Tuesday, 24 May 2016
Love and Marriage in Jane Austen's Novels
In Jane Austen's juvenile works, marriage was a casual and unemotional transaction – an absurdity of adulthood. She mocked sexual passion as depicted in sentimental novels. Yet her mature work, drafted only a few years after those teenage satires, contains some of the most satisfying love stories in all literature. She can still joke about love (Elizabeth Bennet pretends to date her love for Darcy as beginning when she first set eyes on his beautiful home) but, in the intensity of their love, Elinor Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet and Anne Elliot experience feelings as deep as any to be found in generations of romantic novels.
In Jane Austen's earliest extant work, marriage proposals, seen through the eyes of a twelve-year-old author, are an absurd feature of adult life, ripe for comic treatment. In Frederic and Elfrida, Charlotte goes to London, immediately accepts two proposals of marriage from strangers, recollects next morning 'the double engagement she had entered into' and escapes by drowning herself in the 'pleasure Grounds in Portland Place'. A lady called Rebecca becomes engaged to Captain Roger of the Buckinghamshire, but her mother does not approve because of their tender age, 'Rebecca being but 36 and Captain Roger little more than 63'. However, a week later, 'seven days having expired, together with the lovely Charlotte,' sufficient maturity is deemed to have been reached, though only after Rebecca's mother has been threatened with a dagger to make her give her consent. This 'sweet and gentle persuasion could not fail of having the desired effect'.
Young Jane had made fun of contrived tear-jerking (especially in deathbed scenes). In her mature writing, however, there are tear-jerking moments. The difference is that the tears Jane evokes have nothing to do with contrived pathos; they are tears of joy that come from learning, after a period of suspense, that one's love is reciprocated.
There was a difficulty about revealing the heroine's love. It would be improper for the heroine to declare it herself, especially before the man had revealed his own sentiments. She can experience 'esteem', a 'preference', a 'growing attachment'. It is for others to see where this is leading. It would not do for the nineteen-year-old and exceptionally level-headed Elinor to admit that she has fallen in love with Edward Ferrars. But, when provoked by Marianne's criticisms of him to come to Edward's defence, she is eloquent in praise of his principles and goodness and admits she can think him 'really handsome'. She esteems and likes him. That is enough.
Catherine Morland is a young woman of simple, pure, generous thoughts. There is a touching moment when Eleanor comes to her room late at night, wondering how to break the dreadful news that she is being sent away. Immediately Catherine fears that it concerns Henry, 'and turning as pale as her friend, she exclaimed, ''Tis a messenger from Woodston!"' (There is a similar moment in Emma, when the heroine's thoughts leap at once to Mr. Knightley.)
Jane Austen had come to know about love and to treat the subject with respect. As the film industry discovered in the 1990s, after an age of crude, explicit and passionless attempts to portray sexual relationships, there is no shortage of intense sexual passion in the novels of Jane Austen. It would be difficult to find better studies than hers of what it is to fall in love, to be secretly in love, to endure the suspense of loving when the loved one seems lost. Whether she was writing partly from personal experience (perhaps having fallen in love with the man who died young after she met him on holiday in Devon) we do not know. What is clear is that she had the empathy and imagination to convey the developing and enduring love of a number of contrasting heroines (of whom only Elizabeth Bennet seems close to being a self-portrait) and that she did more than she is usually given credit for in conveying the men's corresponding emotions, too.
It would be difficult to find anywhere else in literature romantic moments as satisfying as that in which Elinor Dashwood discovers Edward is unmarried or where Anne Elliot is overwhelmed by the note she receives from Frederick Wentworth. Jane Austen shows that even where characters scarcely ever touch, a writer can convey feelings of great depth and poignancy.
After Edward Ferrars reveals it is his brother and not himself who has married Lucy, Elinor is so relieved that even she for once loses control. 'Elinor could sit no longer. She almost ran out of the room, and as soon as the door was closed, burst into tears of joy, which at first she thought would never cease'.
For Anne Elliot, 'On the contents of that letter depended all which the world could do for her!' Reading it brings 'an overpowering happiness'. She is only a little more able than Elinor to retain her composure. Soon 'obliged to plead indisposition and excuse herself', she longs to walk quietly in the street, 'almost certain' that Frederick will be there, waiting to claim her.
In the full context of the novels, these moments are the fulfilment of months (in Anne's case years) of devotion and constancy. And long before these happy endings, Jane Austen shows herself just as skilful in recording the progress of love as she is in recording details of selfishness, hypocrisy or eccentricity.
The development of Elizabeth Bennet's love is the most complex. Unlike the other heroines, she first disapproves of the man who is to become her perfect partner. And unlike some of the others, she also has not met her future husband before the novel begins. In a tour de force the young Jane Austen is able to show how Elizabeth changed her attitude completely and to convince the reader that this love was based on the deepest feelings.
Jane Austen precisely records the transformation of Elizabeth's feelings. The way her love has developed has great appeal. Both parties learn to temper their pride and prejudices with a humility that enriches their other excellent qualities: 'for herself she was humbled; but she was proud of him – proud that in a cause of compassion and honour he had been able to get the better of himself'.
Readers admire heroines who learn through experience. This is part of the fascination of Elizabeth. Having engaged our sympathy, she involves us in every stage of her emotional evolution and we share with her the tantalizing suspense concerning the outcome. Elizabeth's behaviour during Lydia's elopement appeals because it is decorous and yet full of the sexual tension readers vicariously enjoy. Chapter 51 ends sublimely, after Elizabeth hears that Darcy was at the Wickhams' wedding and she dashes off the letter to her aunt. We share the quickening of her fluttering spirits. She suspects Darcy acted so generously 'for her'. Jane Austen skilfully prolongs the suspense, through the letter from Mrs. Gardiner, the visit of Lady Catherine and the letter from Mr. Collins to Elizabeth's father.
Playfully, at the end of the novel, Elizabeth and Darcy discuss how they fell in love. He admits he was attracted by the 'liveliness' of her mind. She tells him, with intuitive accuracy: 'You were disgusted with the women who were always speaking, and looking, and thinking for your approbation alone. I roused and interested you because I was so unlike them.’
No other Jane Austen heroine goes through a phase of determining to hate the man she eventually marries. Marianne Dashwood is merely indifferent to her future husband. Emma Woodhouse is unconscious of loving the man she has always regarded merely as a kind neighbour. Fanny Price and Catherine Morland fall smoothly in love with the first man to charm them. Elinor similarly succumbs and stays constant, against the odds. Anne Elliot, in love before the novel begins, loves 'longest' and most movingly of all.
Marriage 'was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and, however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want'. In these cheerless words, Jane Austen explains why Charlotte Lucas accepted Mr. Collins. For such women, Elizabeth Watson says that marriage to virtually any man with money is preferable to the alternative of making a pitiful salary as a school teacher. (It was better to be a governess than a school-teacher. But it was better still to be supported by a good husband and not teach at all. The lot of a school teacher then, as now, was hard.)
While recognising the predicament of such women, Jane refused to see herself as one. She resisted the temptation to become mistress of the Manydown Estate when she decided against marrying Harris Bigg-Wither. Necessary and welcome though money was, she believed marriage should be founded on love. As she wrote to Fanny Knight: 'Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection'. Her favourite characters all marry for love. Most of them happen to benefit financially as well, but to do so has not been their aim. Elizabeth Bennet 'began now to comprehend that [Darcy] was exactly the man who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her. His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes. It was a union that must have been to the advantage of both: by her ease and liveliness his mind might have been softened, his manners improved; and from his judgement, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance'. Money is not mentioned.
For women of independent means, matters were different. Emma Woodhouse makes the case for their not marrying without love: 'without love, I am sure I should be a fool to change such a situation as mine. Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want: I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband's house, as I am of Hartfield'.
The notion was growing that young people should choose their marriage partners for themselves. Jane's heroines resist the charms of men they do not really love. These gentlemen – Wickham, Henry Crawford, John Thorpe, Mr. Collins, Frank Churchill, Charles Musgrove – are skilfully deployed.
Good looks and charm are not enough. Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility has 'youth, beauty, and elegance' on his side. The seventeen-year-old Marianne, her mind full of romantic notions, immediately sees him as 'equal to what her fancy had ever drawn for the hero of a favourite story' and virtually falls in love at first sight. He shows himself to have 'good abilities, quick imagination, lively spirits, and open, affectionate manners'. He even reads 'with all the sensibility and spirit which Edward had unfortunately wanted'. But he proves to be both mercenary and a seducer. When Brandon receives a letter and has to rush off to London, just as a large party is about to set off on an outing, Willoughby says, 'There are some people who cannot bear a party of pleasure. Brandon is one of them. He was afraid of catching cold, I dare say, and invented this trick for getting out of it.' In retrospect, we realise this is cruelly ironic: Brandon has been called to her assistance by his ward Eliza whom Willoughby left pregnant.
Long before this is discovered, however, Elinor has some reservations: he says too much of what he thinks on every occasion, 'without attention to persons or circumstances'. To win attention, he slights 'too easily the forms of worldly propriety' and gives opinions too freely, displaying 'a want of caution which Elinor could not approve'. (Jane Austen subtly advocates being on one's guard and reserving judgement – as Fanny Price and Elinor do.) Colonel Brandon is one of those he defames: he says Brandon is a man 'everybody speaks well of, and nobody cares about; whom all are delighted to see, and nobody remembers to talk to.' Marianne agrees but Elinor speaks in Brandon's defence. Elinor is never quite comfortable about Willoughby: when he has suddenly left the party in Devon, she tells her mother, 'suspicion of something unpleasant is the inevitable consequence of such an alteration as we have just witnessed in him'.
Jane's novels are all love stories but we only hear one of her lovers, the self-controlled Mr. Knightley, declare his love. Although we have in full ceremonial such proposals as that of Mr. Collins to Elizabeth, there is no need for words in the proposals that really matter. They happen almost soundlessly. Sometimes the reader is offered only reported speech, and very little of that. Here is Henry Tilney's proposal to Catherine. 'Some explanation on his father's account he had to give; but his first purpose was to explain himself, and before they reached Mr. Allen's grounds he had done it so well, that Catherine did not think it could ever be repeated too often. She was assured of his affection; and that heart in return was solicited, which, perhaps, they pretty equally knew was already entirely his own.' Of the unsuccessful proposals, Henry Crawford's is particularly appealing. He thrills Fanny by telling her that, through his own exertions, her brother William is being promoted to the rank of second lieutenant on H.M. Sloop Thrush. As he continues, taking her hand, it dawns on her that his kindness is moral blackmail. Unlike Elizabeth Bennet, she does not deflect the undesirable suitor in a matter of minutes: sincerely attached, Henry pursues her for weeks.
(By the way, the character William Price is generally believed to have been inspired largely by Jane's brother Henry, just as Captain Wentworth was probably inspired by her brother Frank.)
Jane Austen shows not only how but also why people are drawn to each other. One has charms; the other is charmed. Second thoughts, reconsiderations, revised opinions, occasionally total changes of heart – these, within her outwardly gentle novels, become dramas. She appeals to the perpetual youth in all of us.
Although the heroines make matches likely to produce happiness ever after, the girls around them fail to do likewise. In Mansfield Park, Maria considers it 'evident duty' to marry Mr. Rushworth. It is a passionless union of two bank balances. The 'courtship' of the ill-matched couple is dismissed in one paragraph.
The 'hero' of this novel admires the virtues of Fanny Price but spends his time in love with someone else. Fanny loves, observes and suffers in silence, finding solace in Edmund's frequent kindness to her. When Fanny appropriates the note Edmund had just started writing (to accompany the gold chain), she preserves it just like Harriet Smith preserving her 'Most Precious Treasures'. Edmund never 'courts' Fanny but there are scenes which - to her - are like courtship. Such is his gift of the gold chain. She is 'overpowered by a thousand feelings of pain and pleasure'; and even he says 'Believe me, I have no pleasure in the world superior to that of contributing to yours'. Understandably, he regards her only as a little step-sister.
Henry Crawford makes his intention to court Fanny clear (to his sister): not caring to 'eat the bread of idleness', he plans to make Fanny fall in love with him. Sexual relations will be a game. Henry's vanity has been wounded, as his sister spots at once, by Fanny's lack of response to him. His is hardly a sound basis for courtship (though as sound as some others in the novel) and Fanny's emotions remain unaffected.
A common device, of which Jane Austen was an early exponent, is having the heroine suffer dreadful suspense thinking the man she loves is about to marry someone else. Will Mr. Knightley marry Harriet? Will Darcy marry his cousin? Will Wentworth marry Louisa? Fanny has to endure the 'wretchedness' of having Edmund confide in her that he is off to London to propose to Mary Crawford.
Three pages from the end of Mansfield Park, Edmund still has no idea of marrying Fanny. Jane Austen chooses to leave his conversion from Mary to Fanny to the imagination of the readers, who are even invited to 'fix their own' dates! The author summarises Edmund's change of heart in one sentence:
Scarcely had he done regretting Mary Crawford, and observing to Fanny how impossible it was that he should ever meet with such another woman, before it began to strike him whether a very different kind of woman might not do just as well – or a great deal better, whether Fanny herself were not growing as dear, as important to him in all her smiles, and all her ways, as Mary Crawford had ever been; and whether it might not be possible, an hopeful undertaking to persuade her that her warm and sisterly regard for him would be foundation enough for wedded love.
While disapproving of mercenary marriages, Jane did not approve of marriages without sufficient means of support. There is an interesting discussion in Sense and Sensibility about the importance of money. Elinor Dashwood (the eminently sensible heroine) thinks a minimum requirement is one thousand a year.
'What has wealth or grandeur to do with happiness?'
'Grandeur has but little,' said Elinor, 'but wealth has much to do with it.'
'Elinor, for shame!' said Marianne; 'money can only give happiness where there is nothing else to give it. Beyond a competence, it can afford no real satisfaction, as far as mere self is concerned.'
'Perhaps,' said Elinor, smiling, we may come to the same point. Your competence and my wealth are very much alike, I dare say; and without them, as the world goes now, we shall both agree that every kind of external comfort must be wanting. Your ideas are only more noble than mine. Come, what is your competence?'
'About eighteen hundred or two thousand a year; not more than that.'
Elinor laughed. 'Two thousand a year! One is my wealth! I guessed how it would end.'
The viable financial basis of Elinor and Edward's marriage is that 'Edward had two thousand pounds, and Elinor one, which, with the Delaford living, was all they could call their own' though Edward is 'not entirely without hopes of some favourable change in his mother towards him'. (He obtains a further ten thousand pounds from his mother, but the marriage would have taken place without this.)
There is a wonderful moment in Sense and Sensibility when John Dashwood tells his sisters how Mrs. Ferrars promised her son Edward 'the Norfolk estate' and 'twelve hundred' a year if he would give up Lucy Steele and marry the heiress Miss Morton. Marianne, shocked at such an attitude, says, 'Gracious God! Can this be possible?' Her money-grubbing brother, completely misunderstanding, replies, 'Well may you wonder, Marianne, ... at the obstinacy which could resist such arguments as these'!
There are similarities in the love stories of Catherine Morland and Fanny Price. In love only once, they adore the man who treats them well early in life. Fanny begins as a child to fall in love with her cousin and has the benefit of being brought up in his house. With Catherine, the case is more sudden. After only two meetings with Henry Tilney, she is in love, sure enough. Witness Chapter 10, where she tries desperately to avoid being invited to dance by John Thorpe, in the hope that for once Henry will be able to partner her. She sits, eyes averted, warning herself that she is absurd to hope he will notice her. Suddenly she 'found herself addressed and again solicited to dance, by Mr. Tilney himself. With what sparkling eyes and ready motion she granted his request, and with how pleasing a flutter of heart she went with him to the set, may be easily imagined ... it did not appear to her that life could supply any greater felicity'.
By Chapter 17, she is dreaming of marriage: 'Once or twice indeed, since James's engagement had taught her what could be done, she had got so far as to indulge a secret 'perhaps', but in general the felicity of being with him for the present bounded her views: the present was now comprised in another three weeks, and her happiness being certain for that period, the rest of her life was at such a distance as to excite but little interest.’
In the cases of Catherine Morland, Elizabeth Bennet, and Emma Woodhouse, part of the process of falling in love involves being taught a painful lesson by the future partner. Catherine suspects General Tilney – as a self-respecting owner of a gothic abbey – must either have murdered his wife or be keeping her locked away in some remote chamber. After several nerve-tingling attempts, Catherine eventually gets into the room that had once been Mrs. Tilney's. To her surprise, it is bright and modern. A moment later, Henry comes upon her there and her greatest embarrassment (the ultimate cure for her fantasies) comes when her blushes reveal to him what she has been imagining.
'If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to – Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. ... Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you – Does our own education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing; where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay every thing open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?’
His lecture reduces her tears. Like Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, she benefits from a good cry brought on by the reproach of her lover. Catherine has to recognize how right Henry is: however 'charming' the works of Mrs. Radcliffe might be, 'it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the midland counties of England, was to be looked for'.
The walk round Beechen Cliff by Catherine with Henry and his sister is as central to the advancement of the love story as any ballroom scene. Catherine – knowing nothing about theories of the picturesque – charms Henry by giving him the pleasure of teaching such a sweet and enthusiastic pupil. Rapidly, she learns to appreciate that the best view is not 'from the top of an high hill' and that clear blue skies are not necessarily a good thing. She listens to Henry lecturing on 'fore-grounds, distances, and second distances – side-screens and perspectives', unaware that 'a good-looking girl, with an affectionate heart and a very ignorant mind, cannot fail of attracting a clever young man'. So guided, she soon has the confidence, when they reach the top of Beechen Cliff, to reject 'the whole city of Bath, as unworthy to make part of a landscape'. Jane Austen archly comments:
Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.
Yet Catherine is not overawed during this walk. Like Harriet Smith, she suddenly proves surprisingly articulate. Making a case against books about history, she speaks with the wit and conviction of an Elizabeth Bennet. She has given the subject some thought and marshals cogent arguments: history books are all about quarrels, wars and pestilences; they ignore women ('the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all – it is very tiresome'); speeches put into characters' mouths are obviously 'invention'; and history books are used to 'torment' small children who are made to struggle through reading them!
Throughout the walk, Tilney continues to dazzle and charm. He impresses Catherine by liking Mrs. Radcliffe's gothic novels and (in sharp contrast with John Thorpe) claiming to have enjoyed 'hundreds and hundreds' of novels. Unusually for Jane Austen's humour, some of his wit has perhaps lost its charm with the passage of time: his teasing seems today a little pedantic when he challenges Catherine's uses of words – 'nicest' and 'torment', and when he takes his time explaining to his sister that she and Catherine are talking at cross-purposes. But his pedantry is partly mock-pedantry. Her mind still on books, Catherine has ventured the remark that 'something very shocking indeed, will soon come out of London'. Miss Tilney thinks she is talking politics. The outcome is that Tilney is invited to give his opinion of 'the understanding of women'. Urged to be serious, he says: 'Miss Morland, no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much, that they never find it necessary to use more than half.’
As for Edward Ferrars, the hero of Sense and Sensibility, he is so rarely seen that we do not get to know him. Not witnessing scenes in which he and Elinor fall in love while he is staying with his sister (Mrs. John Dashwood) at Norland in Sussex, we have to take Elinor's word for it that he is attractive. The first time he is mentioned, a 'growing attachment' between the couple has already developed. We do not even hear him speak once before Elinor moves away to Devon. We are simply told 'He was not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing. He was too diffident to do justice to himself; but when his natural shyness was overcome, his behaviour gave every indication of an open, affectionate heart.' He resists pressures from his family to make something of himself in society. 'All his wishes centred in domestic comfort and the quiet of private life.'
We do not know that his secret, long-standing but rued engagement to Lucy Steele is preying on his mind. In the later scenes, Edward is kept offstage for so long that he has no chance to impress the reader. Elinor and Marianne reach London in Chapter 26. Edward is not seen until Chapter 35 and even then it is only in an embarrassing situation where Lucy is determinedly present throughout. The next we hear of him is that he has again gone away after the storm following the announcement of his engagement to Lucy. Even when he appears and is told by Elinor of the living Colonel Brandon is giving him, he becomes suspicious that Brandon is in love with Elinor and this puts him once more out of spirits.
When the Dashwood sisters undertake their journey home (long interrupted by Marianne's illness), Edward is again offstage. It is not surprising that, by the middle of Chapter 47, 'Elinor grew impatient for some tidings of Edward'. Even when he reappears in Chapter 48, it is mainly to behave awkwardly – embarrassed as he is by recent events – and to undeceive the Dashwoods regarding Lucy's wedding. When Elinor, bursting into tears of joy, leaves the room, Edward slinks away to the village. At the beginning of the next chapter we are told 'His errand at Barton, in fact, was a simple one. It was only to ask Elinor to marry him; and considering that he was not altogether inexperienced in such a question, it might be strange that he should feel so uncomfortable in the present case as he really did...'! All we know is that three hours later 'he had secured his lady' and become 'one of the happiest of men'. However, we are left to assume they have plenty to say to each other in the following week, while he stays at the cottage. 'with lovers... no communication is even made, till it has been made at least twenty times over...’.
The great moment of a marriage proposal is often best left to the reader's imagination. The 'proposal' which results in Darcy and Elizabeth's ultimately becoming engaged is not his first one – the one that began 'You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you'. It is induced by the warmth now shown none too subtly by the lady. As they walk together, she secretly forms 'a desperate resolution' and thanks him for rescuing Lydia from disgrace. He admits he was thinking only to bring Elizabeth happiness. Amidst her embarrassment (she knows what is coming), he says, 'My affections and wishes are unchanged.' Then Jane Austen resorts to reported speech and summary to convey what followed. Elizabeth, not very fluent, 'gave him to understand' how her sentiments had changed. Elizabeth is too confused to look at him but drinks in his words, which prove 'of what importance she was to him'.
For Emma Woodhouse, a severe test comes when Harriet expresses her hopes concerning Mr. Knightley. Suddenly recognising her own love for him, Emma realises with horror that she has brought evil upon Harriet, herself and Mr. Knightley. Humbled and matured, she proves herself capable even of self-sacrifice. She has progressed so far in desiring to avoid giving pain that, 'cost her what it would', she resolves to listen to what she expects to be Mr. Knightley's announcement of his intention to marry Harriet. In fact, he proposes to her. The scene is highly charged because the writer focuses on Emma's twittering emotions. Knightley's words of proposal are brief and straightforward. 'I cannot make speeches, Emma ... If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am. You hear nothing but the truth from me... '.