Love and Marriage in Austen’s Novels
"I am not romantic, you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state."
—Pride and Prejudice.
As an avid Austen reader and a realist myself, I have always enjoyed Jane Austen’s rather unsentimental approach to love and marriage. There is definitely an ever-present romantic tension in all her novels, but never does Austen allow love to become idealistic or sentimental. Her heroines and heroes do feel passion and fall in love, but even so, there is a good case to be made that almost all of her major protagonists never can be said to fall in love because they were predestined to be together, or that they choose their partners with a great deal of forethought and as part of a great search for a perfect ‘Mr/Miss Right.’ It seems that for Austen’s heroes and heroines, that Mr/Miss ‘Pretty Good’ will suffice. All that is required is for the prospective partners to be basically decent, good people, and hard work will do the rest.
Austen shuns overblown sentimentality with her love themes; almost always, her couples fall in love conveniently with the nearest suitable person. For Austen, love is not a product of destiny. She does not appear to espouse the ‘he’s my soul-mate and no one else will do the job’ ideal; love is as much up to chance and right timing, as happiness in the married state is up to the attitudes and expectations of the parties involved. Indeed, Charlotte’s Lucas’s comment above could sum up most of Austen’s fictional couplings.
What Austen could have turned into cloyingly sentimental love stories, she ties firmly to reality and never allows us to idealize love and romance. Love is grounded in practicality; when two people come together, the day-to-day problems of survival and human foible mean that one must have sensible expectations. Therefore, even in a novel as poignant and beautiful as Persuasion, in which Wentworth and Anne are seemingly made for each other, their love enduring over eight years, Austen carefully balances what is perhaps her most romantic and sentimental of stories with the rather grounding admission that even Anne and Wentworth only fell in love in the first place because Wentworth was home from sea and bored, and that Anne, eager for love since she was so neglected by her family, would have bestowed her affections on any half-deserving party willing to receive it. ‘Half the sum of attraction on either side might have been enough; for he had nothing to do and she hardly anybody to love.’
Henry Tilney too, by the author’s admission, really only marries Catherine Moreland because there is nothing more flattering than believing oneself admired by someone of the opposite sex and because he has been ‘directed’ to gain her heart by his sister. ‘He felt himself bound as much by honour as in affection to Miss Moreland, […] believing that heart to be his own which he had been directed to gain […] and as steadily declared his intention of offering her his hand.’ Thus Austen firmly rejects sentimentality in and of itself, by always balancing it with a pragmatic realism.
It seems that a great many of Austen’s couplings are the result of propitious timing, not destiny or an idea that there is one soul-mate out there and no other will do. The hero is always of the age and inclination to be looking for a wife; there are no reluctant brides or grooms in Austen’s novels, no flapping of fans and breathless ‘you took me quite by surprise because I was not even looking for someone.’ It is important to remember that in those days, it wasn’t just women who were expected to marry as soon as they reached the marriageable age, but men too. Marriage was a cultural and religious institution, a cornerstone of society. Due to a shortage of available males, this pressure on men to marry was probably even more intense, and I am sure they felt their duty to marry quite strongly. Men of marriageable age, having come into their majority and established themselves, were then expected by society to take a wife. In Pride and Prejudice, after Mr Darcy arrives in Meryton, the very first comment Mrs Bennet makes about him is that, like all men who are single and in possession of a good fortune, he would very likely as a result, be ‘in want of a wife.’
And for females, it was disadvantageous to remain single unless one was rich, and marrying for most was the only sensible option to save them from having to earn their own bread as a governess or worse. As Austen said in a letter to her niece Fanny, ‘Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor – which is a very strong argument in favour of matrimony.’ Eliza Bennet’s mother, having five daughters, makes clear the expectation that they all be married off as soon as she can find husbands for them. ‘The business of her life was to get her daughters married.’ Bingley was expected, as a single man of the right age and circumstance, to take a wife from among his society. Mrs Bennet certainly expected him to choose from among her girls. Even Mr Bennet even helps the marriage process along by visiting the Bingleys, in order to make it possible for Charles Bingley to call upon the Bennets, allowing the young bachelor to view the goods he would be expected to at least consider purchasing.
The fairly prompt coupling up of Elizabeth and Darcy, and Jane and Bingley is not unusual then, nor is it unexpected, for any man of marriageable age and established financially is expected to marry the pretty much the first girl he likes, so long as there is at least a lukewarm sentiment between them, and for men and women in the Georgian period, a mere liking of the other person was enough to persuade many of them to fulfill their duty in marrying, so long as there were no obstacles or objections on either side. Engagements were not long as they are today, and it was sometimes only weeks before two former strangers tied the knot. It was not considered necessary to ‘get to know’ one’s potential spouse. ‘It is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life,’ says practical Charlotte to romantic Eliza Bennet. Eliza might have counteracted with, ‘it is not sound, you know it is not sound, and that you would never act in this way yourself,’ but in fact Charlotte does believe her own maxim, and marries a pompous, bottom-kissing buffoon accordingly, for the pleasure of having her own home, and the financial stability it will bring her. This, says Austen, is the necessary course for sensible females who have little to live upon.
If not knowing one’s partner well is not a deterrent to marriage, neither is not loving your prospective mate. Austen cautions against marrying without some sort of affection, however. She told her niece Fanny in a letter, ‘Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection,’ but loving him was certainly not required. For Austen, love is great, the icing on the cake if you will, but loving your partner has little bearing upon one’s marital happiness and is not at all considered as necessary to a successful marriage. As Charlotte says quite prosaically to Eliza in Pride and Prejudice, ‘In nine cases out of ten, a woman had better show more affection that she feels.’ For Charlotte, securing marriage to a solid man with good basic morals, is of more importance than loving him, and even Maria Bertram is willing to marry the ‘inferior’ Mr Rushworth for his ‘character and disposition’ alone. Although she did not particularly like him, Maria assures her father that she ‘could not have a doubt of her happiness with him.’
Therefore, love and marriage for many of Austen’s characters are justly based in opportunism and good timing; Jane is the first girl Bingley has a chance to interact with after arriving, and he singles her out soley because of her angelic beauty. And we must suppose that he is the first properly eligible man she has met with in their small circle of acquaintances. Too, Darcy doesn’t swerve after he singles out Eliza for her ‘fine eyes.’ Catherine Moreland falls for the first nice guy she meets and as far as we know, the same goes for Anne Elliot, and both Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Love, says Austen, is not a product of destiny, but is really down to the coincidence of marriageable singles being thrown together in the right place at the right time.
A huge feature of modern romantic ideals is the meet-cute. Here again Austen refuses to partake in these larger-than-life romantic ideals. None of Austen’s heroines or heroes ever meet their future partner in unusual or exciting circumstances that our modern-day romance novels portray. Although Elizabeth and Jane Bennet, and Cathy Moreland can giggle over their meet-cutes—a ball seems the most romantic of places to meet one’s future partner—assemblies were given pretty regularly and were commonly considered by most parents to be as good a place as any to display one’s daughters and sons with the explicit hope of pairing them up with a suitable match. When pairing up her characters, Austen really doesn’t give us chance meetings that are out of the ordinary when her protagonists meet for the first time. There are no carriage accidents where the hero rescues the maiden (in fact she counters this trope deftly in Emma when Frank Churchill comes to Emma’s aid on their first meeting when her carriage is stuck in mud—it has all the beginnings of a swooning romance—but Austen is toying with our expectations; there is no heart pounding romance budding—and Emma goes on to marry Knightly anyway!) or storms in which the heroine manages to drag herself to the door of a remote mansion and the guy who answers the door just happens to be rich and single. There are no eyes meeting over a crowded room, and only one bedraggled, storm-tossed heroine—Marianne Dashwood—and like Emma and Frank Churchill’s non-starter romance, that relationship didn’t last anyway. That was Austen’s point. Romances like those from books rarely occur in real life and she was not going promote the idea to her young female readers that they did.
Austen never really swerves from this determination to portray love as more a matter common sense and proximity than love at first sight and high romance. Emma marries her neighbor, basically because they were thrown together and he is a nice enough fellow. Knightley is actually conveniently situated, as her neighbour, for Emma to eventually decide upon him, but he really is, among all her acquaintance, the only man who she could consider, when you take her rank and situation in life into consideration. So, the coupling is still a sensible and convenient one. Elinor and Marianne, too, both accept the first eligible handsome bachelor who comes along, and Marianne then accepts Colonel Brandon only because she has been ill and is in a vulnerable state of gratitude, and he is thrown into her company enough for her to finally notice him. I could also write a whole other article on why that romance was a dangerous one, since it is most clearly a rebound romance.
Likewise, in Persuasion, Louisa falls for Benwick only because he spent so much time with her at Lyme when she was in a vulnerable state, and the transference of her allegiance from the worthy Captain Wentworth to the insipid Benwick was so easily done that she might be accused of more fickleness even than Lucy Steele, if it were not for Wentworth’s culpability in the affair by his deliberately leaving her to Benwick’s sole company. Likewise, Fanny Price’s love for Edmund in Mansfield Park is based primarily on his proximity and her gratitude. Considering Fanny is an intense, intelligent, deep thinker, this coupling is even more of a head-shaker when you consider that Edmund is quite the opposite, being a near-sighted and wishy-washy character who only comes to offer for Fanny when there is no-one else left to choose.
Austen is not shy to point out the real dangers of marrying with high-blown ideals of romance. We see in the marriages of Mr and Mrs Bennet, Wickham and Lydia, and in the failed romance of Willoughby and Marianne, a candid reflection on the ill effects of marrying for passion alone, for money or upon the mistaken ideal that love is all you need. (Thank goodness the Beatles never worked that one out!) Willoughby, who did truly love Marianne, chose to marry for money and his lot, Austen tells us, will be a perpetually unhappy one. The Bennet marriage, we are told in Pride and Prejudice, was based on an early passion, and the lady’s beauty. By the time we encounter the pair, poor Mr Bennet’ has had his ideals and his passions quelled; he find himself with wife who is ‘a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper.’ Lydia, full of high-blown ideas of romance, is put in her place by Austen as firmly as in a moral tale. The girl marries in the most dramatic and romantic way—elopement—and is then forced to beg her sister to get a court appointment for her husband, ‘for I do not think we shall have quite enough money to live upon.’ A blow indeed, to Lydia, and to romantic ideals!
The best marriages in Austen’s novels, then, are grounded in reality rather than in romantic idealism. Her happy couples make good, sensible marriages with good, sensible people, based on a mutual liking for the other person. Love sometimes happens along, but it is bestowed by the author upon heroines and heroes who have earned it, rather than as a prerequisite. Most of these couples have to work hard to change some aspect of themselves to become better people before Austen rewards them with mutually returned love, but successful love relationships in Austen’s works are always grounded in reality. Love is a reward for hard work, just as it is in any relationship. Admiral and Mrs Croft are a fine example, being in perfect harmony with each other, and both working hard to accommodate the needs of the other person. Never a more devoted and loving couple can we find in Austen’s novels.
It is clear then that Austen deliberately shuns idealistic romanticism simply by offering gentle corrections to such idealist expressions in the way of giving her readers sensible couplings which happen largely because of chance and opportunity, and continue because of hard work. Expectations of exciting first meetings and endless romance, says Austen, are foolish, the stuff of idealism. Better instead to be as sensible about it as Charlotte, for most of us will not see our romantic dreams come true without effort and compromise. But after a time, perhaps we, like Emma Woodhouse, will be rewarded with true, abiding love, based on mutual affection. As Emma notes, ‘It’s such a happiness when good people get together.’