Marriages and the alternatives in Jane Austen´s 'Pride and Prejudice'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2005 18 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Marriage in Victorian Age
2.1 Reasons for Marriage
2.2 Alternatives to Marriage

3. The Marriages in Pride and Prejudice
3.1 Elizabeth and Darcy
3.2 Jane and Bingley
3.3 Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins
3.4 The Gardiners
3.5 Lydia and Wickham
3.6 The Bennets

4. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

In Jane Austen´s society, wedlock was the expected means for single young “genteel” women to gain or retain social and economic security. A woman´s unmarried girlhood was often the decisive period of her life, and her decision about marriage was probably the most important one she would ever make. Growing up with this knowledge and the social pressure connected with it, it is not astonishing that winning a husband often seems to be the only aim of Austen´s female characters. They find themselves in constant competition with their own sex and their plight, if they fail, seems to be constantly on their mind.[1]

In her work Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen defines eight types of marriage. Excluding the Philipses and the Lucases, the remaining six marriages contrast each other and show Austen’s opinions on the subject of marriage. Within a social and cultural context where marriage was assumed to be of great importance, Austen used this number of marriages to expose and satirise societal values of the age and to explore the nature of the ideal marriage.

The marriages of Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley, Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins, The Bennets, Lydia and Wickham and the Gardeners will form the center of this paper. What was their driving force to enter into matrimony? Can they truly be regarded as six different types of marriage and if so – which type of marriage did Austen favor?

To answer these questions adequately it is of importance to discuss the topic of marriage in Austen´s times and to pose further questions: What did it mean to be a “wife”? And what were common reasons for marriage among the members of the upper classes? In how far was money relevant for the decision and if an eligible marriage partner was not in sight: What were the alternatives to marriage?

2. Marriage in Victorian Age

Marriage at the time of Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft, to whom I will come later on, was basically a synonym for economic security – especially for women of the “genteel” classes. It meant moving out of the father´s and into the husband´s house without having any kind of responsibility or concerns about money. Once married, a woman was looked after and protected. As Lady Catherine says: "Young women should always be properly guarded and attended, according to their situation in life".[2]

Within society, wives had a higher social status than unmarried women or daughters: Lydia points this out in chapter nine by insisting:”Ah! Jane, I take your place now, and you must go lower, because I am a married woman.”[3] In order to reach this higher status of marriage it was very common to behave according to certain rules, written down in conduct books, courtesy books or disciplining novels with the only goal to please society – especially the men. Examples of those books are Wetenhall Wilkes´ “Letter of Genteel and Moral Advice to A Young Lady” (1746), Dr. Gregory´s “A Father´s Legacy to His Daughters” (1774) or Elizabeth Hamilton´s “Letters on the Elementary Principles of Education” (1801) – evidences that all women´s training and education was focused on attracting and pleasing possible marriage partners.

Yet Austen´s time was also the time of a new emerging middle-class morality with new ideas of marriage: It marked the beginnings of marriage for love and redefined it as a monogamous institution. These new ideas of marriage had almost feminist tendencies from our today´s point of view. Especially Mary Wollstonecraft, who can be regarded as the mother of Feminism, had very strong opinions of women´s role in marriage. In her book-lenght essay “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (1792) she states that women should be companions to their husbands in order to avoid living in a master-servant relationship. The feeling of equality and mutual respect is what constitutes a functioning relationship. Furter she criticises marriage that is based on looks and passion, thus passionate love is “necessarily of short duration” and therefore “husband and wife should ideally become friends.” In addition, she not only criticises but almost condemns conventional marriage based on property considerations as “legal prostitution”.[4]

2.1 Reasons for Marriage

"Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor,

which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony"
Jane Austen, letter of March 13, 1816[5]

Money may not only be a strong argument, but the argument when it comes to marriage. As I already pointed out in the preceding chapter, marriage in the 18th century was an economic basis, providing social as well as financial stability. In the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice Austen wrote, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a wife".[6] Actually, Austen, a systematic ironist, meant that a single woman, in the late 18th and early 19th century, was in want of a man with a good fortune. To marry without having a less guaranteed income in advance especially since there were no such things as social security, old age pensions, unemployment compensation, health insurance, etc. was an unnecessary risk. The financial pressures on women to marry are obvious in the following examples of Austen´s Pride and Prejudice and are deeply connected with the general view that marriage was not only seen as a relationship between two people but also as an alliance between whole families which could cause social uprising or downfall:

- Mr. Collins: Elizabeth's "portion is unhappily so small that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of [her] loveliness and amiable qualifications", and prevents her from ever receiving another offer of marriage.[7]
- Mrs. Bennet to Elizabeth: "If you go on refusing every offer of marriage , you will never get a husband - and I am sure I do not know who is to maintain you when your father is dead."[8]

- Elizabeth is willing to allow that Wickham's transferring his attentions from her (to a recent heiress of £10,000) is "a wise and desirable measure for both"; "handsome young men must have something to live on, as well as the plain"[9]

- Colonel Fitzwilliam: "there are not many in my rank of life who can afford to marry without some attention to money."[10]

- Jane, on hearing of Lydia's elopement with Wickham: "So imprudent a match on both sides!...my father can give her nothing".[11]

Financial pressure on women was almost part of their education, and in daily conversation money always played a major role: When Mr. Collins talks about Darcy, he is not overwhelmed by his noble character but by his material wealth and good relations: "This young gentleman is blessed with every thing the heart of mortal can most desire, - splendid property, () and extensive patronage". And when Lydia is to be married, Mrs. Bennet's "thoughts and her words ran wholly on those attendants of elegant nuptials, fine muslins, new carriages, and servants".[12] On Elizabeth's marriage she exclaims: "What pin-money , what jewels, what carriages you will have! ... A house in town ! ... Ten thousand a year! ... I shall go distracted!"[13] Jane Austen expresses her opinion on all this clearly enough by the fact that only her silliest characters have such opinions. Thus in contrast to his wife, Mr. Bennet says about Darcy: "He is rich, to be sure, and you may have more fine clothes and fine carriages than Jane. But will they make you happy?"[14]

In addition to financial pressures, the severe restrictions laws and customs of 18th and 19th century England placed on women made them think of marriage as a means of stability and therefore made them even more dependent on men. For instance, inheritance laws entailed a family's inheritance to a male heir. In the situation of the Bennet family Mr. Bennet's inheritance, his money and Longbourn House, would have gone to his cousin Mr. Collins in case of his death. The law would have left his wife and his five daughters dependent on the care of male relatives. Mr. Collins then threatens the Bennet girls with marriages of convenience and by this Austen shows that "patriarchal control of women depended on women being denied the right to earn or even inherit their own money."[15]

There are also reasons why marriage was not a state to be entered into lightly. Marriage was almost always for life - English divorce law during the 1850s was a truly bizarre medieval holdover. Simplifying a bit ("saving myself the trouble of writing what I do not perfectly recollect", as Jane Austen wrote in her History of England),[16] almost the only grounds for divorce was the sexual unfaithfulness of the wife; a husband who wished to divorce his wife for this reason had to get the permission of Parliament to sue for divorce. All this cost a lot of money, so that only the rich could afford divorces. According to Caroline Norton's English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century (1854) there was also the possibility of legal separations on grounds of cruelty, etc. where neither spouse had the right to remarry. In this case the husband generally had absolute custody rights over any children, and could prevent the wife from seeing them.[17]

2.2 Alternatives to Marriage


The only viable alternative to marriage was to become a governess, commonly referred to as the "governess slave-trade" since "minimum wage and hour limitation for workers did not exist at the time". Even those who became governesses, i.e. teacher for the upper class´ children, were not guaranteed stability since unemployment among them was very common. In 1869, the "Home for Unemployed Governesses took in 24,000 women and turned away many more"[18]. In addition to that governesses were neither highly respected nor well-paid - it was for this reason that many of Austen's female characters married.


In Jane Austen's time, there was no real way for young women of the higher classes to live on their own or be independent. Universities, politics, etc. were not open to women. Only a rather small number of women were what could be called professionals, who earned enough money to make themselves independent or had a recognized career. Jane Austen herself was not really one of these women professionals - during the last six years of her life she earned an average of a little more than £100 a year by her novel-writing, but her family's expenses were four times this amount.[19]


[1] Cf.: Smith, W. Leroy (1983): Jane Austen and the Drama of Woman. London: Macmillan Press.p.87.

[2] http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/ppv2n37.html.#ywomgard

[3] Austen, p. 265.

[4] Cf.: Wollstonecraft, Mary (1995): A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Cambridge UP.p.54.

[5] Smith, p.31

[6] Austen, p.5

[7] Austen, p 95

[8] Austen, p.99

[9] Austen, p.140

[10] Austen, p.157

[11] Austen, p. 229

[12] http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/ppv3n50.html#mrsblydm

[13] Austen, p.318.

[14] Austen, p.316.

[15] Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar (1979): The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Have: Yale University Press. P.136.

[16] Cf.:http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/juviscrp.html#histengl

[17] http://www.indiana.edu/letrs/vwwp/norton/englaw.html

[18] Brown, Ivor (1967): Jane Austen and Her World. New York: Henry Z. Walck, Inc.p. 63.

[19] Compare: http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/janelife.html#L450p


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
503 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
University of Potsdam – Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik
Marriages Jane Pride Prejudice Elizabeth Bennet Mr. Darcy Jane Bennett Austen Heirat Ehe Hochzeit Liebesheirat England Gesellschaft




Title: Marriages and the alternatives in Jane Austen´s 'Pride and Prejudice'