By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
Jane Austen’s fiction took a liberal, or a reformist, perspective toward traditional marriage in the middling classes and above. Her novels promote small changes by placing the emotional and intellectual desires of the individual, especially women, above the financial and status-oriented needs of the family. In all this, her novels expose the built-in unfairness for women in matters of courtship and matrimony.
Marrying for Money
In the 1790s, debating societies held public arguments to consider which was the greater evil—marrying for love without money or marrying for money without love. This was a culture that couldn’t decide which scenario was worse.
In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet’s conversations about marriage with her friend, Charlotte Lucas, get at the heart of the conflict. Charlotte believes that, ‘Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance’ and that, ‘It is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.’ Elizabeth disagrees to this.
Charlotte shows herself willing to accept the very suitor that Elizabeth vehemently rejects: Mr. Collins. Charlotte recognizes that Mr. Collins’s company is irksome. But we’re told that, for Charlotte, ‘Marriage had always been her object (…as) the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune. However uncertain (…marriage was) of giving happiness, it must be, according to Charlotte, the pleasantest preservative from want.
Today’s readers of Pride and Prejudice are often made deeply uncomfortable by Charlotte’s marriage to Mr. Collins. But it’s important to recognize that a woman in Charlotte’s situation would have had complex motivations. Her marrying means her father and brothers won’t have to support her for the rest of her life. Her family’s resources might now go to its other vulnerable, dependent members.
Charlotte sacrifices her personal happiness for her family’s economic comfort, as well as for the likely ability to raise her children near them. We might call parts of this sad today, but it’s not selfish. Austen’s readers would have understood that all too well.
A Duty Toward Family Security
It’s far easier for us now, in a world in which marital ideals privilege individual happiness over family security, to conclude that Elizabeth’s initial refusal of Mr. Collins was the obvious and correct choice. Marriage to him would seem a misery and a form of domestic imprisonment. But then, it wouldn’t have seemed so obvious to everyone.
Elizabeth refuses to do what many readers then would have seen as her duty: marry to secure her family’s financial future. It helps very much that Elizabeth had one parent’s approval for her refusing Mr. Collins—her father’s. She didn’t have to go against both of her parents’ wishes—just her mother’s. Her father, too, supports individual female happiness over family comfort, at least in Elizabeth’s case.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Possibilities in Marriage
Austen’s fiction suggests that individual choice and romantic happiness ought to win out over economics and family pressures. It advocates for young people’s choosing to marry for love over money.
That said, in each of Austen’s novels, the money conveniently falls into place for couples who are brought together by love. Any family recriminations conveniently fall away, too.
A look into the era’s laws and practices makes it clear that things were rarely so tidy in real life. Marriages were regularly described as bargains and negotiated like business deals.
When a couple became engaged, that was considered a man’s binding promise to a woman and her family. Should a man back out of an engagement, then he could be sued by her family for something called Breach of Promise of Marriage.
Breach of Promise of Marriage
The idea behind a Breach of Promise of Marriage suit was that a man who’d jilted a woman had damaged not only the woman’s but also the family and father’s financial prospects. Her chance of finding another husband were lessened by the suitor’s rejection.
Knowing this context might add a little wrinkle to Edward Ferrars’s keeping his engagement to Lucy Steele in Sense and Sensibility. His ending the engagement might have resulted in her family bringing a Breach of Promise of Marriage suit against him.
Lawyers were regularly involved even for the more mundane things like marriage settlements, which we might think of as proto-prenups, or prenuptial agreements.
The family of the bride offered, or negotiated, a sum of money that she’d bring into the marriage, called a dower, dowry, or bride price. It wasn’t just an expectation for the exceedingly wealthy. Those of moderate means also entered into contracts that set up the financial terms of an upcoming marriage.
Widow’s Jointures and Pin Money
Lawyers helped draw up contracts stipulating things like widow’s jointures and pin money. Widow’s jointures were separate financial settlements for wives, to be paid should their husbands die first.
Pin money was a wife’s annual spending allowance. It was a small amount, set aside, so that it would be under her control, to spend as she’d like, after the marriage.
In Pride and Prejudice, Austen suggests that Elizabeth, after she marries Darcy, helps out Lydia and Wickham financially from time to time, out of her private funds. This would likely have meant from her pin money.
No Separate Property
A woman had to declare her pin money in the marriage contract because otherwise the wife’s property became, by law, the property of her husband. Married women could not own separate property in Britain until late in the 19th century.
Perhaps it now makes clear why couples with money, or with the expectation of future property or money, involved their parents in their engagements to be married. These parents, in turn, involved their lawyers.
Needless to say, divorce was extremely rare and only available to the most wealthy and powerful men. The marriage settlement, or contract, hence, laid out the potential economic conditions of the couple’s future, come what may.
Common Questions about Women, Finance, and Marriages in Jane Austen’s Novels
Today’s readers of Pride and Prejudice are often made deeply uncomfortable by Charlotte Lucas’s marriage to Mr. Collins.
Jane Austen’s fiction suggests that individual choice and romantic happiness ought to win out over economics and family pressures.
In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen suggests that Elizabeth Bennet, after she marries Darcy, helps out Lydia and Wickham financially from time to time, out of her private funds.