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 and Mary Wollstonecraft: Did Jane Read A VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN?

     Mary Wollstonecraft was born 4/27/1759. Because of an abusive father and her family being in poor financial straits, she worked as a companion and a governess (her experiences as a governess were highly influential on future writings).  She also started a school with a friend, and worked as a reader and translator, and was a published author, providing financial support for her family. She reported on the French Revolution. Mary was obviously affected by the ideas of the era-rights of man, questions regarding the morality of slavery etc. A pamphlet “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters” published in 1787 argued against many of the accepted theories and practices of raising and educating girls, and is the forerunner of her book A VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN, published in 1792. In this book, she protested the false life (“the doll’s life”*) approved for the women of her age. She felt that, as human beings, women were rational, should have the same rights as men, and should be allowed to take up the work for which each was best qualified, whether solely domestic or not. She considered neglected education to be the source of misery, with women rendered weak and wretched, resulting in a puppet like situation with women being pretty to look at, vain and helpless, with no other object than to gratify the whims and passions of men. She did not want to change the order of things and acknowledged men’s characters, superior physical strength, etc. Her viewpoint was that there was no reason to conclude that men’s virtues were superior to women’s virtues, and that both would benefit by better education and improved characters. (She made the interesting point that, if men were really concerned about the morals and virtues of their wives, daughters and sisters, they should improve their own morals and strengthen their own characters first-a virtuous, loving husband being far less likely to have an unfaithful, immoral wife!)
     Mary Wollstonecraft lived a highly unconventional life-she lived with Captain Gilbert Imlay, an American army officer in France, with whom she had a child. They were not married though she presented herself as his wife, and she would not give him up until she had no choice (they were not living together, he was unfaithful and indifferent). After two suicide attempts, she went back to her literary life, and formed a relationship with William Godwin, whom she married when she became pregnant again (with her daughter Mary Godwin who became a writer-FRANKENSTEIN, born 8/30/1797). She died 9/10/1797 from complications resulting from childbirth. Mr. Godwin’s subsequent biography of his wife, which included a frank discussion of her unconventional ideas and relationship issues, was published in 1798 and succeeded in ruining her reputation.
     Mary’s experiences as a governess in the household of an Irish noblewoman led to her view of the current “false system of education”* which was designed to make women “alluring mistresses”* rather than affectionate wives and rational mothers. She said that the minds of women were enfeebled by false refinement, resulting in women being treated as subordinate beings. She also condemned the education of rich ladies as tending to “render them vain and helpless, and the unfolding mind is not strengthened by the practice of those duties which dignify the human character.”* The focus of women’s education was for them to become “pleasing” instead of functional partners. “When the husband ceases to be a lover, and the time will inevitably come, her desire of pleasing will then grow languid, or become a spring of bitterness; and love, perhaps, the most evanescent of all passions, gives way to jealousy or vanity.”
     Did Jane Austen read A VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN ? I contacted Jane Austen’s House and Museum, Bath Central Library, Jane Austen Centre, and Chawton House Library.  No catalog of Rev. George Austen’s library is known to exist. (Jane Austen’s House and Museum does have a copy of the inventory of the contents of the Steventon Rectory but no catalog of his books.) The Bath Central Library indicated that VINDICATION was on the catalog for Marshalls Circulating Library on Milsom Street dated 1808; it is the only one they have in Jane’s time frame. Since VINDICATION was published in 1792 and was a well-known work, this argues that the book was probably available via a circulating library when Jane Austen lived in Bath, or visited in London or other cities.
     Jane is known to have had a copy of HERMSPRONG, or man as he is not by Robert Bage (philosophically, Mr Bage embraced the idea of the superiority of the “natural man”, considered women the equal of man and supported women’s rights, and was known to have had a high regard for Mary Wollstonecraft; these ideals are demonstrated by the story in HERMSPRONG)/ Jane’s copy is in the Huntington Library (her signature in all 4 volumes). This would argue a mind open to the ideas expressed in VINDICATION. There is also a theory that Jane would not necessarily referred to Mary Wollstonecraft’s work or influence, due to Mary’s unconventional morals and lifestyle (see Claire Tomalin and Miriam Ascarelli).
     It is clear that Jane Austen was exposed to and affected by Mary Wollstonecraft’s A VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN. As previously quoted, “…to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers”- Mrs. Bennet and Lydia Wickham in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE are clear illustrations of this. When we re-read the passage “When the husband ceases to be a lover…” , we see that the marriages of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, and Charles and Mary Musgrove in PERSUASION, and Jane’s comments on them, are superb illustrations of the unequal marriage. The marriage of Admiral and Mrs. Croft in PERSUASION, especially where Mrs. Croft refers to women as “rational beings”, and the discussion of their unorthodox style of driving (he holding the reins, while she puts out a hand to correct his steering) as a metaphor for their marriage, is a clear illustration of what a marriage should be, according to the ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft. The characters of Lady Catherine DeBurgh, Elizabeth Eliot and Miss Bingley, reflecting their vanity, and minds not strengthened by performance of duties and activities, are also very illustrative of Ms. Wollstonecraft’s ideas. In SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, the discussion between John Dashwood and his wife resulting in him doing little for his sisters parallels an example in VINDICATION. Also worthy of note is the relationship of Mrs. Jennings’ daughter and her husband: she is empty headed, and he is surly because he can’t give her back, according to Mrs. Jennings (another example of an intelligent man caught in an unequal marriage.)
     That Mary Wollstonecraft’s work was known to Jane Austen is not a point of serious debate that I can find. However, I find it striking that there are so many illustrations in Jane Austen’s novels that support points raised by Ms. Wollstonecraft, indeed are almost direct references to A VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN. I think it is very clear that Jane was profoundly influenced by Ms. Wollstonecraft’s work, and, using her light touch and subtle humor, highlighted the issues Ms. Wollstonecraft raised. While she could not very well have acknowledged this influence at the time she published, Ms. Wollstonecraft’s reputation being what it was, I think Jane Austen clearly carried Ms. Wollstonecraft’s ideas regarding the education of women, and a higher concept of marriage, forward.

Books:                                                                                                                                                        Austen, Jane.  PERSUASION, from The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen NORTHANGER ABBEY AND PERSUASION.3rd edition.  Oxford University Press. Reprinted 1988.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.                                     Bage, Robert. HERMSPRONG, or man as he is not. Originally published 1795. Edition used: The Folio Society, London 1960.
Ivins, Holly. THE JANE AUSTEN POCKET BIBLE. Richmond, Surrey, England: Crimson Publishing, 2010.
Ray, Joan Klingel, PhD. JANE AUSTEN FOR DUMMIES. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, Inc. 2006.
Tomalin, Claire. JANE AUSTEN: A Life. Edition used: Vintage Books Edition, May 1999, New York NY.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN. Originally published 1792. Edition used: Introduction by Elizabeth Robins Pennell, London: Walter Scott 1891.

On-line Articles:
“Jane Austen”-Brandeis University; http://people.brandeis.edu/~teuber/austenbio.html
“More Views of Jane Austen”. Smith, George Barnett.http://www.mollands.net/etexts/other/gbsmith.html
“Mary Wollstonecraft”. Biography Resource Center. http://galenet.galegroup.com
“A Feminist Connection: Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft.” Ascarelli, Miriam. Persuasions On-Line V 25 No 1 (JASNA)
“Feminism In Jane Austen”. Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice–Notes on Education, Marriage, Status of Women, Etc. Republic of Pemberly. http:www.pemberly.com/Jane info/pptopic2.html
“’Hermsprong or man as he is not’ Robert Bage”. Perkins, Pam. University of Manitoba. The Literacy Encyclopedia. http://www.litencyc.com

JASNA 2004 AGM-Huntington Library information