The Importance of Marriage
Updated: May 5
by Lucy Marin, author of Being Mrs Darcy
Marriage was serious business for women (and men) in Jane Austen’s time. This is reflected in the novels we love so much. What is a Jane Austen story without the hero and heroine finding wedded bliss? Making a good marriage was the only real way for a gentlewoman to secure her future, particularly if she did not have an independent fortune. Marriage was seen as the natural and best state for women, an attitude that survived long after Austen’s time.
Marriage raised a woman’s social status. We see this in Pride and Prejudice when Lydia returns to Longbourn after becoming Mrs Wickham and insists that she now takes precedence over Jane. On the flip side, there was nothing worse for a poor woman than to remain single. They were ridiculed and could find themselves living in straitened circumstances, as Miss Bates does in Emma. In the same novel, the heroine says, “A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid!” A spinster who could or would not work as a governess or companion would have to live with relatives or, when they were no longer young, a female servant. In someone else’s household, they might be put to work, treated as an unpaid servant, seen as a burden, and shown little consideration.
For women with an independent fortune, the pressure to marry could be less, although her status would still improve if she married, especially if she had children. Georgiana Darcy, Caroline Bingley, and Emma Woodhouse are all ladies who could afford to not marry. There were other reasons why such ladies might still wish to marry. If they lived with family members, they would have to follow the schedule and rules imposed on them by the mistress of the house. Would Miss Bingley enjoy following Jane’s lead and doing her bidding if she lived with her brother and sister-in-law?
A woman was expected to increase her social consequence through marriage and avoid marrying beneath her station in life. This adds disgust to the possibility of Georgiana Darcy—wealthy and the granddaughter of an earl—marrying Mr Wickham. By agreeing to elope, she showed a lack of judgment, just as Lydia Bennet did when she ran off with him. Mr Darcy tells us that his sister was naïve and tender-hearted, which is why she fell for the trap Mr Wickham set. We have only his secondhand account of the affair, however, and Being Mrs Darcy offers one view of what Georgiana might have been like at that time. We get to know Lydia throughout Pride and Prejudice and know she does not think seriously about the business of marriage.
We should remember that marriage was not just about an individual man and woman. There were social and economic repercussions for the families of both. A man was expected to take on responsibility for his wife’s mother if/when she became a widow and for any unmarried sisters. Given Elizabeth’s circumstances, it was not wrong of Mr Darcy to assume Elizabeth would accept him or that Jane would marry Mr Bingley even if she did not love him. The benefits to the Bennets from either marriage were very significant. Mr Darcy does not suggest Elizabeth marry him for social or economic gain, but he must have known that these could be a strong inducement for her.
In Being Mrs Darcy, Elizabeth understands that she and her family benefited by her marriage, and that her respectability is tied in part to how well she fulfills her new duties. Darcy is keenly aware of Elizabeth’s inferior social and economic position.
The role of wife and mistress to an estate could give a woman a sense of purpose, too, something that is also addressed in Being Mrs Darcy. Her duties might include keeping the budget, managing servants, overseeing purchases, entertaining guests, undertaking charitable work, and regularly attending church, in addition to bearing and tending to children. All of this was a way to exercise power in a society in which most women had little. They were still subordinate to their husbands—unless their personalities were such that they could dominate them—but had positions of greater authority than they were likely to obtain as single women.
Even with the duties of a mistress, upper class women had a lot of leisure time with few options for filling their days apart from reading, music and decorative arts such as needlework. This was especially true if they had no children to care for. Being Mrs Darcy shows this, too, and how lonely life could be for one in Elizabeth’s position, despite how much she devotes herself to being a good wife, mistress, and sister.
Marriage was also important to men, and it was common for men to think of marriage as a trap because of the social and economic consequences. Early in Pride and Prejudice, Mr Darcy muses about Elizabeth being a danger to him, which reflects this notion. The ideal wife would bring substantial wealth to the union. This meant that young ladies who were poor had little chance of receiving offers of marriage, no matter how attractive they otherwise were. At Jane Austen’s time, the female:male ratio was skewed towards women, in part due to death and injuries sustained in the wars, and almost one in four upper-class ladies remained unwed.
A man was still seen as the superior—reflecting a more general masculinist worldview—and Mr Bennet even tells Elizabeth that she would not be happy or respectable if she did not look up to her husband as a superior. Women vowed to obey their husbands, and in return husbands should treat their wives kindly. In Being Mrs Darcy, Elizabeth does her best to uphold her part of this unspoken bargain by working to make Mr Darcy’s home comfortable and placing his wishes above her own.
The image of parents forcing their children to marry someone they have selected is not without merit. It was common for Regency parents to arrange marriages for their children, at least if they belonged to the highest social spheres. Marriage was central to family inheritances and the development and maintenance of the class system in Britain, thus the question of who should marry whom was of utmost importance to the upper ten thousand. However, there was a growing appreciation for marriage based on mutual attraction and love during this time.
Upon marriage, a woman gave up what rights she had and could do almost nothing without her husband’s approval. Yet, marriage to any eligible man might be preferable to becoming a spinster. Charlotte Lucas saw it this way, readily agreeing to marry a man she hardly knew and did not love. To Charlotte, the benefits outweighed the negatives. She got a home of her own, social position, and economic security. It is a rational choice for her, in contrast to Elizabeth’s irrational decisions to reject both Mr Collins and Mr Darcy. Mr Collins shows that he does not take marriage seriously, although in a different manner from Lydia. He just wants a wife; it matters not to him whether it is Elizabeth or Charlotte. He will gain a companion, someone to keep his house, and—perhaps most critically of all—do as Lady Catherine advised.
In rejecting two eligible men, Elizabeth makes a serious choice in the sense of integrating the practical reasons she should accept such proposals and the emotional reasons why she should not because she does not like, let alone love either man. As horrible as Darcy’s first proposal was, a close reading of it shows that it illustrates his struggle between the rational and emotional. For him, the emotional wins, and he decides that marrying for love is more important than other considerations.
Jane Austen believed in the importance of marrying for love and companionship, and this is reflected in her novels, notably through Mr Darcy and Elizabeth. In Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility we see parents (or parent-substitutes in the case of Lady Russell) insisting that social and economic considerations should take precedence, and, in both cases, this thinking is ultimately rejected by the younger protagonists, ensuring their future happiness. Austen does not suggest that people think only in emotional terms—the disastrous pairings of Fanny Price’s parents or Lydia and Mr Wickham demonstrate the danger of thinking only of love and attraction. Marriage is a serious business, and young women needed to make wise decisions when it came to their choice of husband. Austen gives us hope that if we wait for the right man or woman, we can have our wedding cake and eat it too.
· The Annotated Persuasion and The Annotated Pride and Prejudice by David M. Shapard
· Jane Austen’s England by Roy & Lesley Adkins
· Jane Austen’s views on marriage in Pride and Prejudice by Feifei Pei, Changle Fun & Xiaolin Huang, Advances in Literary Studies, 2014
· Marriage, Courtship and Aristotle’s Spouidaia in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice by Ashlee Menchaca-Bagnulo, Perspectives on Political Science, 2019