Marriage in Jane Austin’s World-(part 1)

October 22, 2010 by Beardmaster  
Published in Marriage

The rigid class system of Jane Austen’s world obligated women to marry if they wished to improve their status in life. Yet the experiences of women such as Harriet Smith in Emma, Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, and Mrs. Smith in Persuasion, showed that the marriage and the prospect of marriage had its down sides as well. Who or what is really to blame in Mrs. Bennet’s and Mrs. Smith’s marriage?

  Jane Austen gives her readers a unique glimpse into the society of her time and how marriage was used as a way to better oneself.  Throughout the entire spectrum of her famous novels, there is not one aspect of matrimony she overlooks. Other than dancing, reading, or walking, her characters rarely have anything on their minds besides that subject. They are either trying to get married or have already achieved that goal. However, even though Jane Austin believes that marriage is both necessary and good, she also sees its shortcomings. For women during her time, there were certain down sides to the otherwise commendable affair. She uses the panicky Mrs. Bennet and the meek Mrs. Smith to illustrate the general problems with marriage at that time, and adds a personal touch by showing why both their marriages were failures.

            One general problem with marriage that could lead to failure was the rigid class system. The rigid class system essentially meant that whatever status you were born in, was typically the status you retained until death. Therefore, marriage was used as a tool to better oneself socially and monetarily.  Every woman of modest means found it in “her own interest” (Austin, 75) to attach themselves as soon as possible, to the richest or highest-born man possible. As a result, marrying for love was metaphorically thrown out the window, because “falling in love, [is] a matter of thoughtful consideration” (Study Guide, 28).They did not take time to discover who they were marrying. Instead, they focused instead on what marriage would give them. These matters naturally lead to imperfect couplings, like Mrs. Bennet’s marriage (Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 1), or happy yet imprudent marriages like that of Mrs. Smith (Austin, Persuasion, Chapter 17). The rigid class structure, improperly motivated women to not give marriage the necessary deliberation.

            Even if two people managed to get married for the sake of love and mutual benefit, Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Smith were stilled faced by a lack of control over their lives. They were bound to their husbands. Spouses should be tirelessly devoted to one another, but when the basic autonomy of one of the partners is squelched, marriage becomes very unhealthy. That is what the gentler sex had to cope with during the days of Jane Austin. They could not provide for themselves in any way, nor were they able to own anything. Women had to cling helplessly to their mate, and then, when he died, they were simply out of luck. It is like what Mrs. Bennet herself says to Elizabeth, “If you take it into your head to go on refusing every offer of marriage…you will never get a husband…I do not know who is to maintain you when your father is dead—I shall not be able to keep you” (Austin, Pride and Prejudice, 77). This statement subtly implies just how poorly off Mrs. Bennet will be after the demise of her husband. She will not even have enough to feed her own daughters. Then, if that were not enough, Mrs. Smith explicitly confirms Mrs. Bennet’s worries with her state of affairs. At the time in which Persuasion takes place, Mrs. Smith’s husband is dead. Because of it “she had had difficulties of every sort to contend with” and is “living in a very humble way” (Austin, Persuasion, 101). This is far different from her wealthy married state, since her husband had been “a man of fortune” (100). He was the key to control and order in her life, but once he passed on, the key was lost, and everything fell in to chaos. Women could not fashion their own key, and were consequently at the mercy of the rampaging waves of fate.

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