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Courtship and Propriety

By Mary Smythe, contributing author to An Inducement Into Matrimony

“If a woman conceals her affection with the same skill from the object of it, she may lose the opportunity of fixing him; and it will then be but poor consolation to believe the world equally in the dark…there are very few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without some encouragement. In nine cases out of ten, a woman had better shew more affection than she feels. Bingley likes your sister undoubtedly; but he may never do more than like her, if she does not help him on.” (Pride and Prejudice, Part I, Chapter VI).

This sage advice from Charlotte Lucas proves prophetic for Jane Bennet, even if her sister Elizabeth is skeptical. Charlotte certainly has a valid point when she claims that “few of us…have heart enough to be really in love without some encouragement,” as is the case for Mr Bingley. Had Jane shown him a little more affection, singled him out instead of bestowing her smiles upon everyone, perhaps her beau might have rejected Mr Darcy’s meddling later on. It’s difficult to say for certain, though that seems to be the implication of the above foreshadowing. Knowing herself to have behaved with utmost propriety in her dealings with Mr Bingley was likely ‘poor consolation’ to Jane Bennet during their months of separation.

While there is much practicality in Charlotte’s advice, especially given what happens to Jane, there was also some risk in being too open about one’s feelings in public. Marianne Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility is, by almost every measure, a very different creature from Jane Bennet and she went about her courtship with Willoughby in a very different manner. She made no secret of her attachment to him and her unguarded actions—riding about the countryside together, exchanging letters and tokens, making clandestine trips to his future estate, etc—led others to believe that they were secretly engaged. Later on in the novel when Willoughby’s engagement to Miss Grey became public knowledge, this put Marianne in a precarious position as a jilted lover. On top of her personal anguish, she was humiliated publicly by his defection and this very likely added to her near-death experience. Fortunately she recovered, but one does have to wonder if Jane Bennet was not the wiser of the two ladies by keeping her own counsel. She might have endured a bit of pity from her closest friends and neighbours, but she (and her reputation) were never in any danger. We, as readers with narrative distance, must assume that a happy medium between the two extremes of sense and sensibility is the best course.

“Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance,” Charlotte goes on to say to her scoffing friend Elizabeth. “…And it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.” Let us hope, for Charlotte’s sake, that this ideal was reflected in her married life with Mr Collins. However much we and Elizabeth doubt the veracity of Charlotte’s claims in this instance, it does raise an intriguing question about how much a regency couple could reasonably expect to know about one another before uniting for life.

In the regency era, the concept of marrying for love, or even general affinity, was a relatively new one; in previous generations, arranged marriages were more the norm. In those cases, it mattered very little how familiar one was with their future spouse before meeting at the altar; in some cases, the couple was barely acquainted. These alliances were based more on money and connections rather than any lofty sentiments such as love or affection; after all, what did one person’s preferences matter when the honor (and future) of his or her entire family was at stake.

With the Age of Enlightenment, beginning at the turn of the eighteenth century, attitudes about individual choice brought about a radical shift in how marriages were contracted. Unless you were royalty, it became generally accepted that a person legally of age and of sound mind could choose whom to marry for him or herself. There were still some ground rules laid down by the Lord Hardwicke Marriage Act of 1753, but in general it was a vast improvement in personal freedom. A gentleman could pursue the lady of his heart and she had every right to either accept or reject his hand in turn. Although parents and other guardians were often still involved—see Lady Russell in Persuasion, who encouraged Anne to break her engagement to Wentworth—ultimately it was up to the couple themselves to determine in what manner they were to be happy.

So how did regency couples go from meet cute to marriage? In my An Inducement Into Matrimony short story, The Pleasure of Understanding Her, Mr Darcy gets a helping hand when fate endows him with the ability to read Elizabeth’s mind (and boy, is he surprised by what he learns). In more realistic circumstances, finding a true romantic partner tended to be far more complicated. It was easy enough to spot someone across a crowded ballroom and ask them to dance or to flirt with a handsome officer over the edge of one’s fan, but actually getting to know someone on a deeper level than basic attraction was often a difficult venture.

Given strict notions of propriety at the time, opportunities for young couples to court in relative privacy were few and far between. There was no concept of ‘dating’ as we have it in modern times; a gentleman could not simply take a lady out for a nice dinner and share anecdotes over pasta. They could meet in public places—such as assemblies, balls, cultural events, etc.—with chaperones present, or a gentleman could pay a formal call upon his special lady under the careful watch of her family. None of these options afforded a couple the intimacy necessary to share their most profound thoughts and feelings with one another, and so offering a proposal and/or accepting one was a gamble. If one was profoundly lucky—like Emma and Mr Knightley from Emma—they might fall in love with a person they had known for years, eliminating the guesswork. Unfortunately, eligible gentlemen weren’t exactly thick on the ground during a time of war, much to the chagrin of Mrs Bennet and her five daughters.

Of course, being allowed a choice was—and continues to be—a mixed bag. One might end up blissfully happy like Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, reasonably content like Mr Collins and Charlotte Lucas, or woefully mismatched like Mr and Mrs Bennet. Even if the road to love is a bumpy one, it’s always worth traveling it as we authors thoroughly explore in the An Inducement to Matrimony anthology. Pick up a copy and take the journey with us.


Courtship and Marriage in Jane Austen’s World by Maria Grace

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04 nov. 2022

How could happiness in marriage was a matter of chance, given how little many couples were likely to really know each other? (Other than Darcy and Elizabeth of course; they had destiny on their side—haha). There were just so many limitations on how they could interact. Thanks for the post, Mary, and the lovely images!

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