Jane Austen and the Concept of Accepting a Marriage of Convenience

Jane Austen and the Concept of Accepting a Marriage of Convenience

What hope was there for the dowerless daughters of the middle class during Jane Austen’s lifetime? Such is a topic Austen explored repeatedly in her novels. Elizabeth and Jane Bennet sought men of a like mind, but their lack of fortune limited their exposure to such men. The Dashwood sisters found their choices limited by their financial situation. Fanny Harville and Captain Benwick could not marry until he earned his future. General Tilney drove Catherine Morland from his home because of the lady’s lack of funds. Charlotte Lucas accepted Mr. Collins as her last opportunity for a respectable match. The intricacies and tedium of high society, particularly of partner selection, and the conflicts of marriage for love and marriage for property are repeated themes.

Marriage provided women with financial security. Henry Tilney of Northanger Abbey explains, “… in both [marriage and a country dance], man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal: that in both, it is an engagement between man and woman, formed for the advantage of each.” Women of Austen’s gentry class had no legal identity. No matter how clever the woman might be, finding a husband was the only option. A woman could not buy property or write a will without her husband’s approval. If a woman was fortunate, she would bring to her marriage a settlement – money secured for her when she came of age – usually an inheritance from her mother. The oldest son or male heir received the family estate, and the unmarried or widowed females lived on his kindness.

Barton Cottage in “Sense and Sensibility”

The ladies of Sense and Sensibility have this reality thrust upon them when Uncle Dashwood changes his will and leaves Norland to his grandnephew. In Uncle Dashwood’s thinking, this change will keep Norland in the Dashwood family. However, the four Dashwood ladies suddenly find themselves living in a modest cottage with an income of £500 annually. As such, they have no occasion for visits to London unless someone else assumes the expenses. Their social circle shrinks, and the opportunities to meet eligible suitors becomes nearly non-existent. With dowries of £1000 each, the Dashwood sisters are not likely to attract a man who will improve their lots.

 

Jane Austen, herself, lived quite modestly. The Austens lived frugally among the country gentry. The Austen sisters were well educated by the standards of the day, but without chances for dowries, Jane and Cassandra possessed limited prospects. Jane met a Mr. Blackall the year Cassandra lost her Mr. Fowle. In a letter, Blackall expressed to Mrs. Lefroy a desire to know Jane better; yet, he confided, “But at present, I cannot indulge any expectation of it.” To which, Jane Austen responded, “This is rational enough. There is less love and more sense in it than sometimes appeared before, and I am very well satisfied.” Imperfect opportunities were Jane Austen’s reality. In 1802, Jane Austen accepted an offer of marriage from Harris Bigg. With this marriage, Jane would have become the mistress of Manydown.”Tyson

Yet, despite her affection for the family, Austen could not deceive Bigg. The following morning, she refused the man’s proposal. Whether she thought to some day find another or whether Austen accepted the fact that her refusal doomed her to a life as a spinster, we shall never know. In the “limited” world in which Jane Austen lived, she could not have known her eventual influence on the literary canon.

Austen held personal knowledge of young women seeking husbands in one of the British colonies. Reverend Austen’s sister, Philadelphia, traveled to India in 1752, where she married an English surgeon Tysoe Hancock, a man twenty years her senior. When the Hancocks returned to England a decade later, Reverend Austen traveled to London to greet his sister. However, Philadelphia and Tysoe were not to live “happily ever after.” Unable to support his family in proper English style, Tysoe returned to India to make his living. He never saw his wife and child again. Despite its tragic ending, this “marriage” secured Philadelphia’s future and the lady’s place in society. Only marriage could offer a woman respectability. From the blog entitled Jane Austen and Other Writers “On Tysoe Hancock in the Austen Papers” (September 20, 2014), a discussion is held on Tysoe’s reasons for returning to India: “He lived in India at the time; Philadelphia and Eliza (also called Betsy) lived in England. The family was deeply in debt, but Hancock, driven by money, couldn’t seem to stop spending and insisted that Betsy have the best of everything. I am grateful for Hancock’s candor and the window it opens on how people in Austen’s milieu made–or didn’t make– money. He is possibly more to be pitied than scorned: he is caught in India in a culture of systemic injustice. The pursuit of money makes him miserable, but he can’t think beyond a paradigm that values money above all else, even human life….”

To put things in perspective, in Jane Austen for Dummies (page 134), Joan Klingel Ray breaks down the financial prospects of the Dashwood sisters. Converting the £500 to a modern equivalent, Ray comes out with a figure of $46,875. For the gentry, supporting four women, two maids, a man servant, paying rent, buying clothes, food, coal, etc., that sum would have meant a poor existence. I find in reading Sense and Sensibility that I am often disappointed with the eventual choices of the Dashwood sisters. Edward Ferras and Colonel Brandon (excusing the image of Alan Rickman in the role) have less of the “glitz and the glamour” that my innate Cinderella syndrome requires in a love match. However, if any affection did exist between the couples, then Marianne and Elinor, under the circumstances and the times, made brilliant matches. They settled for the “compromise” marriage common in the Regency era.

5 Responses to Jane Austen and the Concept of Accepting a Marriage of Convenience

  1. It’s difficult for me to imagine marriage more as a business transaction than one of love but I guess that was the reality for women at the time. And now that I think of it there are still women who go after men of fortune solely for their money so maybe things haven’t changed all that much after all.

  2. Regina, I love this article and it’s perfect since I am currently writing a story where my women characters have reduced circumstances due to a death in the family. Living in today’s society, its hard to imagine women living in such circumstances. I love that Jane Austen incorporated the plight of women in so many of her works.

  3. I have Jane Austen for Dummies and it does explain alot. Marriage was different in those days as like you said many were marriages of convenience.

    • We sometimes forget, Cindie, that a girl (even a gentleman’s daughter) experienced few social events where she might encounter an eligible gentleman. Mrs. Bennet, with five daughters, had to come up with five eligible gentlemen; thus, she was happy for Bingley’s arrival and that of the militia. Few members of the militia were trained in military tactics, such as shooting, horsemanship, or use of a sword. They were required to have their own guns to be a member of the militia. Those picked or volunteering for militia duty in the rank and file served five years, while some served for seven years. Officer commissions were not available (as opposed to those in the Regulars). Those who held rank in the militia received that rank based on how much land the family held. Captain Denny in Pride and Prejudice would need either to be the heir of land worth at least £400 per year or actually own land worth at least £200 per year. Although we are given nothing of Denny’s background in Austen’s novel, we are told that George Wickham becomes a lieutenant in the Meryton militia. This is a bit confusing to many who know something of military history, for a lieutenant in the militia would be required to hold land worth £50 per year. If Wickham had nothing of his own upon which to depend, how did he receive his lieutenancy? Most experts speak of a lowering of the standards for the few who would qualify as a junior officer otherwise, meaning Wickham held a gentleman’s education, making him “qualify as a junior officer.” The wages presented to the officers was only to cover their expenses, not replace their income from their land.

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