Jane Austen and Marriage

Das Ehesakrament by Pietro Longhi c. 1755 via Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to movies and television, Jane Austen’s novels, especially PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and PERSUASION, are synonymous with happy-ever-after. Many love her works as romantic courtship novels. Ironically, Jane Austen has also been embraced as a feminist author, thanks to her subtle criticisms of male-dominated education and economics, and her personal unmarried state. In recent years, speculation on her personal love life and reasons for her failure to marry has generated a variety of novels and movies as well. The fact remains that marriage is a central point of her novels. There is a conflict common in all of her novels, again especially visible in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: marriage as a romantic state versus marriage as a means of financial support. This conflict was present throughout Austen’s life, and was the dichotomy for gentlewomen of her time. On one hand, Romantic thought required a marriage based only on mutual love, a one-time event. On the other hand, reality saw many women propelled into marriage solely for financial support. The same reality forced many widows into remarriage, regardless of their desires. A shortage of eligible males and women’s vulnerability to changes of status exacerbated the situation.

Jane Austen knew that marriage did not provide a guarantee of financial security. Money was lost, as in brother Henry’s bankruptcy. (Mrs. Smith in PERSUASION epitomized a woman’s vulnerability when a family fortune was decimated.) Inheritance laws distributed assets, resulting in distress, as illustrated by Mrs. Bennet’s obsession with the entailment that would result in Mr. Collins’ inheriting Longbourn when Mr. Bennet dies. There was no assurance that family members would aid an unattached female. Romantic fervor did not always last. A rise of divorce, particularly well-publicized in Austen’s time as it was still an expensive rarity, showcased a woman’s vulnerability in marriage. High society divorces occurred, such as that of Lord and Lady Worsley, in Jane Austen’s lifetime, and she was aware of them. In SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, Colonel Brandon disclosed the sad fate of his first love to Eleanor: an heiress forced into an unloving marriage with his elder brother, mistreated, seduced, ultimately divorced and left with inadequate means of support despite her personal fortune (which remained in her husband’s hands), leading to her complete ruin.

I believe that Jane wanted to be married. However, her definition of marriage seems to have been very specific: a union of shared tastes and interests, mutual affection and mutual respect. Neither financial security nor romantic love (or infatuation) individually was enough. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE contained multiple examples of marriages that were unhappy because the partners were unequally matched in terms of education, interests, respect, infatuation that cooled or other circumstances. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s relationship was the classic portrait of unequal marriage: her pretty face and flirting caught the eye of an educated young gentleman. His disillusionment, loss of respect and withdrawal from his wife had an extremely damaging effect on their children. (The differences between Jane and Lizzie (early products of the marriage), and Mary, Kitty and Lydia (later products of the search for a son and heir) showed the deleterious effect on the family as a whole of Mr. Bennet’s disenchantment with his wife ).

The marriage of Charlotte and Mr. Collins highlighted another unequal match: her need to find a place with a modicum of security so she would not be a charge on her brother or father led her to coolly pursue marriage to a singularly unsatisfactory man. Her superiority of taste and thought versus his foolishness did not lead to disillusionment for Charlotte but resulted in a constant effort to find satisfaction in her own abilities to counter the loneliness and frequent humiliation she experienced in her life with Mr. Collins. Lydia and Wickham was the ultimate mismatched couple, with no hope of any real comfort. Their marriage was the outcome of an elopement propelled by her giddy infatuation with the military and his taste for debauchery, and only occurred because Mr. Darcy had the means to compel Wickham to marry Lydia. They had no real affection for each other, no home or significant money of their own and no welcome from family or friends. Lydia had no significant hope of security (she had no internal or financial resources of her own, and Wickham’s unsteadiness and lack of a stable profession other than the military left them living on the edge of disaster).

Other novels in Ms. Austen’s body of work contain examples of unequal marriages as well: Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram in MANSFIELD PARK, and Charles and Mary Musgrove in PERSUASION are only a couple of examples. In PERSUASION, Lady Russell was in no hurry (or was possibly unwilling) to change her widowed state which allowed her full control of her life and her funds. Certainly, she showed no interest in pursuing Sir Walter Elliot. In her Juvenilia, “Catharine or the Bower” in Volume the Third contains the story of a young lady who, against her personal inclinations, went to India to find a husband and was “Splendidly, yet unhappily married.”* (This story is based on her own family experience, as her aunt Philadelphia, her father’s sister, went to India and was married there.)

Jane Austen withdrew into premature spinsterhood, reluctantly yet almost with relief. Was it due to the loss of an early love, or a strong-willed desire to control her own destiny? Were there other factors? Jane advised her niece not to marry without affection. Her novels show the pitfalls of unequal, unloving or imprudent marriages, and the merits of marriages that combine affection, shared tastes and other benefits. Her heroines achieved the ideal state of being married happily and advantageously. However, her novels seem to contain more illustrations of the less satisfactory relationships than the happy ones. While the characters and circumstances involved in these less-than-happy marriages added greatly to the entertainment factor of the stories, one can’t help but see a warning of the dangers of marriage entered into lightly or for the wrong reasons.

With her family’s support and encouragement, Ms. Austen enjoyed writing and earning her own money. She was proud of her work and very interested in the financial reward of it. She saw women’s need for improved education and the ability to provide for their own support. Her sharp wit and keen observations were, and are still, admired. We should also consider her emotions as a girl and young woman, and how those emotions affected her writing. Did she truly feel a “splendidly engaged indifference”*. to marriage, or was she making the best of her unmarried state? When Mr. Bigg-Wither proposed in December 1802, he offered Ms. Austen a comfortable life in a family she knew and liked; his sisters were close friends. However, she did not particularly like or admire him personally. She accepted, and then withdrew her acceptance the next day. Her acceptance shows she was aware of the advantages that marriage to Mr. Bigg-Wither offered; her withdrawal shows that she valued respect and esteem more.

Jane Austen evolved from a girl dreaming of marriage into a determined spinster unwilling to settle for second best, as shown in family records, her letters and her novels. In PERSUASION, Anne Elliot defined good company as “the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation….”*** In my opinion, the character of Anne Elliot and this quote in particular reveal Jane Austen’s personal views and desires regarding relationships in general and marriage in particular most clearly. Jane was a woman of her time, a realist, who understood her family’s situation. She was also a woman of feeling, in a loving family. Choice as well as circumstances led to her decision to stay a spinster. Her wit and observations gave her writings humor, while her emotional growth allowed her to combine the sparkle of youthful hope, the caution of experience in adulthood and the wisdom of maturity in her stories.


*Chapman, R.W., ed. MINOR WORKS The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen Vol. 6. 1988: Oxford University Press, Oxford, p. 194.
**Walker, Eric C. MARRIAGE, WRITING AND ROMANTICISM Wordsworth and Austen After War. 2009: Stanford University Press, Palo Alto, CA, p. 226.
*** Chapman, R. W., ed. NORTHANGER ABBEY AND PERSUASION The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen Vol. 5. 1988: Oxford University Press, Oxford, p. 150 of PERSUASION.

Jane Austen’s Cavalier: Is Colonel Brandon Her Most Romantic Hero?

      Fitzwilliam Darcy seems to be the universal favorite romantic hero of Jane Austen’s novels.  However, is this really accurate?  Other male characters have their devotees and are worthy of our respect, if not our admiration. However, I submit that for sheer, unadulterated romance and derring-do, Colonel Brandon is the man for my money.  The heart of a veritable knight of chivalry beat in his chest, willing to undertake any task solely to serve his lady, exhibiting the at least four of the five virtues of a true knight: friendship, generosity, chastity, courtesy, and piety.

     Merriam-Webster On-Line’s definition of “romantic” includes: having an inclination for romance: responsive to the appeal of what is idealized, heroic, or adventurous.  The Oxford English Dictionary On-line includes “an idealized view of reality” in its definition.  The Oxford English Dictionary On-line also provides a definition of a cavalier as “a courtly gentleman, especially one acting as a lady’s escort.”In “Introduction to Romanticism” on-line, the Romantic Movement in English literature began in the later part of the eighteenth century (when Austen began writing ELINOR AND MARIANNE), and was characterized by an appreciation for nature, an emphasis on emotion and feeling, and an appeal to the imagination.  A fondness for medievalism and the Gothic occurred during this period.   SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, which evolved from ELINOR AND MARIANNE, is full of allusions to the classic romantic themes, and is a reaction to them, showing the need for a balance of common sense with the romantic sensibility. Marianne exhibits the extreme of romantic emotionalism, and embodies the “sensibility” of the title, with her passions for poetry, music, walking and nature, combined with her willingness to give way to her emotions with the slightest encouragement.  Her concentrated focus on the romantic to the exclusion of everything else is illustrated by the situation where Edward’s failure to respond to the view at Barton makes her wonder if Edward can possibly be romantic enough, even for Elinor (Austen, S & S, I, xvi, p. 88.), and her headlong plunge into despair upon receiving Willoughby’s letter in London (Austen, S & S, II, vii, 183-185) among many, many others.

     Sir Walter Scott was a popular romantic author, contemporary to Jane Austen and one whose works she is known to have enjoyed. In SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, Scott is one of Marianne’s favorite authors.  Scott’s poem, MARMION: A TALE OF FLODDEN FIELD, was published in 1808, and was very popular in England at approximately the time Jane Austen was rewriting ELINOR AND MARIANNE,  which was renamed SENSE AND SENSIBILITY and published in 1811. We know Austen read MARMION, as well as other works by Scott (Dow and Halsey).  In addition to Scott, Austen was also fond of the poet Cowper (Dow & Halsey), another of Marianne’s favorites.  Edward’s inadequate reading of the poet Cowper caused Marianne to question whether Edward could possibly be worthy of Elinor (Austen, S & S, I, iii, 17). 

     In Canto V of MARMION, we find Lady Heron’s Song, which is the story young Lochinvar and the fair Ellen.  MARMION is set in sixteenth-century Scotland and England, and is full of knights in armor, their ladies and wild, natural scenery; the story-within-the-story revolves around a young knight, Lochinvar, who rescues his love from a forced marriage via an elopement.  Lochinvar had asked her father for Ellen’s hand in marriage, but had been denied.  He arrived too late to prevent the marriage; he carried her off from the wedding festivities on horseback and they were never seen again. To my mind, this is exactly the kind of romantic, unconventional behavior that would most appeal to Marianne.  An example of Marianne’s delight in the unconventional is the circumstance where Willoughby took Marianne in his curricle to view Allenham.   She spent an entire morning with him, going over the house and garden, knowing that it was not his and having no acquaintance with Mrs. Smith (the owner).  This behavior gave rise to comment and jokes on the part of Sir John Middleton and Mrs. Jennings.  In fact, Elinor was shocked, and tried unsuccessfully to get Marianne to see the impropriety of her behavior in this matter  (S & S, I, xiii, 67-68).  While admittedly a much milder impropriety than an elopement, this shows Marianne’s willingness to flout convention.   (“…she was everything but prudent. S & S, I, 1, 6) Austen’s ironic humor allowed Marianne’s passion for poetry and romance and her unwillingness to control her emotions to focus on Willoughby, who appeared a romantic hero but was not; Marianne didn’t notice that Colonel Brandon, who in fact had attempted to elope with Eliza, mourned his lost love and cherished his memory of her in the true romantic style of the poetry Marianne admired, and yet conducted himself as a gentleman of sense and propriety.

     Col. Brandon was a man of honor and impeccable reputation, widely respected and esteemed.  As a young man, he became a soldier to spare the older Eliza’s feelings after she was married to his brother against her will (S & S II, ix, 206), and he served King and country in the East Indies.   He was regarded with respect by all who knew him, in spite of Mrs. Jennings’ whispers about his relationship to the young Eliza.

     He exhibited true courtesy-he treated all kindly, and with respect.  (“…on every occasion mindful of the feelings of others….”  S&S I, xii, 62) He worshipped Marianne from afar, and did not intrude his feelings upon her when he saw that she was in love with Willoughby.   He constantly showed concern for the comfort of others.  His “delicate, unobtrusive inquiries” (S&S, II, x, 216) to Elinor about Marianne showed his concern and his efforts to avoid giving distress.

     Col. Brandon was a classic upholder of chastity: he fought a duel with Willoughby over Eliza’s honor, and took care of her and her child (he placed them in the country) (S&S II, ix, 211).

     Brandon exuded friendship and generosity.  The colonel  took care of Eliza’s mother ( of whom Marianne reminded him), allowing her to die in comfort and with care, showing true kindness to a “fallen woman” to whom he owed no obligation.  He took in her daughter Eliza in for her sake.  He told Willoughby’s story to Elinor, to give Marianne closure regarding Willoughby’s desertion.  He gave Edward a living after Edward’s disinheritance, before he (the colonel) won Marianne’s hand (done out of kindness  and respect for Edward’s honoring his obligation, not familial obligation) (S&S III, iii, 287-288).  The other significant men in the Dashwood girls’ lives (brother John, Willoughby and Edward Ferrars) were distinguished by selfishness; Colonel Brandon was distinguished by his selfless desire to secure the comfort of others in general, and Marianne’s happiness in particular.  Colonel Brandon was the only true hero in the story.  Willoughby started his relationship with Marianne cold-bloodedly for his own entertainment, not caring about her feelings (Austen S & S III.vii.319-320; III.xi.351).  Edward knew he was not available when he started to care for Elinor but continued to build a relationship with her for his own emotional need without even considering that her feelings might become engaged (Austen S & S III.xiii.368).  Both of these men were initially motivated by selfishness, and Willoughby ended his relationship with Marianne because of selfishness.  Colonel Brandon was the only male in the story capable of falling deeply in love, while having the generosity of spirit to put his own feelings to one side, to do what was needful for the happiness of the beloved.  In his treatment of young Eliza, and his lack of care for Marianne, Willoughby shows himself a predator, a parallel to the “laggard in love and dastard in war” who wed fair Ellen (Scott 125).

     Col. Brandon performed knightly deeds:  When his love was lost to him, he went into the Army.   For a very young, broken-hearted man (they were nearly the same age-she was about 17 when lost to him S&S, II, ix, 205), this profession would give him the opportunity to take part in epic battles, possibly to die performing daring deeds, and certainly preparing him to come back a strong, heroic warrior.  He was successful in his military career, rising in rank.   As mentioned, he wanted and planned to elope with his love, the older Eliza (S & S, II, ix, 206). He cared for Eliza, and rescued  her daughter after she was seduced and  abandoned by Willoughby.  Brandon fought a duel  with Willoughby to punish him for his treatment of young Eliza.  He provided  help when Marianne is ill-“…he offered himself as the messenger….-bringing her mother to her promptly”.

     Col.  Brandon fell in love with Marianne on sight.  He recognized and respected her love for Willoughby, and did nothing to distress her.  In my opinion, Colonel Brandon was capable of recognizing the fact that Marianne would always have a soft spot in her heart for Willoughby, and the toughness of mind to accept and deal with it if her romantic sensibilities dredged it up under the pressures of day to day life.  Much has been made of the fact that Colonel Brandon was too old for Marianne.   Hazel Jones in Jane Austen and Marriage refers more than once to Marianne settling for “strong esteem and lively friendship” when she married Colonel Brandon (Austen S & S III.xiv.378; Jones 120; 146).  However, that is to overlook the follow up: “Marianne could never love by halves; and her whole heart became, in time, as much devoted to her husband, as it had once been to Willoughby” (Austen S & S III.xiv.379).  Richard Jenkyns describes Colonel Brandon as “the most Byronic figure in Jane Austen’s entire canon…” (188). He would seem to be exactly the man who would bring Marianne around to giving her whole heart.   I submit that Colonel Brandon, with his combination of age, good sense acquired from experience, and his deeply romantic soul, who exhibited the true knightly virtues, was the only man who could possibly have made Marianne happy.  Jane Austen’s love of irony hid her hero behind thirty-five years, a merely pleasant face and a flannel vest; she did not allow any recitation of dashing swordplay or injuries in his military career or in the duel he fought; he was definitely not a young Lochinvar.  However, Colonel Brandon was the man whom young Lochinvar might have become with maturity.  Poetic justice was served when this knight won his fair lady.


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Image: Portrait of a Man in Armour with Red Scarf by Anthony Van Dyck 1625-27. (Wikimedia Commons)