Jane Austen and the Concept of Accepting a Marriage of Convenience, by Regina Jeffers

Jane Austen and the Concept of Accepting a Marriage of Convenience, by Regina Jeffers

What hope was there for the dowerless daughters of the middle class during Jane Austen’s lifetime? Such is a topic Austen explored repeatedly in her novels. Elizabeth and Jane Bennet sought men of a like mind. The Dashwood sisters found their choices limited by their financial situation. Fanny Harville and Captain Benwick could not marry until he earned his future. General Tilney drove Catherine Morland from his home because of the lady’s lack of funds. Charlotte Lucas accepted Mr. Collins as her last opportunity for a respectable match. The intricacies and tedium of high society, particularly of partner selection, and the conflicts of marriage for love and marriage for property are repeated themes.

Marriage provided women with financial security. Henry Tilney of Northanger Abbey explains, “… in both [marriage and a country dance], man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal: that in both, it is an engagement between man and woman, formed for the advantage of each.” Women of Austen’s gentry class had no legal identity. No matter how clever the woman might be, finding a husband was the only option. A woman could not buy property or write a will without her husband’s approval. If a woman was fortunate, she would bring to her marriage a settlement – money secured for her when she came of age – usually an inheritance from her mother. The oldest son or male heir received the family estate, and the unmarried or widowed females lived on his kindness.

The ladies of Sense and Sensibility have this reality thrust upon them when Uncle Dashwood changes his will and leaves Norland to his grandnephew. In Uncle Dashwood’s thinking, this change will keep Norland in the Dashwood family. However, the four Dashwood ladies suddenly find themselves living in a modest cottage with an income of £500 annually. As such, they have no occasion for visits to London unless someone else assumes the expenses. Their social circle shrinks, and the opportunities to meet eligible suitors becomes nearly non-existent. With dowries of £1000 each, the Dashwood sisters are not likely to attract a man who will improve their lots.

Jane Austen, herself, lived quite modestly. The Austens lived frugally among the country gentry. The Austen sisters were well educated by the standards of the day, but without chances for substantial dowries, Jane and Cassandra possessed limited prospects. Jane met a Mr. Blackall the year Cassandra lost her Mr. Fowle. In a letter, Blackall expressed to Mrs. Lefroy a desire to know Jane better; yet, he confided, “But at present I cannot indulge any expectation of it.” To which, Jane Austen responded, “This is rational enough. There is less love and more sense in it than sometimes appeared before, and I am very well satisfied.” Imperfect opportunities were Jane Austen’s reality. In 1802, Jane Austen accepted an offer of marriage from Harris Bigg. With this marriage, Jane would have become the mistress of Manydown.

Yet, despite her affection for the family, Austen could not deceive Bigg. The following morning, she refused the man’s proposal. Whether she thought to some day find another or whether Austen accepted the fact her refusal doomed her to a life as a spinster, we shall never know. In the “limited” world in which Jane Austen lived, she could not have known her eventual influence on the literary canon.

Austen held personal knowledge of young women seeking husbands in one of the British colonies. Reverend Austen’s sister, Philadelphia, traveled to India in 1752, where she married an English surgeon Tysoe Hancock, a man twenty years her senior. When the Hancocks returned to England a decade later, Reverend Austen traveled to London to greet his sister. However, Philadelphia and Tysoe were not to live “happily ever after.” Unable to support his family in proper English style, Tysoe returned to India to make his living. He never saw his wife and child again. Despite its tragic ending, this “marriage” secured Philadelphia’s future and the lady’s place in society. Only marriage could offer a woman respectability.

In Jane Austen for Dummies (page 134), Joan Klingel Ray breaks down the financial prospects of the Dashwood sisters. Converting the £500 to a modern equivalent, Ray comes out with a figure of $46,875. For the gentry, supporting four women, two maids, a man servant, paying rent, buying clothes, food, coal, etc., that sum would have meant a poor existence. I find in reading Sense and Sensibility  I am often disappointed with the eventual choices of the Dashwood sisters. Edward Ferras and Colonel Brandon have less of the “glitz and the glamour” my innate Cinderella syndrome requires in a love match. However, if any affection did exist between the couples, then Marianne and Elinor, under the circumstances and the times, made brilliant matches. They settled for the “compromise” marriage common in the Regency era.

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May 8, 2022 4:39 PM

Agree wholeheartedly with line: Edward Ferras and Colonel Brandon have less of the “glitz and the glamour” my innate Cinderella syndrome requires in a love match. That’s my major issue with S&S especially in regards to Edward as thought Elinor deserved better.

Riana Everly
February 23, 2022 9:36 AM

I always find S&S a bit unsatisfying. Elinor and Brandon both deserve someone better, although Marianne does alright from it all. Thinking about it now, I feel that Edward is a bit like Bingley – super nice but a bit spineless.

Rebecca L McBrayer
Rebecca L McBrayer
February 23, 2022 8:18 AM

It is possible that Marianne settled but I guess I compare Elinor’s attraction to Edward to Jane and Bingley. He is the nicest man she has met so she is attracted to him. On his side, I think Lucy was a boyhood infatuation that faded after his proposal. Lucy definitely saw an opportunity and took it. She is definitely avaricious. When Edward met Elinor, he saw a truly kind woman and was attracted despite his best efforts to remain true to his engagement. And now I realize I may have over romanticized all of this. Ha!

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
February 21, 2022 8:47 PM

Things were so different in Austen s time! I have Jane Austen for Dummies and I love it! I always find something I missed every time I read it!

Brenda J. Webb Bigbee
Brenda J. Webb Bigbee
February 21, 2022 5:02 PM

Your articles are always informative. Thanks for sharing girl. 🙂

Jean Stillman
Jean Stillman
February 21, 2022 2:32 PM

Love your article! We take for granted, today, the rights we now are able to enjoy. I can only imagine how difficult it would have been to be unable to work for my own money or to be able to spend it in any way that I wished.

Kirstin Odegaard
February 21, 2022 6:22 PM
Reply to  Regina Jeffers

I sometimes think about how much less time she would have had for writing if she’d married, with all the chores of raising children and managing her household. I don’t like thinking that we are all lucky she didn’t find her Mr. Darcy.
Thanks for this post.

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