Monday, June 25, 2012

Jane Austen and marriage

Jane Austen & Marriage, Hazel Jones

I don't read much literary criticism. As important as books have always been to me, I never wanted to study literature. I feel like I didn't learn the language of lit crit, so I can't understand much of it. But I do enjoy reading biographies of my favorite authors, discovering more about their lives and the context of their writing. With Jane Austen, I also enjoy books that explore an aspect of her worlds, real and fictional, through her novels and her own life. I think of these as the "Jane Austen and" books. One of my favorites is Maggie Lane's Jane Austen and Food. I've also learned a lot from Irene Collins' Jane Austen and the Clergy, Susannah Fullerton's Jane Austen & Crime, and Mary Waldron's Jane Austen and the Fiction of Her Time. When I saw a review of Jane Austen & Marriage in the JASNA newsletter, I added it to my list.

I enjoyed this informative and entertaining book very much. Hazel Jones notes in her introduction that marriage in Jane Austen's time is a complex subject: "These were years of great change and great resistance to change, creating a state of flux in that trickiest of personal relationships, marriage." One of the more influential changes was the growing ideal of companionate marriage, based on love, rather than marriage for social or financial gain. If the goal was a loving, stable, lasting relationship, rather than a marriage of convenience, the choice of a partner became critical, and the criteria different. How did one make the best choice, and who should do the choosing? Jones argues that the ideal of companionate marriage also challenged traditional views of dominant husbands and subservient wives, though she notes that many traditionalists criticized what they saw as radical theories bent on destroying marriage and family.

Jones explores several different aspects of marriage, including courtship, the wedding itself, the honeymoon, marital problems, the arrival of children, and naturally, given Austen's own life, the fate of those who never married ("spinsterhood" vs. "single blessedness"). In discussing each aspect, Jones draws on Austen's experiences and that of her family and friends, particularly as described in her letters, as well as the lives of her fictional characters. In addition, she brings in the experiences of Austen's contemporaries though their letters and journals, as well as newspaper articles. Jones also relies on conduct manuals and advice books, including the sermons of Rev. James Fordyce, which Mr. Collins chose to read aloud to his cousins, at least until Lydia's yawns offended him. Jones has great fun pointing out the absurdity of some of their arguments, though a few times she seems to take them a bit personally, and a tone of irritation slips through, as in her description of the Rev. Thomas Gisborne, who "deprecated the 'rage of rambling' and brandished St Paul - woman must be a 'keeper at home' - as a big stick to beat wandering females back indoors."

Each of Jane Austen's heroines ends up in a companionate marriage, though each takes a different route and a different hero. Her parents' marriage was a companionate one, as were her brothers'. I had not considered the effect of her parents' marriage on her own view of marriage. I've always been more intrigued by the lack of strong mothers in Austen's books, given her close relationship with her own mother. But in her circle of family and friends, she had many different varieties of marriage to study. From them, Jones contends, she developed an understanding of marriage that combined practicality with romance:

No Jane Austen heroine marries for money: affection is always part of the equation - yet the recognition that romance alone would neither keep body and soul together nor sustain marital accord is a crucial element underpinning all of her writing.

At the same time, Austen recognized the toll that marriage could take on a woman, in constant child-bearing, in marital problems. But single women, particularly those who like Austen herself lacked financial resources, faced many difficulties and hardships, including the ridicule society expressed for "old maids." Jones argues, though, that "Jane Austen knew that for her, the prospect of becoming an old maid at last was her best chance of self-fulfillment," because it gave her the space, the time, to concentrate on her writing. As she told her family, "her books were her children."


  1. I've always found Jane Austen's position on and influence on marriage to be so interesting. You're right that none of her characters marry for money or position, but don't all of the successful marriages in Austen happen when the women marry someone who is at least at the same social level they are? As I recall, none of them marry much "below their station."

    In any case, I always think of Austen when I hear someone today trying to defend "traditional marriage" as the only acceptable marriage or someone arguing that marriage has been unchanged for thousands of years.

    Marriage changed dramatically in the 19th century, thanks in no small part to Jane Austen. I've heard that she is very popular in places that still have arranged marriages today. The movie Bride and Prejudice from India is an excellent example and a very fun film, too if you haven't seen it.

  2. You're definitely right about the social level. Fanny's mother from Mansfield Park definitely married a step down, with her mere lieutenant, and theirs isn't a happy life. I can't remember who said that Austen's attitude was that it's wrong to marry for money but silly to marry without it, but I've think that sums it up perfectly.

    I've heard good things about Bride & Prejudice but haven't seen it yet. I like the adaptations like that, which put Austen into a new context, like Clueless.

  3. I'm very fascinated by marriage and love reading about the institution as it's portrayed in novels. That's why I wish that Austen could have given us a peek into the marriages of her famous couples instead of just ending the novels at the wedding. But perhaps courtship is more interesting to read about? Does the chase and the pursuit make a better plot?
    Anyway, this book sounds really intriguing! :)

  4. It's true she doesn't tell us much about the married lives of the main characters - but she does write about a variety of marriages with the secondary characters. You know Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth are going to have a marriage like the Crofts (Hazel Jones says several times that the Crofts are Austen's happiest & best-suited couple), and not like Mary & Charles Musgrove.

  5. Thanks, this sounds like a book I would enjoy reading. I'm thankful that Jane Austen only had book offspring as I remember when I read a book of her letters(edited by Deirdre Le Faye) so many of Jane's friends died in childbirth. Writing was obviously safer.

  6. I always think of Edward Austen's wife Elizabeth, with eleven children in fifteen years - who died so soon after the last was born. Hazel Jones quotes someone saying that we don't want to think of Elizabeth Darcy in that situation, but it was the reality of married life for so many women of the time.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!