Much has been said about the importance of finding a husband for Jane Austen’s female characters. During the Regency, marriage was more about personal finances than romantic love, and although Austen’s novels give the latter a starring role, the former is always in the background.
A Choice for a Few
For a minority of heroines, marriage is a matter of personal preference. Emma’s “handsome, clever, and rich” protagonist falls squarely in this category. At the start of the novel, Emma Woodhouse is determined not to marry. She is wealthy in her own right, and her fortune gives the option to remain single, even if her friends believe that her intention is a passing fancy. Other rich women in Jane Austen’s novels marry, but do so on their terms. Miss Gray picks Willoughby, just because she can. Lady Susan does as she pleases, of course she does.
But even females with handsome settlements have the temptation to marry the richest man around, just to enjoy a life of luxury. In Mansfield Park, Maria Bertram doesn’t love or even respect Mr Rushworth, but his 12,000 pounds a year (2,000 more than wealthy Mr Darcy) make him a very desirable match. And then, there are wealthy ladies who do not have a say about their future, like poor Anne de Bourgh, whose overbearing mother and poor health take away the agency that her fortune may have given her.
The Need to Marry
For many of Austen’s leading ladies, marriage is mostly driven by necessity, because their fortune entirely depends on making a good match. In Pride and Prejudice, the five Bennet sisters have little in the way of settlement. They do have a loving uncle who is reasonably well-off, but Mr Gardiner has his own young family to provide for. The sisters must marry well to escape poverty, but only Mrs Bennet seems to worry about her daughters’ future prospects.
Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price is another heroine forced to contemplate marriage as a financial transaction. When she refuses to marry Mr Crawford, her uncle sends her back to Portsmouth with her family. Fanny comes face to face with the practical consequences of her decision: if she is to return to her family as a spinster, a lifetime of cramped, stuffy dwellings, ill manners and misery await.
Financial Security or a Trap for Life?
In Persuasion, the admiration of eligible Mr Elliot puts heroine Anne Elliot in a similar position. Marrying Mr Elliot would make her the mistress of her beloved Kellynch Hall. Anne is too much in love with the Captain to seriously contemplate marrying another man, but she is perceptive enough to understand the desirability of the match. She also instinctively understands that marrying Mr Elliot would provide her with many practical and financial advantages, but it would make her miserable.
Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth’s best friend in Pride and Prejudice, has the opposite view. A pragmatist, Charlotte knows that if she remains unmarried, she will have to depend on the charity of her family, so she chooses to put herself in the way of spurned Mr Collins, who finds in her an understanding and amiable life companion. Elizabeth can’t help but feel that her friend has compromised her future happiness, but at 19, her perspective is undoubtedly different than Charlotte’s, who is 27.
Spinsterhood and Destitution
Even if everyone (bar Mrs Bennet) politely ignores the issue, the fact is that the Bennet sisters face the real possibility of ending up as a bunch of destitute old maids. Let us not forget that for much of the Regency, England was at war, and therefore many young men were in active service, facing death and the possibility of never returning to their homeland. There were fewer men able to marry, and therefore more competition amongst ladies to attract male attention.
The consequences of not being able to secure a husband are best represented in Emma by one of Austen’s most poignant characters, Miss Bates. A parson’s daughter, Miss Bates had a very respectable upbringing, frequenting the best social circles of the county. However, with her father dead and no husband or brothers to support her and her mother, she finds herself in tough financial circumstances. She is the very picture of genteel poverty, the fate that awaited impoverished spinsters.
Jane Austen herself experienced hard times when she was just a few pounds away from destitution. She fought hard to have a degree of financial independence, but things were very hard for unwed women in the Regency, particularly if they were of a certain age. Thankfully, things have come a long way, and today many more women have the choice to decide whether marriage is for them. I am sure Austen herself would approve.
What other Austen ladies compromise their future happiness for financial security? Who chooses to marry for love, even if it means a more modest income? What do you make of their decisions, and what do you think would have been your choice, had you lived during the Regency?