Why Jane Austen Never Married

If one looks at Pride and Prejudice for evidence of it author’s commentary on thing such as social status, finances, social graces, familial relationships, marital relationships, and contentions relationships, there are certainly conclusions to be drawn about the author herself.  While all of these elements are key to the awesomeness of Pride and Prejudice,  I really felt like this novel gave me a glimpse of Austen’s refusal to marry.  We know she accepted a marriage proposal, acceptance which she withdrew within less than twenty-four hours.  I can’t help but wonder why a woman whose own novel observes that marriage was “the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune” would reject the institution so completely.   Could she have been such an idealist as to believe in love and only love as the basis for marriage?  I would argue that love in a marriage isn’t the ideal foundation of marriage Austen sought.  If we look at the weddings and discussions of weddings in Pride and Prejudice, we can see evidence of what Austen might have wanted for herself.

The motives for marriage in her age were clear – financial and social security.  The proper marriage could guarantee a young woman those two things – two things absolutely essential to a “well-educated young woman of small fortune,” like Austen herself.   We know that she recognized the mercenary value of marriage – evidenced by Charlotte Lucas marrying the despicable Mr. Collins.   Austen makes it clear that Charlotte has no affection whatsoever for the foolish, preening clergyman, yet she marries him to ensure food in her belly, clothes on her back, and roof over her head – not bad reasons given the Lucas family’s financial situation.  While Elizabeth Bennet doesn’t completely condemn her for her choice, she does acknowledge that things will never be the same between her and Charlotte.  If Austen held love as the ideal basis for forming a marriage, one would think that Austen (by way of Elizabeth) might take a harder stance on Charlotte’s marriage and its mercenary motives, but she doesn’t.  Fine… then what is she looking for?

What about Jane and Bingley?  I would argue that Jane and Bingley’s road to matrimony was so difficult because affection was the ONLY thing that connected them – obviously a tenuous and fragile connection.  They seemed destined to marry until Darcy’s interference.  Clearly “love” and mutual affection aren’t enough to solidify a union.  All Darcy had to do was suggest that Jane had no real love for Bingley, and Bingley abandoned his quest for her hand without ever considering that he should speak directly with Jane.  If Bingley had only had enough faith in Jane to have a straightforward and honest conversation with her, then a great deal of their angst could have been avoided.

Austen also shoots down foolish notions such as “love at first sight”  “Love” offers too many opportunities for deception and manipulation, and by no means, offers guaranteed success at the alter.  Elizabeth’s “engagement” to Wickham is evidence that the idea of love a first sight is simply ridiculous.  Not only did Elizabeth’s connection to Wickham fall apart, it ended in Wickham’s disgraceful behavior with Lydia.  Austen also addresses infatuation when she tells us that Lydia’s attachment was greatest wherever there was attention paid to her – hardly a better recommendation than “love at first sight. ” Wickham and Lydia’s motives for marriage are clearly disastrous as evidenced by their fate of living hand to mouth off of the generosity of their relations who made far better decisions in terms of matrimony than they.

Pride and Prejudice seems to indicate that Austen believed that there should be more to marriage than security, infatuation, or even love.  I think she lays it out beautifully and uses a character from whom we might not expect to receive any sage advice – Mr. Bennet.   His words for Elizabeth are incredibly wise:

“I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable, unless you truly esteemed your husband; unless you looked up to him as a superior.  Your lively talents would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage.  You could scarcely escape discredit and misery.  My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life.”

His warning is insightful, and if we look at his own relationship with his wife, whom he treats with disdain and condescension throughout the entire novel, we see the result of a marriage made between two people without mutual respect for one another.

What makes Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship different?

  • There is no “love at first sight.”  As a matter of fact, they detested one another for much of the first volume of the novel.  Neither thought the other attractive or pleasing in the least.
  • Financial security never enters into their equation.  We know that Darcy isn’t marrying Elizabeth for any sort of financial benefit – her inheritance is pitiful compared to the “ten thousand a year” that is bandied about during the novel.  As for Elizabeth, there will be a financial benefit to the union, but her decision to marry Darcy had nothing to do with money whatsoever.  If that had been her goal, she would have accepted his initial proposal instead of giving him the scathing refusal she dished out.
  • As for infatuation, that simply never exists between Elizabeth and Darcy.  In fact, they had to work up to even liking one another, and Darcy clearly fights his fascination with Elizabeth.   He isn’t even really physically attracted to her.  There are no “longing looks” exchanged or any outward signals that there is more to them than the shared antipathy they exhibit in the first volume.

It seems that according to society’s idea for the foundation of a successful marriage, Elizabeth and Darcy have absolutely nothing going for them.  There aren’t any ardent and public displays of affection.  There isn’t any angst and suffering over rejection.  There aren’t dashed hopes and disappointed dreams lying in their wake.   So, what is it that makes Elizabeth and Darcy work? – the very things that her father wishes for her that he neglected when he chose his own partner.  Respect and Equality… according to Pride and Prejudice, these are the keys to matrimony.

If respect and equality were indeed what Austen felt she needed to be fulfilled in a marriage, it’s little wonder that she remained single.  Those attributes are nearly impossible to find in our era of equality.  She would have had to find someone who could respect her and who would recognize her value in addition to finding someone to address the practical needs of a “young woman of small fortune” – certainly an impossible task.

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2 Comments

Filed under Pride and Prejudice

2 responses to “Why Jane Austen Never Married

  1. Great analysis of different relationships and reasons for marrying or not marrying. Different characters married for different reasons – including pride in status, security, affection – but as you pointed out, I think Austen wants us to focus on Eliz and Darcy’s mutual respect for one another. Throughout the novel we learn they are equal in mind and play off one another with witty comments. They do respect each other in the end for their own pride and prejudice that they have overcome. However, Darcy does say he loves Eliz and I want to believe that there was affection and it continued to grow (in the sequel … 🙂 that was never written, just the fan fiction.) wonderful analysis and post!

  2. Love this. Most all of the characters in the novels we have read certainly revolve their lives around finding someone to marry/someone to fall in love with. One of the things that intrigue me most about Jane Austen is her decision to not marry and end her engagement.

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