Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Jane Austen and the Marriage of Convenience

Jane turned down a highly advantageous marriage because she was not in love with the young man. Others were not so romantic. To quote:
Marriage provided women with financial security. Henry Tilney of Northanger Abbeyexplains, “… in both [marriage and a country dance], man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal: that in both, it is an engagement between man and woman, formed for the advantage of each.” Women of Austen’s gentry class had no legal identity. No matter how clever the woman might be, finding a husband was the only option. A woman could not buy property or write a will without her husband’s approval. If a woman was fortunate, she would bring to her marriage a settlement – money secured for her when she came of age – usually an inheritance from her mother. The oldest son or male heir received the family estate, and the unmarried or widowed females lived on his kindness.

The ladies of Sense and Sensibility have this reality thrust upon them when Uncle Dashwood changes his will and leaves Norland to his grandnephew. In Uncle Dashwood’s thinking, this change will keep Norland in the Dashwood family. However, the four Dashwood ladies suddenly find themselves living in a modest cottage with an income of £500 annually. As such, they have no occasion for visits to London unless someone else assumes the expenses. Their social circle shrinks, and the opportunities to meet eligible suitors becomes nearly non-existent. With dowries of £1000 each, the Dashwood sisters are not likely to attract a man who will improve their lots.

Jane Austen, herself, lived quite modestly. The Austens lived frugally among the country gentry. The Austen sisters were well educated by the standards of the day, but without chances for dowries, Jane and Cassandra possessed limited prospects. Jane met a Mr. Blackall the year Cassandra lost her Mr. Fowle. In a letter, Blackall expressed to Mrs. Lefroy a desire to know Jane better; yet, he confided, “But at present I cannot indulge any expectation of it.” To which, Jane Austen responded, “This is rational enough. There is less love and more sense in it than sometimes appeared before, and I am very well satisfied.” Imperfect opportunities were Jane Austen’s reality. In 1802, Jane Austen accepted an offer of marriage from Harris Bigg. With this marriage, Jane would have become the mistress of Manydown.

Yet, despite her affection for the family, Austen could not deceive Bigg. The following morning, she refused the man’s proposal. Whether she thought to some day find another or whether Austen accepted the fact that her refusal doomed her to a life as a spinster, we shall never know. In the “limited” world in which Jane Austen lived, she could not have known her eventual influence on the literary canon. (Read entire post.)

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