Jane Austen’s much loved novel Pride and Prejudice was first published in 1813 at a time when family relationships in Britain were governed by rather rigid societal rules. Male and female roles were very clearly defined, and in the more wealthy families in particular, great effort was spent on maintaining moral respectability and financial security. This essay examines the various ways that Jane Austen depicts the related topics of love and marriage in the novel. It explores both the pressures upon different characters to behave in certain traditional ways, and the choices which are open to them, and explains how the author cleverly steers the reader towards an understanding of love and marriage which challenges some of the prejudices of her time.
The traditional marriage of convenience
The novel opens with a comic scene in which the mature married couple Mr and Mrs Bennet discuss the arrival of a new neighbour, Mr Bingley. It is clear from the start that the society in which the novel takes place is rather refined, since the house in question is called “Netherfield Park” and Mr Bingley is described as “a young man of large fortune from the north of England” (Austen, 1918, p. 1). The conversation is dominated by Mrs Bennet, who holds forth on the exciting prospect that this new neighbour might fall in love with one of their five daughters, while Mr Bennet exhibits a long-suffering tolerance of his wife’s domestic chatter. The narrator maintains an ironic distance from the two speakers, illustrating Mr Bennet’s lack of comprehension for the social niceties of formal visits, and Mrs Bennet’s lack of comprehension of her husband’s character: “She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper” (Austen, 1918, p. 4) whose main focus in life was to find a husband for her five daughters.
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This introductory chapter serves as a vignette of traditional marriage in upper class British society at the start of the nineteenth century since the Bennet’s belong to the ruling class by virtue of income, residence and manners (Downie, 2006), even though some critics such as Tuite (2002) persist in classifying Austen’s characters as bourgeois. According to Zimmerman (1968, p. 66) these two characters embody the salient qualities implied by the title of the novel: “Mr. Bennet exhibits the detachment of pride and Mrs. Bennet the total involvement of prejudice.” Greenfield (2002, p. 149) has more understanding for Mrs. Bennet’s obsessions, describing her as being “plagued by realistic concerns about women’s economic disadvantages.” This means, in effect, that they are in many ways opposites, since the husband is clever, urbane and often silent, while the wife is rather foolish, provincial and prone to engage in gossip at very available opportunity. The pair appear to have found an accommodation with each other, but they are clearly not at all well matched in terms of their character, interests or intelligence. The family is clearly of modest means, and it is the dilemma of finding a suitable husband for all five girls which sets up the starting point for the rest of the novel. After setting the scene through this entertaining dialogue in the Bennet sitting room, the author then proceeds to introduce a series of characters and trace their different approaches to the resolution of this fundamental problem.
One potential suitor presents himself in the form of the clergyman Mr Collins. He is first mentioned by Mr Bennet as “a gentleman and a stranger” (Austen, 1918, p. 62), whom he has invited to dine with the family. Significantly this news is greeted first with excitement, since these qualities might make him a suitable match for one of the daughters, and then horror, since it turns out that he is due to acquire through the legal process of entailment, the family home upon the death of Mr Bennet, thus giving him power over the fate of the rest of the family (Macpherson, 2003).
The somewhat pompous Mr Collins comes with the express intention of marrying one of the five sisters. He is interested in Jane, the eldest and most beautiful sister, and a deal is struck between himself and Mrs Bennet that he should concentrate on the second daughter, Elizabeth, since the eldest daughter is already spoken for. The narrator indicates the business nature of this transaction with an ironic reference to the speed with which he agrees to change his mind and the indifference which he and Mrs. Bennet have for the feelings of the young women in question: “Mr. Collins had only to change from Jane to Elizabeth - and it was soon done – done while Mrs. Bennet was stirring the fire” (Austen, 1918, p. 72). Love plays no part in this transaction, and so the proposed marriage between Mr. Collins and Elizabeth is set to mirror the traditional fate of her parents. The two individuals would have little in common when they start out married life, and it would be their task to make their marriage of convenience work.
Always on Time
Marked to Standard
In the event, however, this plan is thwarted by Elizabeth’s spirited refusal of the proposal from Mr. Collins, an act which her mother calls “her own perverseness” (Austen, 1918, p. 145). It is Elizabeth’s older friend, Charlotte Lucas, who steps into the role of suitable wife for the faintly ridiculous Mr. Collins. Perhaps because she sees her own chances of marriage fading, Charlotte herself is convinced of the primary importance of finding a good match, regardless of how one might feel about the person. She is convinced of the value of obtaining a respectable and at least moderately wealthy husband, since she discusses the blossoming relationship between Mr. Bingley and Jane Bennet somewhat wistfully with the words “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance” (Austen, 1918, p. 21). One critic astutely highlights the bitter compromise that Charlotte Lucas’s marriage to Mr. Collins represents: “the pathos of Charlotte’s marriage is that, because of her intelligence, her ignorance must be a pretense” (Weinsheimer, 1972, p. 408). This is the price that many women had to pay in order to obtain material security and social respectability in early nineteenth century Britain.
Marriage for love
A very different type of marital relationship is modelled in the novel by the eldest Bennet sister Jane and her suitor Mr. Bingley. From the very beginning it is clear that they love and admire each other. Jane, as the eldest of the Bennet sisters, is assumed to be the first to marry, and her extraordinary beauty and even temperament make her an obvious choice for the wealthy Mr. Bingley. He is attracted to her for reasons that might appear to be rather superficial in the first instance. She does not have much money, but she has other advantages. Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley are both impressed by her appearance, since Darcy refers to her as “the only handsome girl in the room” and Mr. Bingley replies that “she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld” (Austen, 1918, p. 10). Young women who are in possession of great beauty are, in the world of Jane Austen, usually well placed in the marriage stakes. It also helps that Jane is submissive and calm, unlike her more assertive sister Elizabeth, who does not attract nearly so many admiring glances from the men.
Assured of her comfortable marriage based on mutual love, Jane firmly believes in the importance of affection in marriage, and advises Elizabeth to consider this matter very carefully before committing to marry Mr. Darcy: “Oh, Lizzy! Do anything rather than marry without affection. Are you quite sure that you what you ought to do?” (Austen, 1918, p. 385). The relationship between Jane and Charles Bingley is presented as something easy and natural, as they attend various social functions and gradually get to know each other. By happy coincidence Mr. Bingley has a suitably large fortune, and the Bennet parents are happy to see their eldest daughter marry such a gentle and even-tempered man.
Marriage for love is thus presented as something idyllic, but rather rare, and only achievable when circumstances happen to arrange themselves in propitious ways. It is only imaginable as an outcome for Jane, for example, since all of the other Bennet sisters have characteristics which make them less than suitable for such a marriage: Mary is too plain, Lizzy and Lydia are too headstrong, and Kitty is too young to attract the attention of the highly suitable but ultimately rather dull Mr. Bingley. This marriage proves the point that in early nineteenth century Britain, happiness in marriage is a matter of chance, although it can sometimes make both parties very happy.
True love is evident also in the relationship between sixteen year old Lydia and the dashing officer Mr. Wickham. In this case, however, there is consternation within the family when it is discovered that the two have disappeared together, without first completing the mandatory social formalities of courtship, parental approval, engagement and marriage. There are two dimensions to the problem posed by Lydia and Wickham’s love: the first is moral, and the second is social.
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The moral issue derives from the Christian value of obligatory chastity before marriage. The self-righteous Mr. Collins writes an odious letter to Mr. Bennet, condemning Lydia’s character and advising the poor man to “throw off your unworthy child from your affection for ever, and leave her to reap the fruits of her own heinous offence” (Austen, 1918, p. 304). He even goes so far as to say “the death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this” (Austen, 1918, p. 304). Writing a century later one critic endorses at least some of the moral outrage that is expressed in the novel, but suggests also that there might be a more charitable motivation for Lydia’s behaviour:
“There is something absolute in her selfish recklessness, her reckless pursuit of her own pleasure without the least regard not only to others but even to herself … he contributes to her comfort and enables her to realize her quite childish ideal of worldly importance as a married woman” (Howells, 1918, p. xv).
It seems that in her rush to achieve the status of a married women, Lydia forgets her duty to her parents and sisters and most seriously of all, puts her own future at risk by breaking all the rules designed to preserve her own value as a respectable woman. If Mr. Darcy had not stepped in to ensure that the roguish Mr. Wickham then things would have ended very badly indeed. While Elizabeth Bennet has some sympathy for her sister’s folly, Mary Bennet spells out the awful consequences:
“Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson: that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable – that one false step involves her in endless ruin – that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful…” (Austen, 1918, p. 295).
These sentiments reflect the harsh moral code of the times, the expectations of the community (Deresiewicz, 1997) and incidentally also the double standard that allows men all sorts of indiscretions but judges women by a single instance of immoral conduct.
The second problem that Lydia’s elopement causes is a social one. The scandal caused by one sister will automatically have a detrimental effect on the reputation of the whole family, including the other sisters. It is no coincidence that this disaster is averted by the actions of a wealthy and powerful male: Mr. Darcy. In this period women did not have the right to decide upon their own fate, and they were dependent upon the actions of fathers, brothers, husbands, or in this case, husbands-to-be. By stepping in to aid the family, Mr. Darcy presents himself in the role of dashing hero. Elizabeth Bennet, who herself would no doubt be too proud to accept acts of charity on her own behalf, is bound to be mightily impressed by her suitor’s gallant behaviour. In this period women did not have the freedom to engage in communications that would increase their wealth or power, since meetings with the opposite sex were strictly chaperoned, and there was even an unwritten rule “which forbade correspondence between marriageable persons not engaged to be married” (Le Faye, 2002, p. 114). The author uses this critical incident to turn the reader’s attention towards the increasing likelihood of a match between Elizabeth Bennet and the dark and difficult Mr. Darcy.
The ideal marriage
The relationship which takes central place in the novel is that between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. A great deal of suspense is created through the initial animosity that is expressed between the two, and the growing attraction that they experience towards each other. Several of the minor characters, including the haughty Lady Catherine de Bourgh, seem to think that Elizabeth is not a suitable match for Mr. Darcy because of her relative poverty, her lower social status, and her rather unfeminine tendency to make witty and sometimes highly critical remarks. Elizabeth does not fit the profile of the ideal gentlewoman of this time.
In similar ways, Mr. Darcy defies the definition of a gentleman, at least in the eyes of the young women he encounters in polite English society. He possesses some of the attributes of a romantic hero, such as good looks and great wealth, but his manners leave something to be desired, and he does not go along with all of the social niceties of dancing and visiting which most ladies expect of him. The story of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s gradual acquaintance is a motif that is often used by Austen and represents “the common novelist’s fantasy of a poor girl who meets, and after a series of vicissitudes marries, the rich young man” (Butler, 2001, p. 139). The twists and turns of love and hate which Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy experience are the necessary preamble to an ultimately happy ending. In Austen’s skilled and often ironic narrative, the reader is pushed and pulled into viewing different facets of both characters, appreciating their faults as well as their virtues, and developing a growing awareness of their mutual attraction.
It is made clear by both characters that in fact they are romantically attracted to each other. Darcy declares his position in the middle of the novel when he boldly tells Elizabeth “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you” (Austen, 1918, p. 195) while Elizabeth at the end of the novel assures her father about her feelings for Mr. Darcy: “ ‘I do, I do like him,’ she replied, with tears in her eyes; ‘I love him.” (Austen, 1918, p. 389). In the end, when the marriage is finally agreed, and the two are set to launch into a lifetime of happiness together, a final word is left to Mr. Bennet, who writes to Mr. Collins, firing off a comic opposite to the earlier letter received from Mr. Collins, with the words:
“I must trouble you once more for congratulations. Elizabeth will soon be the wife of Mr. Darcy. Console Lady Catherine as well as you can. But, if I were you, I would stand by the nephew. He has more to give” (Austen, 1919, p. 395).
According to Newman (1983), this letter is an attempt by the Jane Austen to distance herself from the clichéed ending of the romantic novel and to insert a little comedic irony. Mr. Bennet is poking fun at the miscalculations of Mr Collins, including his earlier condemnation of the Bennet family and his affectation in cultivating a connection with Lady Catherine. The affiliation of the Bennet family with Mr. Darcy removes the family’s financial and reputational difficulties in one fell swoop. As it happens, Lydia and Mr. Wickham also escape the dire fate predicted by Mr. Collins, which all goes to prove that the merciless rules and restrictions of polite Christian society do not always end in the outcomes predicted by their most fanatical supporters. Courtship is a seductive, often illusory process with uncertain results (Hinnant, 2006).
Spinsters, bachelors, widows and widowers
Although Pride and Prejudice revolves mainly around the progress of various love and marriage relationships there are a number of other characters who are presented in isolation, and without an obvious partner. Two of the younger Bennet sisters, Mary and Kitty, fall into this category but the author presents their prospects very differently, Mary is described in terms of qualities which more usually would be used to refer to a man since she is fond of books, and of strict moralising. Distant cousins, uncles, and widows are presented as outsiders, apart from the interesting mainstream of society where the machinations over love and marriage preoccupy all of the women and most of the men. Jane Austen criticises some of the silliness that goes on in the centre of upper class society but she does not go so far as to recommend these isolated positions for any of her main characters. Only the stern and awkward sister Mary seems destined for this fate, and her role in the novel seems to be to act as a foil for Elizabeth. Without Elizabeth’s charm and wit, Mary will be left in the dreaded role of spinster, always looking on while others enjoy the benefits of marriage, and if they are lucky, also of romantic love.
This brief essay has shown that Jane Austen presents a witty and varied range of opinions on love and marriage in the early nineteenth century. The men have by far the greater range of choices, while younger women must remain constrained in mostly female company, awaiting rare opportunities to encounter eligible young men. The fact that the women are so easily interchangeable in the eyes of men, and so often resigned to their fate, highlights their role as little more than items of property in this patriarchal society.
Each of the types of marriage outlined above are presented as viable choices for the Bennet sisters. The novel’s focus on Elizabeth, however, and the more interesting and nuanced path toward marriage that she travels, suggests that this alliance of two highly intelligent and moderately rebellious characters may well represent the ideal marriage from a nineteenth century upper class perspective. The novel plays with stereotypes in the minor characters, and stretches the limits of acceptable masculinity and femininity in the two main characters. Thus the novel challenges some, but not all, of the prejudices of the time and leaves the reader with a detailed and nuanced overview of love and marriage in this period.
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