Sunday, September 9, 2018

True Love in Austen's Novels

From the late great Mitchell Kalpakgian at The Imaginative Conservative:
Viewed in the light of benefits and perquisites, a marriage proposal naturally carries supreme importance—even to the extent that women feel coercion from families to accept offers from men for whom they feel no attraction or admiration as in the case of Elizabeth Bennet receiving Mr. Collin’s declaration of love in Pride and Prejudice or Fanny Price hearing of Henry Crawford’s intentions in Mansfield Park. In the eyes of family members seeking the material well-being of marriageable women, an advantageous match deserves acceptance. A woman may never receive another proposal, and a rejection shows utter imprudence. Mrs. Bennet warns Elizabeth: “But I tell you what, Miss Lizzy, if you take it into your head to go on refusing every offer of marriage in this way, you will never get a husband at all—and I am sure I do not know who is to maintain you when your father is dead.”

Austen’s novels also portray rash elopements that end in folly or shame with little prospect for marital happiness. Uncontrollable passion violates good judgment, disregards propriety, and disgraces the family name. Impulsive romances overlook the practical requirements for marital stability and security that depend on money. Just as proper matches make love a matter of shrewd calculation and self-interest, hasty elopements lack the prudence to foresee embarrassing or disastrous consequences. Lydia Bennet’s shocking elopement with the irresponsible Mr. Wickham, notorious for indebtedness and extravagant spending, not only brings scandal to the family but also foreshadows a marriage with little foundation for growth in love. Henry Crawford, for all his declarations of true love for Fanny, soon turns his thoughts to a married woman in his pursuit of selfish pleasure: “The event was so shocking, that there were moments even when her heart revolted from it as impossible”—a woman married six months eloping with a man professing his devotion to Fanny.

While men like Mr. Collins and Henry Crawford offer love, their ulterior motives remain suspect, and the women they court sense the absence of honorable intentions despite their profession of strong attachment and irresistible attraction. While dashing men like Wickham and Henry Crawford present themselves as cultivated gentlemen with polished manners, they soon betray their ungallant conduct as they flirt with one woman after another and trifle with their feelings for their passing pleasure and selfish pastime. Frank Churchill in Emma also falls into this category as he feigns a romantic interest and courtship with Emma, using her as a ploy to conceal his secret love for Jane Fairfax and rouse her jealousy. Thus both the proper matches and the affairs of elopement pose as overtures of love with pretentious appearances or false promises without the integrity and honor of true love. Women who marry unworthy men of disreputable character or dishonorable motives compromise the highest ideals of marriage and soon settle into relationships of mutual toleration rather than an abiding relationship of shared affection and the deepest bonds of love—a situation Austen illustrates in the marriages of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice.

Women like Charlotte Lucas who marry for the economic and social advantages of marriage or elope like Lydia Bennet without admiration or respect for the moral character of their spouse acquiesce to a conventional view of marriage, one summarized by Charlotte’s acceptance of Mr. Collins’ proposal within days of Elizabeth’s rejection of his offer: “I am not romantic you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair, as most people can boast on entering the marital state.” Lydia, on the other hand, acts on a false view of romance based only on the feelings of the moment and the excitement of the passions, thrilled to boast that she married before her two older sisters and oblivious of the disreputable character of her husband. Charlotte and Lydia have escaped the fate of old maid but, in Elizabeth’s judgment, “have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage.” (Read more.)

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