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|Charlotte, Spinsterhood and Society (Long)
Written by BarbaraB
(4/27/2010 3:51 a.m.)
Whenever we discuss Charlotte's decision to marry Mr. Collins it is generally in relation to financial considerations. Though I do believe that financial security carried most of the weight in such circumstances as Charlotte's, I feel that society's negative view of spinsters/old maids may have influenced the decision making process at times also.
The terms themselves, old-maid/spinster, have a negative vibe in my opinion. But that aside, the permanently single woman was subject to jokes, ridicule, insult and too often stereotyped as bitter, nosy, envious and ill-natured. A girl's purpose in life was to grow up, get married and provide heirs. If indeed she did follow the prescribed expectation, she was given the position of being ranked above a single woman even if she was younger. For the woman who found herself an old maid, there were essays, treatises and sections in conduct books that were written giving admonishments and advice on how a spinster should conduct her life. Most directed them along the lines "to live morally upright lives in service to others, to think less of their own needs and desires than about how they could ease the lives of those around them and avoid the dangers of becoming hard and selfish in their single condition."
"Thus...Charlotte Lucas can easily decide to draw the obsequious Mr. Collins into a marriage proposal that she accepts gratefully. The dangers that marriage presented to a woman by means of the law of coverture seemed small indeed compared with those posed by spinsterhood, a state many considered to be unnatural, and nearly everyone considered one of the least fulfilling and satisfying kinds of life a human being could endure."
That brings me to Jane herself, who like Charlotte found herself in a position of lacking financial resources if she remained single. Why did Jane accept a proposal from Harris Bigg-Wither? I think she was too smart and honest to talk herself into believing she was in love with him. The most likely reasons in my opinion is that she saw this as a last chance to get married and/or it would give her financial security. Whatever the reason, as we know, she wasn't able to go though with it. Jane, however, put Charlotte in a more difficult position than her own when it came to making the decision on staying single or not. In considering and accepting spinsterhood, Jane...
1. ...is part of a large intellectually smart family and their supportive nature would make any societal adversities nil or at least easier to deal with. Charlotte's family was large but intellectual?...(not). I'm not sure they had the wherewithal to be very supportive either.
2. ...had a nice supply of brothers whom she could count on to help with the financial situation. Charlotte has brothers but they are complaining about the possibility of supporting her before they are even grown. It doesn't sound promising. They may not be very dependable or could turn out to be miserly in their aide and if they turn to be John Dashwoods, there may be nothing forthcoming.
3. ...has (besides a close sister), a wide array of friends and acquaintances and extended family. She will never want for companionship. Charlotte has Maria but she does not seem to be an intellectual equal and I would say Charlotte has friends but I don't know that they would number as many as Jane's. Doesn't seem to me to be so.
4. ...is a very strong woman who knows who she is. I'm not sure of Charlotte's strength---if she is solid in knowing who she is and what she can endure in her single status with all that it entails but she does know what she wants.
5. ...has written two or three novels by this time and though not published yet, she does have her writing which is something that is a wonderful occupation for her as well as the possibility of earning money. I don't see anything along these lines for Charlotte.
I firmly believe that we are meant to see Charlotte's marriage to Mr. Collins from Lizzie's point of view which would be JA's also but I'm not so sure it's so black and white as this might seem. In a letter to Fanny Knight where she is responding to the news of the death of a Miss Milles's mother she writes, "I am sorry and surprised that you speak of her as having so little to leave, and must feel for Miss Milles...if material loss of Income is to attend her other loss.---Single Women have a dreadful propensity for being poor---which is one strong argument in favor of Matrimony." On the other hand, she goes on to advise Fanny not to be in a hurry to get married, to take her time and wait for love.
At this time in English history a reasonable amount of marriages of convenience and arranged marriages were still taking place and still considered an acceptable form of wedlock. Lady Catherine and Lady Russell are both encouraging it just to name two. I think the disgust in Charlotte's marriage comes from being willing to accept the ridiculous Mr.Collins whom she could not respect than that she is marrying for security.
During the Letters group read, I posted on the P&P board how strongly I was affected when reading how JA as a single woman, unable to ride anywhere without an escort, must suffer the whims and schedules of others (even loved ones) in order to get from one place to another. (Unfortunately, I never got back to read that thread) Something seemingly so simple was made difficult by being a spinster. I really, in that moment, truly got a glimpse of the reality of what it was like and couldn't help feeling sorry for the Jane who had to go through this. I expressed the hope that she could empathize with Charlotte and not censure her too much since she had personally lived this life and could see why someone might give in to the fears of such a lifestyle.
All this to say, that yes, I feel that we are meant to disapprove of Charlotte's marriage but by the same token, perhaps we were also meant to see that Charlotte found the pressures of Georgian England too overwhelming to withstand and in the end she did what she felt she had to do. Any thoughts on this?
(Quotes from the Greenwood Press "Literature in Context" for P&P)
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