Oh they say when you marry in June
You’re a bride all your life,
And the bridegroom who marries in June
Has a sweetheart for a wife,
Winter weddings can be gay
Like a Christmas holiday,
But the June bride hears a song
Of a spring that lasts all summer long,
By the light of the silvery moon,
Home you ride, side by side,
With the echo of Mandelson’s tune
In your hearts as you ride,
For they say when you marry in June
You will always be a bride.
-“June Bride” from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Lyrics by Johnny Mercer
Wedding season has begun! I have a friend who is a wedding planner, and she’s booked through the summer. I thought it would be a good time to consider Jane Austen’s brides. To the general public, they think of Austen’s books as romances detailing the courtship between a couple; the epitome of will-they-or-won’t-they literature.
More observant readers will notice that while courtships are central to the plot, that is not the primary theme. However, Austen’s heroes and heroines have a myriad of feelings regarding marriage. Obviously, there are married couples who influenced the characters as they grew up- usually parents but not always. There is also the presence of new marriages. The main characters have a chance to examine these marriages of their peers through different eyes than one has as a child.
Through examining the newly-wed in Austen’s six novels, I see two main categories. There are those who married for social or financial advantage. Others settled after years of having no suitors, compromising their aspirations, or had interests in another direction. We’ll consider the happiness these different categories achieve.
In Sense and Sensibility, we meet many married couples. Henry Dashwood seemed affectionate toward his wife and children. His son, John, is described as being very fond of his wife. In reality, he is entirely ruled by her. Next, we meet Sir John Middleton and his wife. He is very affable and delights in company. Lady Middleton is happiest when playing the host. One can see what they might have in common. However, these three couples have been married for several years.
We are eventually introduced to Mr. and Mrs. Palmer. She is Lady Middleton’s sister, and he is a member of parliament and rather a sour-puss. Mrs. Palmer points out how ironic it is that now he must be agreeable to everyone. They have recently married and are expecting their first child. The reader cannot conceive what brought them together other than a desire to wed and seeing that their financial and social statuses were compatible. For all Mrs. Jennings match-making, she never discusses love very much.
Another couple that wed for their social and financial compatibilities is Mr. and Mrs. Elton in Emma. Much is made of class in this novel. Mr. Elton had previously refused the idea of courting Emma’s friend, Harriet Smith, due to her illegitimacy and the unknown status of her parents. Additionally, Mr. Knightley says that Elton would never marry cheap. He first set his sights on Emma with her twenty thousand pounds and once rejected, married Augusta Hawkins of Bath who had ten thousand pounds. She came from a merchant family and while Elton probably did not have much more than the average clergyman’s pay (about one hundred pounds a year), he had a gentleman’s rank, and her dowry would enable a very comfortable living. Upon meeting the new Mrs. Elton, it’s immediately clear that her personality is very equal to Mr. Elton’s. As they never seem unhappy with each other and are not well-bred enough to hide it if they had been, we must conclude they admire one another.
Finally, let us consider Mary Elliot Musgrove. Anne Elliot’s younger sister, Mary, staunchly believed in marrying only where it was agreeable to her family and taking social and financial status into account. At the heart of Persuasion is the class distance between the daughter of an impoverished baronet and a newly wealthy Naval captain. While Anne was obliged to break off her engagement with Wentworth, she refused to settle for Charles Musgrove when he proposed to her. Instead, Musgrove married Anne’s sister who frequently feigns illness for attention, easily feels slighted and victimized, and at her heart is very, very selfish. Charles, by contrast, is kind-hearted and if he fails in being attentive to Mary, it must only be out of fatigue. They have two young children, and one imagines the household will only grow unhappier as the years progress.
One of Jane Austen’s most well-known quotes is “Happiness in marriage is a matter of chance,” and looking at these statistics, it might be entirely accurate. The Palmers both seem kind enough when separated. Next, to her husband, she appears ditzier. Dealing with her, he is more sarcastic. The Eltons both had unkind qualities underneath polite veneers. Certainly, Musgrove’s patience and kindness could balance out Mary’s moods. And yet, once married it seems that the couple with the greatest possibility of marital happiness are the Eltons. I dare not think that in the world as a whole two unhappy people can make a content marriage, and so I rather believe they are just a fluke. Chance indeed!
As none of Austen’s heroines ever consider marrying without affection and simply for material gain, I think they learned from their peers’ mistakes. Next week, we’ll look into the marriages of Charlotte Lucas and Maria Bertram, as well as the failed engagement of Isabella Thorpe.