Welcome to the second post in a series on Austen Writes Romance! The first post was on Austen Authors. I will be discussing plot points of Austen’s works, so there will be SPOILERS. For the sake of brevity, I will assume a certain amount of knowledge of each book, so I do not need to summarize.
In the Georgian era, rumors of attachments and engagements could have a profound impact on a single person of gentry class. It might make a gentleman bound in honor to a woman by none other than her raised hopes. The idea being that if she believed a proposal was coming from one man, she would not encourage other suitors and spurn other offers. Well-bred ladies’ sole security resided on income from others. If they did not inherit money, then they needed to marry it. For a lady, rumors of an attachment or engagement that then never manifested could render her “damaged goods” as her virtue (virginity) was the highly traded upon requirement for marriage. A ruined lady could still marry, of course, but generally not as well. Even if a gentleman might be willing to overlook it, his family and the rest of Society generally was not. There are accounts of peers marrying courtesans, so it was not entirely unknown but certainly uncommon, and in some circles, they were never accepted. The hypocrisy of all this while nothing was thought of men having affairs and natural children and even the princes of Great Britain spurned Parliament and Church recognized marriages and legitimate heirs for their mistresses is for another post. On the other hand, Jane Austen shows Society could damage a broken heart in a very different and far crueler way.
First, let us examine rumored attachments. In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne first garners the notice and attachment of Colonel Brandon. However much the Barton Park people would have wanted it, his admiration did not behold either of them to marriage. Later, Marianne fell in love with Willoughby and was presumed engaged, although she never was. Having displayed her emotions openly, everyone knew of her heartbreak when Willoughby married another. Elinor fared quite a bit better as she did not expose her feelings to the world so much. Still later, Mrs. Jennings suspects an attachment forming between Colonel Brandon and Elinor. Additionally, Edward Ferrars was expected by his family to marry a Miss Morton with twenty thousand pounds. None of these situations receive censure from Society in the book (the movies stretch matters more), and Marianne’s suffering is due lacking privacy to get over her heartbreak. This scenario is repeated in each of Austen’s works. It is natural enough for people to show inclination and become attached and yet things do not work out. The degree of pain relies not only on the strength of the attachment but on how openly it was known. Captain Wentworth comes closest to having to face real repercussions due to raising a lady’s hopes. Even then, it was allowable to leave the area and hope to lessen her regard, which certainly worked.
An entirely different matter is a broken engagement. Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth never received censure from Society because their engagement was broken before it became known. In a similar way, Sir Thomas Bertram offers to end his daughter Maria’s engagement even though it had been spread about by Mrs. Norris. Isabella Thorpe and John Morland’s engagement in Northanger Abbey, while approved by their parents, had not been on the point of signing marriage articles because they had to wait several years before they could afford to marry. Lucy Steele and Edward Ferrars have secretly been engaged for four years when the truth comes out. A disinherited, Edward offers Lucy a chance to break the engagement, but she claims she has no desire to end it. Just before their marriage, she “transfers her affections” and marries Edward’s brother, who now will inherit all of their mother’s income. As Lucy broke her engagement with Edward (which had become known) and then immediately married, her reputation seems to have suffered no damage. Of course, the situation gave rise to a happier union of Edward being free to marry Elinor.
In fact, Austen never shows us a broken engagement that has serious ramifications. That doesn’t mean they didn’t exist or that she didn’t have the stomach for it. I think it simply was rare. Instead, she does show us two divorces and many unhappy marriages. In the case of both divorces, the women married against the inclination of their affections and paid quite the price for it. In Mansfield Park, Maria Bertram Rushworth is eventually persuaded to leave Henry Crawford who soon showed he had no real affection for her. She then lived with her aunt Norris in relative comfort. She was not readmitted to the Bertram household or fashionable Society. Nothing was hinted at her eventually remarrying or anything of the sort. On the whole, however, living in obscurity is far better than what befell Colonel Brandon’s first love, Eliza. Torn from the younger Brandon on the eve of their elopement, she married the elder brother — as was intended for some time– after she was cut off from all friends. Perhaps she had believed such seclusion was the worse life could hand her but it got much worse. Her husband showed her no affection or kindness. It is hinted that he had no respect for her, likely having public affairs that shamed his wife. Colonel Brandon is very compassionate in relating how she was seduced and makes her nearly blameless. When the incident came to light, Eliza was divorced. Instead of having Maria’s comfortable living arrangements, her income was insufficient for living and having no relatives, she sunk further in life. After several years, Brandon returned to England and found her dying and one step away from debtor’s prison. We may suppose from these situations that Jane Austen would find breaking an engagement a far more prudent choice than marrying when affection lies elsewhere.
This brings us to consider the matter of broken hearts. Austen shows many troubled marriages that at one time held some sort of affection or at least one-sided affection. While the couples do not claim any extraordinary marital bliss, they are saved the disaster of adultery and divorces. In each book, some character suffers from the hopelessness of a broken heart and unrequited love, even if only for a few days. Emma is the character who likely suffers the least but as she is the most spoiled perhaps even the few days of tumult she had was equivalent to the months that Elinor Dashwood had no hope.
In effect, Austen quite likes dualism of opposite reactions from two broken-hearted ladies. Marianne is crushed by Willoughby’s desertion, Elinor manages life without an outward hiccup. Jane Bennet writes contented letters to her sister while Elizabeth tosses and turns, mutters to herself while serving coffee, and says arch things to her brother-in-law. Mansfield Park contains two examples. Julia Bertram manages her disappointment when Henry favors Maria at Mansfield. In London, she then guards herself against him. Maria, however, could not stand to see Henry spend time with Julia. Learning he was attached to Fanny, fuelled her flirtation. Fanny spends most of the book seeing Edmund fall deeper into Mary Crawford’s clutches. When Mary sees Edmund’s disapproval, she lashes out at Fanny. Catherine Morland is overwrought when she thinks Henry can never love her after her mistake about the General but when expelled from the house, she bears it rather well. Anne Elliot lives with the burden of her broken heart for years, first in the absence of her beloved, and then while watching him court another lady and no one in her family has a clue.
Are there similarities between the women with more exuberant responses? Surely some people are simply more emotional and display them easier. However, I think there is an additional reason. The women who did not bear their heartache with grace had felt quite assured of being loved in return. It is not that they felt more love than the others did, it is that they were more disappointed. And is it that they are truly disappointed in the gentleman and their hopes for the future? After all, you can love again. Or is it that they were disappointed in themselves? It shows some hidden insecurity or blindness in their character they now find appalling.
Marianne blamed herself from the beginning about Willoughby. So does Jane Bennet. Jane, however, does not seem to find it so difficult to bear with the fact that she must have been mistaken in a man’s affections. Elizabeth had already lived through disappointment in herself regarding Darcy. Still, she believed he loved her at Pemberley and thought his returning to Hertfordshire was further proof. Instead, he withdrew from her, and Elizabeth was disappointed she had clung to hope. She rather desperately tells herself she will put him behind her. Mary Crawford believed Edmund would change his career path for her and modify other values. She spends much of the novel speaking about how marriage and love are about being “taken in.” If she did not feel ashamed of her liberal feelings regarding her brother’s conduct, then she must have felt disappointed in herself for being taken in. As she says of marriage, “it is, of all transactions, the one in which people expect most from others, and are least honest themselves.” Harriet was assured of Elton’s love by Emma, who she believed superior in all matters. Additionally, she had turned down a man she genuinely cared for at Emma’s prodding. If Emma was wrong about Elton, had she been wrong about Robert Martin? Had Harriet let happiness slip through her fingers? Catherine Morland’s shame in her behavior hardly needs telling. She had seen enough in Henry’s behavior toward her to be hopeful, and then she ruined it with an overactive imagination.
The ladies who deal with heartache the best have more than moderation of feeling and modesty. They are also less fanciful, more grounded, and feel the compliment of their beloved’s regard. For them, it is amazing to consider they might ever attract anyone’s notice or someone so worthy. Jane Bennet was flattered and surprised by Bingley asking her to dance twice at their first meeting. Elizabeth noted that she was never surprised by compliments while Jane always was. Elinor noted Edward’s regard but also knew he had familial duties and never supposed herself capable of driving him wild with so much passion as to ignore them (not that she would have cared for him if he did). Fanny dislikes Edmund’s attachment to Mary Crawford solely because she knows it will make Edmund unhappy in the long run, not because she harbored any hope for herself. Emma thought so highly of Mr. Knightley, even before she recognized her feelings for him, that she promoted him as the ideal gentleman. Realizing she loved him just after she was also condemned by him made her feel all the more the compliment his affection would be. Catherine fits both cases but esteems Henry all the more after he treats her well despite her ridiculous belief that the General had killed his wife. When Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth meet again, she is amazed at his civility even while he must resent her. She understood if she ever regained his feelings she would be the most fortunate lady.
Jane Austen does not write much on actual romance, the sensations of falling in love, and sweet words whispered between lovers. She does, however, write about relationships and examining ladies’ emotions and behavior in how to make it through the trials of life, including failed relationships. I would say she doesn’t provide so much a recipe for good relationships as much as she does for overcoming grief: have no hopes or expectations, think better of your crush than you do yourself, and consider the feelings of others. Sound hard to do? Well, then you probably have had a love story like Marianne, Elizabeth, or Catherine. I have!
Next week I’ll examine true love and second chances in Austen’s books!