Jane Austen’s books center around a heroine who searches for identity and love. Spoiler alert: everyone gets married.
For this month’s theme, I don’t want to focus on those couples. Instead, I want to look at the others who make marriages in the novel while the heroine is still searching for Mr. Right. I believe these newlyweds serve as a foil to Austen’s heroines. They make mistakes the heroine, no matter how flawed she is, would never do. And for that reason we love her.
Earlier in the month, I examined couples in Jane Austen’s books that I termed “overachievers.” They were men and women who married for financial or social gain. Today, I’ll look at the newlyweds who chose to settle. Instead of waiting for Mr. Right, they snatched up Mr. Right Now. Last time, I concluded that when marrying for financial and social gain, happiness in marriage might be a matter of chance. Does the same hold true when you marry against your inclination?
Northanger Abbey is the clearest example of an Austen heroine who goes out into the world and discovers it’s not what she imagined. Along the way, Catherine finds out who she really is, who she can trust, and what matters most in life. One of the people she learns she cannot trust is her former best friend, Isabella Thorpe. They met by “chance” and became instant friends in a city where Catherine knew no one and was away from her family for the first time. Upon learning Catherine enjoys fiction reading, Isabella directs her new friend to increasingly fantastical gothic novels. Despite Catherine’s interest in Mr. Tilney and his sister, the friendship with Isabella seems cemented when she becomes engaged to Catherine’s brother. However, she is under the mistaken belief that the Morland children will become heirs of the wealthy Mr. Allen who is Catherine’s host in Bath.
When James Morland returns from asking his parents’ blessing at his betrothal with the news that they must wait two years for him to come of age and take over one of his father’s livings, Isabella’s hopes for wealth vanish. At this point, she might be able to break the engagement without doing her reputation much harm. James never should have proposed if he had no independent means to support a wife. At the same time, she has already met and become enamored with Captain Tilney, who is far more handsome, more charming, and heir to a very wealthy man. Despite this, Isabella decides to play it safe and not call off the engagement with James Morland. However, she can’t hide her attraction to Captain Tilney and soon enrages her betrothed.
The most recent film adaptation has her having sex with the Captain only to learn afterward he had no honorable intentions. That is not even hinted at in the book, but it is perhaps believable that Isabella would have been like Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. Beautiful, surrounded by men, and vain, she would exchange favors for financial gain for her family. Certainly something James Morland was wise to avoid. In the end, Isabella loses her betrothal to James and her friendship with Catherine. We do not know what becomes of her. I wonder if she learned from settling her ambitions or not. At the very least, Catherine is her complete contrast. She had little hope of gaining Henry Tilney’s notice or love and at the end receives both.
Another Austen female to have settled for a match that seemed prudent while she loved a heartless rake is Maria Bertram from Mansfield Park. We are told that after turning twenty-one, Maria felt it a duty to marry. Mrs. Norris is soon keen on Maria marrying a wealthy neighbor who is described as a very stupid fellow indeed, and we’re told no one would like him at all if not for his money. They are soon provisionally engaged, as her father is away, but it’s a poorly kept secret. As it is, twelve thousand pounds a year and a house in town convinced everyone but Edmund Bertram of his suitableness with Maria. That is until she met Henry Crawford.
Maria and her younger sister, Julia, are immediately smitten with Henry. Maria flirts with him with indemnity as she is engaged while Julia must be more reserved and does not gain his attention. Matters almost peak while the young people of the Park put on a play and Maria and Henry are allowed to spend considerable time together rehearsing lines. Even Rushworth notices Maria’s attraction to Henry. However, before such behavior can come to a climax, Sir Thomas returns from Antigua. The play is stopped, and solemnity is restored. Sir Thomas soon realizes that Maria is not happy with Mr. Rushworth and offers to end the engagement, bearing all things for her happiness. Yet Maria answers immediately that she is satisfied with Rushworth.
The couple marries and leaves for London. After some time apart while Henry attempts to woo Fanny Price, Maria and Henry are thrown together again. While Julia is prudent and withdraws to a friend’s house, lest she fall for Henry all over again–confident as she is that he could never love her back after flirting with her sister then declaring himself in love with her cousin–Maria falls into her old ways. Soon after we know of his meeting Maria again, we are told of a brewing scandal regarding them which reaches its breaking point when they elope.
For Maria, this ends in tragedy. She is divorced by Rushworth and not married by Henry. He remained with her for a few months until he could no longer satisfy himself. She was not Fanny, and that is who he had wanted, despite the momentary pleasure Maria could offer. Additionally, she grows unhappy with her situation and takes it out on Henry. Realizing they could never be happy together, he leaves, and she ends up living with Mrs. Norris, who has left Mansfield. Despite Mary Crawford’s suggestion on how Maria might be received into Society again, it seems this never happens, and Maria has lost her respectability forever.
Fanny, of course, had rejected Henry. Even when it seemed she could not have Edmund, she would not settle for Henry. While Edmund was single, she could never entertain thoughts of marrying another. Austen does hint that had Henry proved constant, and Edmund married, Fanny would have accepted Henry. However, I would point out that such is not in his character and Fanny was far more concerned with that than Maria had ever been. Maria’s vanity was satisfied, all the more as he turned to her after being rejected by Fanny.
The final example of an Austen female who had great weight on a heroine and settled in marriage is Charlotte Lucas of Pride and Prejudice. Charlotte marrying Mr. Collins has a significant effect on Elizabeth Bennet. She had always known their views on marriage were not exactly alike but to see her best friend marry a man so ridiculous as Mr. Collins almost drives Elizabeth to break the friendship entirely. What Jane tries to put in a sympathetic light only enrages Elizabeth more.
You shall not defend her, though it is Charlotte Lucas. You shall not, for the sake of one individual, change the meaning of principle and integrity, nor endeavour to persuade yourself or me, that selfishness is prudence, and insensibility of danger security for happiness.
Charlotte had accepted Collins’ proposal because at twenty-seven, she was nearing spinsterhood. Her family was large, and while her father was a knight, there was little extra wealth to go around. She wished for her own home and to not burden her parents or brothers.
After several months, Elizabeth’s offense cools, and she visits Charlotte. While Elizabeth sees much that would cause her misery, Charlotte appears to bear it well. She directs her husband in ways that mean they spend little time together. She forbears Lady Catherine’s condescension. She relishes in controlling her own household affairs–or at least as much as Lady Catherine will allow. When Elizabeth leaves Hunsford, she observes that Charlotte’s new situation has not yet lost its charm.
On the other hand, we know Elizabeth would never choose such a life. She had turned down Collins, and she also rejected Darcy who could offer her much in the way of worldly goods but at the time could not have offered her the sort of character she desired in an equal and companionable marriage.
Categorically, the ladies in Austen who settle for Mr. Right Now find no happiness in marriage. Maria married while in love with another man and it ends in disaster. Isabella’s engagement is broken because she is attracted to another. Charlotte is the best example of contentedness and respectability. While she tells Elizabeth she was never romantic, she might have tried to find a good match with a man that had more sense.
Some have criticized Miss Austen in that her heroines do not always claim they will only marry for love. Even I have said that her primary motive is not romance. There is much to say that Austen has couples fall out of love showcasing that happiness in marriage might indeed be a matter of chance. However, happiness is not the only facet of marriage, especially in Austen’s era. Marriage was primarily a career option for women. And while you may not always find a job that is a passion, there are some jobs that you know can’t end well such as prostitution or illegal activity. Likewise, there are times when you can be content in a job by choosing one that suits your personality and skills. An introvert should avoid customer service positions, as an example. Similarly, if you do have a passion for dancing, then you may never thrive or do well in an accounting job.
While happiness in marriage may be a matter of chance, I believe Austen proves that respectability and comfortableness are not. From her, we learn to follow our heart wherever it might lead.