In the 19th century, marriage was seen as a tool for linking prosperous families and consolidating present and future land and wealth. Getting married was seen as doing one’s duty by the family. Thus, its negotiations and outcomes usually involved the family as a whole, and even people beyond it.
Marriage: A Family Business
Jane Austen’s short novel Lady Susan, has a selfish, manipulative young widow, Lady Susan Vernon, who writes in confidence to her female friend: ‘I cannot easily resolve on anything so serious as marriage, especially as I am not at present in want of money.’
Instead, Lady Susan scandalously takes a lover. Her statement echoes a somewhat cynical view of marriage as a serious ‘business’. Marriage, with its financial implications, was often a family business at that.
In the 19th century, by tradition, fathers were asked by would-be grooms for permission to marry their daughters. That wasn’t just patriarchal politeness. Both sets of parents were likely to be needed to sign off on any plan for marriage, especially if money were to change hands, as it certainly would have for families of means.
Unless a young man were financially independent, he would have sought permission to marry from his own parents, too. If he didn’t, he might jeopardize their financial support.
Who Got to Be Financially Independent?
The conditions for a son’s financial independence varied from family to family, depending on wealth, birth order, and whether one or both of his parents were alive.
There was also the question of what a set of lawyers may have previously laid out for these sons or daughters in the parents’ marriage contract.
A young man who was of age—that is, over 21—could conceivably choose to marry first and ask his family for forgiveness later. But this was taking a significant risk. Marrying first might jeopardize his ability to provide for himself, his wife, and any children they might have, if his family turned out not to approve and withhold financial support.
It’s for this reason that we see admirable characters in Austen’s novels seeking parental permission in the courtship process.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Were All of Austen’s Characters Admirable?
Jane Austen’s characters who flout the process, and don’t do their duty to consult their elders, face difficulties and harm. We might think of Lydia Bennet’s eloping in Pride and Prejudice and Colonel Brandon’s ward, Eliza, running away in Sense and Sensibility.
But there’s also Frank Churchill and his secret engagement in Emma, and the young widow, Mrs. Clay, running off with William Walter Elliot in Persuasion.
And yet, when it came to facing repercussions, there were exceptions, of course. In Northanger Abbey, Henry Tilney seems likely to have secretly courted Catherine Morland by letter, against his father’s wishes, toward the end of the novel. That’s what the narrator means when she tells us, ‘Whether the torments of absence were softened by a clandestine correspondence, let us not inquire. Mr. and Mrs. Morland never did—they had been too kind to exact any promise; and whenever Catherine received a letter, as, at that time, happened pretty often, they always looked another way.’
Predictably, however, even this rebel couple doesn’t try to resume their official courtship or to marry without parental approval.
Marrying for Financial Advantage
When parents tried to steer their children toward a prospective spouse with a certain level of status or wealth, it wasn’t just to control their lives. It was with the recognition that others in the family might be affected by that marriage.
Adult brothers were eventually expected to assume economic responsibility for dependent siblings, especially unmarried sisters. In a parents’ eyes, marrying off a child for financial advantage might protect the entire brood.
Falling from one’s economic class was an actual danger. We see it happen not only with the unmarried Miss Bates and her widowed mother in Emma, but also with the widowed Mrs. Smith in Persuasion. The thinking was that a financially advantageous marriage might protect an entire family from discomfort, financial ruin, or imprisonment for debt. If one son or daughter married into a wealthy family, it might produce advantages that would flow out to many.
Marriages Advantageous for the Whole Family
Jane Austen exemplifies this very mindset through the character of Sir Thomas Bertram, in Mansfield Park. He ends up helping many members of his wife’s extended family, in ways large and small. It’s literally fortunate for Lady Bertram’s two sisters that she ‘had the good luck to captivate’ a baronet.
In Emma, when the orphaned Jane Fairfax marries Frank Churchill, she escapes a life of insecurity and drudgery as a governess. Jane hasn’t chosen Frank out of greed. But unlike Emma Woodhouse, Jane stands to gain everything from such an advantageous marriage—fortune, employment, and consequence.
Climbing the Economic Ladder
Jane Fairfax’s surviving family members, such as her aunt, Miss Bates, and her elderly mother, too, profit from her alliance. Even if it didn’t mean a climb up the economic ladder for other members of the family, any marriage could have the modest financial advantage of removing one person from the family balance sheet as a financial obligation.
In the most drastic of circumstances, a marriage might ensure the survival of the family’s most vulnerable members. So what constituted a ‘good marriage’ was, in fact, a fraught question for the entire family unit.
Common Questions about Marriage and the Concept of Family Duty in Jane Austen’s Times
In the 19th century, adult brothers were expected to assume economic responsibility for dependent siblings, especially unmarried sisters. In a parents’ eyes, marrying off a child for financial advantage might protect the entire brood.
Jane Austen’s characters who flout the process, and don’t do their duty to consult their elders, face difficulties and harm. For example, Lydia Bennet’s eloping in Pride and Prejudice and Colonel Brandon’s ward Eliza running away in Sense and Sensibility.
In Emma, when the orphaned Jane Fairfax marries Frank Churchill, she escapes a life of insecurity and drudgery as a governess. Jane hasn’t chosen Frank out of greed. But Jane stands to gain everything from such an advantageous marriage—fortune, employment, and consequence.