The Choices We Make
By Kay Bea, author of Love Unsought
Women in the early 19th century had precious few opportunities to govern their own lives. Gently bred ladies were expected to be subject first to their fathers, and then to their husbands. They were virgins, then wives, then widows. Married women could not own their own property, nor were they allowed to manage their own financial affairs. The Doctrine of Coverture recognized husbands and wives as one legal entity: the husband. Divorce was allowed only through the Ecclesiastical courts, was almost impossible to attain, and was costly both economically and socially. In a society ruled by men, women had to be very careful of their choices.
In Love Unsought, we see four women whose lives are forever altered by the choices they make: Arabella Winslow née Rawlins, Lydia Bennet Wickham, Elizabeth Bennet Darcy, and Olivia Wickham.
All had their lives altered through their contact and interactions with George Wickham, the ne’er-do-well son of Pemberley’s steward. Each would be scorned by society should her situation become known, regardless of her participation (or lack thereof) in the events leading to it. Georgian society was not forgiving of the gentler sex. As Jane Austen said through Mary Bennet, “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—and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behavior towards the undeserving of the opposite sex.”
Arabella Rawlins, eldest daughter of Lord Rawlins, fell in love with George Wickham, a man of whom society and her father would never approve, and from there she began to make all the wrong choices. Arabella knew the earl’s daughter would never be allowed to marry the steward’s son, no matter that they loved one another. When faced with the choice to marry her lover but lose her position, Arabella chooses neither. She attempts to ensnare an innocent man, is caught, and forced into a loveless marriage with a partner of her father’s choosing. Arabella becomes more bitter, more angry, and more reckless as she seeks to control her own life and to gain vengeance over those she blames for her ruination. At every opportunity to create a better future for herself, Arabella chooses short-term satisfaction and petty revenge. In the end, her poor choices and immoral actions cost her everything she was desperately seeking to protect.
Lydia Bennet is scarcely more than a child to modern eyes when she falls for George Wickham’s charms. Wild, intemperate, and spoiled, Lydia is the youngest daughter of a minor landowner. Her choices can impact more than just her own future. Like Arabella before her, Lydia is determined to have her way. Unlike Arabella, Lydia appears to be less concerned about the cost to herself or her family. To choose her own future, Lydia runs away. In doing so, she destroys her own reputation and puts the futures of her unmarried sisters in jeopardy. Lydia’s choices lead her down a long and destructive path that ends with the loss of more than her virtue. By the time she recognizes her own foolishness, Lydia has lost nearly everything and believes she is beyond redemption. Though her judgment does not improve, she makes one choice that changes the lives of her children. She tells them the story of their Aunt Darcy and gives them hope.
Elizabeth Bennet is the nearly dowerless second of five daughters born to an indolent father and nervous mother. She rejects not one but two proposals of marriage that would have guaranteed her security because she believes they come at the cost of her future happiness. When faced with ruin at the hands of George Wickham, Elizabeth’s first concern is that she may be forced to marry him. As it becomes apparent that will not come to pass, she decides she will not allow her circumstances to ruin her happiness, though she is angry she can do nothing against those who wronged her. It is not until Elizabeth Bennet becomes Elizabeth Darcy that she has any real power to act, and act she does.
Elizabeth’s choices, both as Miss Bennet and later as Mrs Darcy, reflect a woman “resolved to act in that manner, which will, in (her) own opinion, constitute (her) happiness, without reference…to any person…wholly unconnected with (her).” Elizabeth’s determination makes her an unwitting role model for her young niece long before she ever meets Olivia Wickham.
Olivia Wickham is the eldest of five daughters born into poverty to negligent parents. Faced at an impossibly young age with the prospect of possible starvation and likely separation from her sisters, Olivia is empowered by the stories of her Aunt Darcy and chooses a new future. Her will to own her life doesn’t stop when she reaches Pemberley. Each time the opportunity presents, Olivia chooses her independence. From a society that expects virgin, wife, and widow, Olivia chooses activist, aunt, and sister.
Each of these women came to a crossroads and had the opportunity choose her future. One ruins herself with poor choices and venal actions. Another forsakes her family but struggles to make her own sort of amends. The third finds she can only initiate real change after she marries, and the last becomes more than society said she was allowed to be.