Charlotte] instantly set out to meet [Collins] accidentally in the lane”[7], “women had better show more affection than she feels[8]” for “who is to maintain [them] when [their] father is dead?”[9].

[1] Page 125, Chapter 33

[2] Emma, 1825

[3] Mansfield Park, 1814

[4] Emma, 1825

[5] Persuasion, 1817

[6] Page 85, Chapter 22

[7] Page 84, Chapter 22

[8] Page 15, Chapter 6, Italics mine

[9] Page 79, Chapter 20

The Married Women's Property Act

Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, aptly calls marriage a “maneuvering business”[1] resulting in the desperate act of husband-hunting for economic survival and social upliftment remodeling marriage into a ‘transaction’ in a consumeristic market[2]- “[all]the heart…desire[s], splendid property, noble kindred, and extensive patronage”[3]. Meanwhile, the value of men was reduced to a price tag, “single man[4] of large fortunes…a fine thing for our girls[5]!”

Further, until The Married Women’s Property Act (1882), women had no legal financial rights of her own, evidently explaining why, “The business of [Mrs. Bennet’s] life[6] was to get her daughters married[7]” and her incessant scheming and strategies(not permitting a carriage for Jane- “better go on horseback because it seems likely to rain, and then [she] must stay all night”[8] and setting up regular meetings). Regardless of class, the paranoia of getting the “married tag” haunted every societal woman from the economically doomed Bennet sisters to Lady Catherine for Ms. Anne, who will be inheriting £10,000.

[1] Chapter 5

[2] Implicit competition between Elizabeth and Miss Bingley or Miss King and Elizabeth

[3] Page 244, Chapter 57

[4] Who specifically the man is, his character and morals, do not matter as long as he comes with economic prosperity.

[5] Page 3, Chapter 1

[6] Additionally, her tension arising from the ‘chore’ of getting her daughters married, doubles because of the notably ‘absent’ Mr. Bennet (who would sit in his room reading all day and making fun of his wife, rather than take on his patriarch duties). Further substantiates the point that why economic realities were way more severe for women than men.

[7] Page 4, Chapter 1

[8] Page 21, Chapter 7

The novel

The novel

Economic Realities

Austen’s familiarity with the prevalent culture of conduct literature, which presented marriage as a solemn religious duty for women is also evident: Lady Catherine lecturing Elizabeth, “Young women should always be properly guarded and attended according to their situation.”[1] or Collins stressing that Lady Catherine “likes to have the distinction preserved”[2]. Even Elizabeth partially adhered to them- “must belong to Darcy, the superior in consequence, to begin the acquaintance”[3]. Elizabeth’s inclination towards Darcy primitively arises when she visits and is enamored by Pemberley- “And of this place…I might have been mistress.”[4]

Economic realities not only affected young women but all individuals[5] and their decisions- Mrs. Bennet chiding Elizabeth for rejecting Collins (“headstrong foolish girl, does not know her own interest”[6]), or even celebrating Lydia and Wickham’s marriage[7]. Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey says, “Man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal”.[8] However, familial scrutiny and social stigmas restricted their choices and thus their “power of refusal”, which rendered them vulnerable, powerless, and exploited their dependency. Most Austen heroines, apart from Emma, are entitled to small portions explaining the importunity of marriage, which becomes a social and economic parameter within which women can locate themselves, thus becoming the central preoccupation of the novel and their lives.

Being married not only uplifted the women’s position but bolstered her entire family- Charlotte’s sisters “formed hopes of coming out sooner and... [her brothers] were relieved from their apprehension of Charlotte’s dying an old maid[9]”. Mrs. Bennet is “happy that [she] got rid of her two most deserving daughters.”[10] Austen in a letter to Fanny Knight (1817) justifiably notes, “Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor—which is one very strong argument in favor of matrimony.”

[1] Page 144, Chapter 37, Italics mine

[2] Page 110, Chapter 29

[3] Page 68, Chapter 18

[4] Page 164, Chapter 43

[5] Even, the character of Wickham who first tries to entrap Georgiana Darcy and then Miss. King for their fortunes.

[6] Page 77, Chapter 20

[7] though Lydia’s vain decision would possibly render her marriage as loveless as of the Bennet’s, Mrs. Bennet is happy at her elevation in society.

[8] Volume 1, Chapter 6

[9] Page 85, Chapter 22

[10] Page 258, Chapter 60, Italics mine

Austen Heroines and the Comforting Endings of the Austen Novels

Howbeit, Austen heroines, Elizabeth, Elinor Dashwood[1], Anne Elliot[2], and Fanny Price[3], refuse to marry solely on material comforts. They differ from the fragile, vulnerable, helpless protagonist of, then prevalent, sentimental novels[4]- “Do not consider me…an elegant female…but a rational creature speaking the truth”[5]. Elizabeth rejects the condescending proposals of both Collins and Darcy[6] which insults her economic station. Austen herself rejected the proposal of Harris Bigg Wither[7] not succumbing to mercenary pressures. Lady Catherine sees Elizabeth merely as “a young woman of inferior birth, of no importance in the world”. However, Elizabeth establishes that Darcy “is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal”[8] Rebellious and unconventional views of Elizabeth, likely derived from Austen’s inspiration from Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays.[9]

“Lump-sum amount became a reason for the lady’s desirability, her money will be a source of income, elevating the economic status of the male”, notes Donald Gray. Collins observes “[Elizabeth’s] portion is unhappily so small(1000£) that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of [her] loveliness”[10] Elizabeth herself notes, “[Bingley’s family] may wish him to increase [his] wealth and consequence…marry a girl with…great connections, and pride.”[11] Under such strained circumstance, one cannot overlook the Cinderella-ending of Austen’s novels wherein empty-handed heroines are conveniently rescued by wealthy men.[12]

[1] Sense and Sensibility, 1811

[2] Persuasion, 1817

[3] Mansfield Park, 1814

[4] The sentimental novel or the novel of sensibility is an 18th-century literary genre that celebrates the emotional and intellectual concepts of sentiment, sentimentalism, and sensibility.

[5] Chapter 19

Spoken by Elizabeth while rejecting Collins

[6] Darcy feels that proposing to Elizabeth goes against “his own better judgement”

[7] Lord of the Manor at Manydown, Bigg Wither proposed to Jane Austen, his neighbour

[8] Chapter 56

[9] 18th Century feminist philosophers and writers. Former is famous for her writing, “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” and latter for Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women, of All Ages and Countries

[10] Chapter 19

[11] Chapter 24

[12] Thus, overturning the novels from economic and social realities to being about love and marriage.

Still from the BBC TV Serie Adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Still from the BBC TV Serie Adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (1995)

References

1. Bhalla, Amrita. “Property Rights of (Wo)men”, 277, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Edited by B. Mangalam, Worldview Critical Editions, 2016.

2. Gray, Donal. “Money”, 101, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 2005.

3. Jane Austen: A Timeline, https://www.digitalausten.org/timeline.

4. Todd, Janet. Jane Austen in Context, Cambridge University Press, 2005.

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