A lady’s imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.
I will never forget sitting in a college survey class as a literature major while a nursing student complained about Pride and Prejudice. “It’s unromantic! It’s boring! Darcy is such a jerk!” Even at 18 years old, the comments made me believe that I had an idea of why divorce rates were so high. I didn’t think it was unromantic or boring, but I have a pretty good idea why other young women believed it was so. “Romance” has been sold as a product for a very long time, but the idea of what it means changes with the times. There is a famous correspondence between Charlotte Bronte and the literary critic George Henry Lewes in which Bronte roundly criticizes Austen as lacking in wildness and passion. Obviously, the books of the Bronte sisters have those things in spades. But, heroes like Heathcliff or Mr. Rochester would raise the eyebrows of any sane parent, just as Edward, the sulky vampire from Twilight, would likely do today in reality.
And that is the trouble with stories that tout the value of fantasy over reality. Sure, many women find men who brood and obsess over them to be exciting on some level. But, these are often the women who wind up pressing domestic violence charges against their partners later. Obsession, unlike what the perfume commercials would have you believe, is an unhealthy emotion. These types of relationships are hardly a recipe for domestic bliss.
It’s true, Jane Austen died nearly two hundred years ago when the lives of the women she wrote about were very different than the many choices that women living in much of the world have today. It is also true that she never married, so what would she know about choosing a spouse? But I contend that a large part of the reason that she is both popular and relevant today is that she was a shrewd observer of human nature, and those observances resonate today. But they resonate in the realities of long-term relationships, balancing a family and running a household instead of engaging in a love affair. Having a torrid love affair simply shouldn’t be anybody’s main goal in life, and it isn’t good enough reason to get married.
Novels, since the birth of the genre, have been full of rejected, seduced, and abandoned maidens, whose proper fate is to die.
In Austen’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility, she focuses on the plight of a family of women who have not been treated kindly by their only living male relative. They are basically left destitute and rely on the charity of a distant relative. This focus provides a theme that continues through several of Austen’s books, the relative lack of economic and political power of women. Gothic novels are full of young women whose fates are exactly as described in the above quote. But, Austen hoped to give her heroines a chance at a happy, stable life.
The novel’s sisters, Marianne and Elinor, are a pair of contrasting heroines whose lack of economic status hampers their ability to marry decently, the only possible salvation from their current destitute status. Marianne is the “sensible” sister of the pair, however, this word at the time had a very different meaning than it does now. Today, we might call Marianne a free spirit or artsy or sensitive or even emotional. By contrast, her sister Elinor represents “sense.” In this context, it shows that she is intelligent, reserved and displays good judgment. We expect to see these two sides at war, but in truth, what we find in the end is that the desired result, according to Austen, is a balance between the two. Elinor nearly loses her chance at love by not being forward enough while Marianne comes close to ruination by sharing too much of her sensitivity and passion with a man not committed to her.
How about the men in the novel? Elinor is attracted to Edward Ferrars because he is intelligent, pleasant-mannered and steady. His sense of duty initially holds him back as he is promised to another and his restraint hurts Elinor. In the end, it is his sense of duty that allows him freedom of choice, and he chooses Elinor. Marianne, on the other hand is first attracted to John Willoughby, a dashing young man who flirts with and flatters Marianne. I’m certain that he sends her pulse racing in a manner that Charlotte Bronte would have approved of. He leads her to believe that he intends to marry her, and she allows him to take a lock of her hair, earning her the disapproval of the more careful Elinor. But he needs a wife of financial means. Even though he claims to love Marianne long after he has given her up, he has treated her in an unkind and careless manner. This is not how you should treat the person that you love. We later find out that Willoughby has impregnated and abandoned at least one other young woman, leaving an impression that this could have been Marianne’s fate as well. Marianne marries Colonel Brandon in the end. He is constant, kind, and takes her into his confidence with painful secrets in order to save her feelings. It is through making wise choices of marriage partners that the women gain both in love and in economics.
I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.
Arguably her most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice continues the discussion of women and their lack of economic power. As the novel opens, a wealthy and eligible bachelor has moved into a country neighborhood. This new addition has thrown the neighborhood, particularly the Bennet family, into a tizzy. You see, the Bennets have five daughters, an entailed estate, no male heir, and have saved little to support the girls upon their father’s death. The girls attend a local ball at which time we are introduced to not just one, but two rich bachelors!
This focus on the wealth of potential suitors seems predatory, especially for modern readers. But, as the novel slowly unveils, it becomes clear that the financial future of the Bennet ladies is full of peril. The wacky family members, the financial distress, the fact that all of the girls are “out”– all of these things spell trouble of the sort that tends to scare off potential suitors.
What types of character traits does Austen find desirable and which does she condemn? Certain we see the condemnation of an excess of pride. Elizabeth’s pride blinds her to the true character of those around her until she is, nearly tragically, proven wrong. Mr. Darcy’s pride is what spurs him to deliver what is arguably one of the worst marriage proposals in history. Both learn to think outside of their personal scope to see the viewpoints of one another.
Other character traits that are undesirable include the flighty, nervous nature of Mrs. Bennet; the self-importance and the fawning, false flattery of Mr. Collins; the overt snobbery of Lady Catherine de Bourgh; Mr. Wickham’s gambling, indebtedness and womanizing; the wishy-washy behavior of Mr. Bingley; the rudeness and meddling of Caroline Bingley. Really, the book at times seems to be a parade of bad behavior and manners. But, by contrast, we have the kindness of Jane, the wit and vivacity of Elizabeth, the dutiful nature of Mr. Darcy. But, what does Mr. Darcy really do to recommend him in marriage? What is it that makes Elizabeth change her mind?
First, she reads the letter he gives her the morning after the disastrous proposal and learns the truth of her incorrect beliefs and the true wrong that Mr. Wickham has done to Mr. Darcy. The fact the he willingly reveals such painful events is the very beginning of intimacy between the two. We first begin to see real change in Darcy when he accidentally surprises Elizabeth and her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner. They are on a tour of country estates. He catches Elizabeth off guard by how kind he is to her relatives. He speaks to them as equals. He invites her uncle to come fishing. She learns to see beneath the surface. He learns to open up enough to take care of people outside his direct circle.
The story of Pride and Prejudice is romantic because he takes Elizabeth’s offenses to heart. He opens himself up in ways that are uncomfortable for him. He takes her into his inner circle. He accepts her family. He takes care of her reputation. He defies his own extended family for love of her. He accepts her lower circumstances because he finally realizes that her circumstances have made her the woman that he loves. Likewise, Elizabeth comes to see Darcy as deep, sensitive, caring, intelligent and dutiful. He would never embarrass her like Mr. Collins might. He would never run up debts or attempt to seduce vulnerable young women like Wickham does. He won’t mistreat the people around him as Lady Catherine de Bourgh does. He won’t misspend his money, putting her future children in jeopardy as her own father did. He will take care of her and cherish her in every way.
You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope…I have loved none but you.
The third novel that we’ll look at is Persuasion. An interesting point in this novel is that our heroine, Anne Elliot is the wealthy but less favored daughter of a lord while her only real love interest had been turned away several years before due to his lowly social status. In the meantime, he has raised himself to a distinguished rank in the British Navy (as did Austen’s two brothers) and accumulated a fortune as a successful Navy Captain. Anne Elliot is a beleaguered soul. She is considered a spinster at 27 years old. Her father is in debt due to over-spending, but still maintaining his snobbery. One sister shares these tendencies. The other sister is married and more than a bit of a drama queen, languishing in “ill health” or hysterics when she isn’t the center of attention. The surrounding cast of extended family members and friends simply do not share Anne’s kindness or true refinement of a sort that doesn’t come from fashion or money.
Captain Frederick Wentworth returns to Anne’s life suddenly when his sister and brother-in-law rent her family home (it is being rented out in order to bring some income back into the coffers). He is aloof and treats her in a manner that shows he still carries the hurts of the past. He even praises one of the young women of their acquaintance for her headstrong manner when she vows not to let the opinions of other people sway her. He makes small efforts to take care of and protect her. But, when this turns to near tragedy, he quickly realizes that this isn’t necessarily the course of a wise woman.
In the meantime, her cousin and her father’s heir, Mr. Elliot, attempts to court her. She finds him attractive. His manners are pleasant and easy. He pays attention to her, which is a huge thing in and of itself for Anne’s confidence and mood. And yet, she doesn’t believe he is being truly open or honest. She tells Lady Russell (who encourages the match just as she discouraged Anne’s acceptance of Frederick’s proposal so many years before) that they would not suit. But Frederick doesn’t recognize Anne’s attempts to put off Mr. Elliott for what they are.
Finally, Frederick overhears Anne passionately explaining to another that women are the most constant in love, never giving up, even when all hope seems lost. This actually renews his own hope and spurs him into action. He writes her a beautiful letter, and she quickly rushes to reconcile with him. They are finally reconciled and their engagement renewed. Ultimately, this is a story of interrupted love in which the problems are overcome by forgiveness.
What traits does Austen warn us about? Vanity, not just in others but she warns us not to succumb to that trait within ourselves, giving over to false flattery. She warns about over-spending, urging economy, frugality and financial planning. She warns about both appearing too frivolous and too serious. She warns both about being too wishy-washy and too headstrong, instead urging us to approach problems with logic and a sense of balance. We should invest ourselves in quality people who are kind, who love us in spite of our many faults or the need to forgive us for past or present hurts. We should match up with spouses who are willing to put up with, take care of and socialize with our family, even when those family members we love are wacky, not socially appropriate or a bit crazy. We should look for ways they take care of us instead of associating with us when it is convenient or they get something out of it. It’s true that things like caring for your family may not seem as wildly romantic on the surface as digging up your grave or creepily watching you sleep. But, solid marriages aren’t made of people without normal coping mechanisms. I advise young women and men to look to Austen for advice on choosing a spouse instead of the Bronte sisters or Stephanie Meyer. You’ll be happier for it.