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Jane Austen’s Practical Concerns About Marriage Are Still Relevant

23 May 2018

From Lit Hub:

I wasn’t the type of young person to seek out Jane Austen on my own. Period manners and marriage plots? Thanks, but pass; I’d seen Clueless and was pretty sure I got the gist. But with few discernible interests apart from books (and tastes that, I’m mortified to report, leaned more toward Bukowski than Brontë), combined with an even less developed sense of professional aptitude, my undergrad self ended up settling into a new identity as an English lit major. Austen, naturally, became a part of my new life. My 18th-century British lit professor, an affable young adjunct with a clump of Day-Glo orange hair, put Pride and Prejudice squarely on the syllabus during our semester on the Romantic era. This novel, he told us, signaled a major shift in social values, and was therefore important to understand. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Pride and Prejudice famously concerns the courtship of a family of sisters who need to marry into money to preserve the family’s social standing as members of the landed gentry. The new, period-specific catch is that the sisters should also, ideally, be fond of the well-off dudes they marry—and it’s this new requirement of affability, even maybe something akin to love, that leads to dramatic tension and lessons learned by all. But to me, it barely seemed worthy of being called a predicament.

. . . .

It seemed much less intimidating to accept an eligible suitor on the simple grounds of mutual regard and material security—to say, “I like your bank account and can tolerate your person,” and move on. The clear directive to simply secure an economically advantageous match would have certainly taken the guesswork out of my own romantic future. I’d been brought up with the same expectations of a majority of my straight-leaning female friends: that it was not just possible but preferable to expect everything from one person, forever.

Austen’s era marked a relatively new way of thinking about the role of marriage, one organized on the individualistic notion of personal happiness rather than the participation in a tradition of social and family organization. The Romantic period made way, you could say, for romance. And in Austen’s novels, the folly implicit in the pursuit of romance drives the action. Not that Austen was herself a fool for love; as a writer and thinker she acutely recognized that the ideal relationship is a tough one to come by. (It feels mean but important to mention here that Austen died alone.)

Even considering how she put love on the agenda, the expectations of marriage Austen laid out in her works, by the standards of their 21st-century analogs, verge on the enviably quaint. Contemporary relationship narratives apply unending pressure to settle down without ever settling for. We are told, loud and clear and over and over, that Mr. Right will come along, and he’ll give us butterflies and the feeling of home, he’ll be our best friend and the man of our dreams. To compromise would guarantee a lifetime of regret and undermine our self-respect—the opposite of the girl power we’ve grown up with.

Austen’s heroines have been beloved through the ages because they still read as wise, rising above the bullshit that their more tragic foils inevitably succumb to. Elizabeth Bennet only accepts the hand of wealthy suitor Mr. Darcy once she recognizes his strength of character. Her younger sister Lydia, meanwhile, narrowly escapes social ruin by taking up with the moneyless cad Wickham, who then has to be bribed into marrying her. Austen’s heroines do not compromise; they just happen to gravitate toward their most ideal outcome, as though self-interest were commensurate with moral fortitude.

Link to the rest at Lit Hub

PG says part of Jane Austen’s genius was writing about fundamental human emotions, traits and behaviors that have transcended time.

He suggests it’s the same reason Shakespeare’s plays are still widely performed while plays written by contemporaries such as Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson have disappeared from today’s culture.

Romance

3 Comments to “Jane Austen’s Practical Concerns About Marriage Are Still Relevant”

  1. Reading stuff like this makes me wonder if this is an alien planet and I was shuffled here as a child by a space elf or something. -_-

    • I’d rather wonder if the author of this stuff is not an alien who studies human emotions and still doesn’t have a clue.

      • Richard Hershberger

        All those dreadful modern sequels? Their authors also couldn’t be bothered with understanding the context, relying instead on a watered-down pop world-building version of Regency England. This is fine if this is all you want, but many people are interested in understanding the novel a bit more than that.

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