“You will allow, that in both, man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal.”
One of Austen’s most recurring themes is the limits placed on women in the society in which she lived. Chief of these is a woman’s limitation when it comes to pursuing love. Unlike modern day, when it is socially acceptable for a woman to ask a man out, to ask a man to dance, and even, in some cases, for her to be the one proposing marriage, in Austen’s day, a woman could do very little in the way of pursuing the man she admired without being considered unseemly and gauche.
Austen’s commentary on this subject is spoken through the voice of Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey who, in comparing dancing to marriage, stated that in both cases, the man has the advantage of choice, but the woman only the power of refusal.
That power of refusal is key, for where women had no control over who might pursue them, they had great power in rejecting suitors that they deemed as unsuitable partners.
Austen herself famously had only one confirmed proposal in her life, from a family friend named Harris Bigg-Wither. She accepted his proposal, only to return the next morning and withdraw her consent. We will likely never know the real reason why she did this, or why she never married, but the theme of heroines rejecting suitors that they did not love resounds in her novels repeatedly.
The most famous refusals appear in Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennet first refuses a proposal from the obsequious and ridiculous Mr. Collins, despite pressure from her mother to accept him. Later, she rejects an arrogant and badly-done proposal from Mr. Darcy, whom she blames for her sister’s unhappiness and Mr. Wickham’s ruin. It is only after she finally sees Mr. Darcy in a different light and realizes her love for him that she is willing to accept a second proposal from him.
Anne Elliot, in Persuasion, also rejects two separate proposals over the course of her adult life. As a young lady, she initially accepts Wentworth’s proposal, but after pressure from her godmother Lady Russell, she breaks it off (could this be what happened to Austen with Bigg-Wither?). We later learn that sometime before the events of the novel take place, she also rejected a proposal from Charles Musgrove, who turns and marries her sister Mary instead. Anne is fully prepared to refuse Mr. Elliot as well, should he decide to propose as everyone seems to expect that he will. His sudden elopement with Mrs. Clay paves the way for Captain Wentworth to renew his proposal, and the two of them, now older and wiser than they were when they first fell in love, finally get their due happiness together.
Fanny Price also exercises her power of refusal in Mansfield Park. Despite pressure from her family, friends, and nearly everybody around her, Fanny remains adamant that she will not have Henry Crawford. She is rewarded by seeing him exposed as a scoundrel and the man she has long admired finally realizing his feelings for her.
Emma also rejects her first offer of marriage. Mr. Elton’s awkward proposal in the carriage nearly rivals that of Mr. Collins in P&P. His botched attempt is compounded by the fact that Emma misinterpreted his pursuit as being interest in her friend Miss Smith, whom she has been coaching to receive Mr. Elton’s attention. Emma’s situation is singular in that, unlike the heroines of the other novels, her fortune as an heiress means she is secure in life without a husband. This means that she has the power to refuse any number of suitors if she desires, and we know that when she accepts Mr. Knightley’s proposal, it’s because she truly loves him.
Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility do not feature any rejected proposals. In Northanger, we do get the sense that John Thorpe might have been about to propose to Catherine Moreland when he visits her before leaving bath; he certainly alludes to it when he makes a joke about an old song “Going to One Wedding Brings on Another”, and says that they might “try the truth of that song” when they attend Isabella and James’ wedding, but that’s about as far as he gets. Nevertheless, when Isabella tells her that John is in love with her and that he says he ‘as good as made her an offer’, Catherine sets the record straight immediately by saying that she had not gotten any sense of that from him, that never had feelings for him and has no intention of ever marrying him.
As for Sense and Sensibility, I wonder sometimes, if Colonel Brandon had made an offer to Marianne early on before she had been wooed and jilted by Willoughby, if he would have been rejected by her at that time. She certainly thought him an old, boring, fellow and it took her until after her experiences with Willoughby to appreciate him. But that scenario, my friends, is pure speculation, and will have to wait until some future fanfiction to be explored. 🙂
Overall, we can see through Austen’s novels her theme of women taking charge of their destiny in the way that they were permitted, by accepting those that they loved, and rejecting those that they did not.