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"...her hair is done up with an elegance to do credit to any education."
In Jane Austen's day, there was no centrally-organized system of state-supported education. There were local charity or church-run day schools (such as the one set up by St. John Rivers in Charlotte Brontë's later novel Jane Eyre), but these were not attended by the children of the "genteel" social levels that Jane Austen writes about. More or less the same is true of apprenticeships, another relatively less "respectable" mode of education -- thus in Sense and Sensibility the character Mrs. Jennings thinks that the young woman whom she imagines is Colonel Brandon's illegitimate child can be gotten out of the way by being "'prenticed out at a small cost". (However in Jane Austen's fragment of a novel The Watsons, about a family on the lower financial fringes of gentility, Sam Watson is a "surgeon" -- a less exalted profession in Jane Austen's day than now -- and so probably would have been apprenticed.) And "Dame Schools", of the type satirized in Dicken's Great Expectations, were even less respectable (thus a character in one of Jane Austen's Juvenilia "knew nothing more at the age of 18 than what a twopenny Dame's School in the village could teach him").
Instead, "genteel" children might be educated at home by their parents, particularly when young (as the Morland children are in Northanger Abbey); or by live-in governesses (such as Miss Taylor in Emma) or tutors; or by going off to a private boarding school or to live with a tutor (as Edward Ferrars went to Mr. Pratt's in Sense and Sensibility; several boys went to Steventon to be tutored with Jane Austen's father). There might also be lessons with outside "masters" (specialists such as piano teachers, etc.). Some local "Grammar" schools did exist, teaching the educational basics (including Greek and Latin) to higher-class or upwardly mobile boys -- but did not admit girls. The type of education depended on the preferences and financial resources of the parents in each family (thus without Darcy's father's help, Wickham's father "would have been unable to give him a gentleman's education").
Of course, women were not allowed to attend the institutionalized rungs on the educational ladder: "public" schools such as Eton (which Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park attends), and the universities (Oxford and Cambridge). The (somewhat dubious) prime symbol of academic knowledge, and more-or-less exclusively masculine educational attainments, was the Classical languages Greek and Latin, to which a great deal of time was devoted in "genteel" boys' education, but which few women studied. Jane Austen never refers to Classical literature, except in a joking way in some of the Juvenilia, such as Love and Freindship (in one of her letters to Mr. Clarke, Jane Austen cites her ignorance of the Classical languages as one of the factors which would prevent her from writing a novel on a subject suggested by Mr. Clarke).
Since women did not usually have careers as such, and were not "citizens" in the sense of being directly involved in politics, there was little generally-perceived need for such higher education for them, and most writers on the subject of "female education" preferred that women receive a practical (and religious) training for their domestic rôle -- thus Byron once spouted off the remark that women should "read neither poetry nor politics -- nothing but books of piety and cookery" (leavened with the conventional "accomplishments" of "music -- drawing -- dancing"). See the account of Mrs. Goddard's school in Emma for the frequent relative lack of attention to academics in the female education of the time (the London "seminary" attended by the Bingley sisters would have been much more elegant, but not necessarily much more academically rigorous).
In his play The Rivals (1775) the playwright Sheridan satirized the debate over women's education:
As for domestic training, in those days before sewing machines, a relatively large amount of girls' and women's time was spent on sewing or needlework (often just abbreviated to "work"); this is not incompatible with "gentility" (as long as it is not done for money, of course), and even such a high-ranking woman as Lady Bertram, the baronet's wife in Mansfield Park, occupies herself this way. The sheer amount of sewing done by gentlewomen in those days sometimes takes us moderns aback, but it would probably generally be a mistake to view it either as merely constant joyless toiling, or as young ladies turning out highly embroidered ornamental knicknacks to show off their elegant but meaningless accomplishments. Sewing was something to do (during the long hours at home) that often had great practical utility (this doesn't apply to Lady Bertram's "carpet-work", of course) -- and that wasn't greatly mentally taxing, and could be done sitting down while engaging in light conversation, or listening to a novel being read. (But if you personally just happened not to like sewing, then you were pretty much out of luck...) Jane Austen once wrote a satirical "charade" (word-puzzle) on the subject. Here "my whole" is the word to be guessed, "my first" is its first syllable, and "my second" its second syllable:
When my first is a task to a young girl of spirit,
But much of the household work was actually done by servants -- thus Mrs. Bennet prides herself on her family's being too genteel for her daughters to be involved in the cooking, unlike the Lucas family.
See an engraving satirizing young ladies' "accomplishments" (drawing of a prosperous farmer by Gillray, 1809; for more information and another scan, see the general Regency images page.)
See a drawing of a Regency young lady playing the pianoforte
For women of the "genteel" classes the goal of non-domestic education was thus often the acquisition of "accomplishments", such as the ability to draw, sing, play music, or speak modern (i.e. non-Classical) languages (generally French and Italian). Though it was not usually stated with such open cynicism, the purpose of such accomplishments was often only to attract a husband; so that these skills then tended to be neglected after marriage (Lady Middleton in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility "had celebrated her marriage by giving up music, although by her mother's account she had played extremely well, and by her own was very fond of it", while Mrs. Elton in Emma fears that her musical skills will deteriorate as have those of several married women she knows). In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet displays her relatively detached attitude towards the more trivial aspects of this conventional game by adopting a somewhat careless attitude towards her "accomplishment" of playing the piano, and not practicing it diligently.
"Miss Stanley had been attended by the most capital masters from the time of her being six years old to the last spring, which, comprehending a period of twelve years, had been dedicated to the acquirement of accomplishments which were now to be displayed and in a few years [i.e. after her probable marriage] to be entirely neglected. She was not... naturally deficient in abilities; but those years which ought to have been spent in the attainment of useful knowledge and mental improvement had all been bestowed in learning Drawing, Italian, and Music."
And in Lady Susan, the title character takes the entirely cynical view that the only purpose of her teenaged daughter Frederica's education is to increase her attractiveness in husband-hunting, and even thinks that some of the conventional "female accomplishments" are entirely superfluous for this purpose:
"I wish her [the daughter's] education to be attended to while she remains with Miss Summers. I want her to play and sing with some portion of taste and a good deal of assurance ... -- those accomplishments which are now necessary to finish a pretty woman. Not that I am an advocate for the prevailing fashion of acquiring a perfect knowledge in all the languages, arts, and sciences -- it is throwing time away; to be mistress of French, Italian, German, music, singing, drawing, &c. will gain a woman some applause, but will not add one lover to her list. ... I do not mean, therefore, that Frederica's acquirements will be more than superficial, and I flatter myself that she will not remain long enough at school to understand anything thoroughly. I hope to see her the wife of Sir James within a twelvemonth."
All this is not to say, by any means, that all women were ignorant; only that, since there was no requirement for academic education for women, and very little opportunity for women to use such knowledge (so that for women learning is only for "the improvement of her mind") -- therefore it depended very strongly on what kind of instruction each woman's parents offered her in childhood, and on the individual inclinations of the woman herself (as in the Bennet family) -- intelligent girls could even have an advantage over boys in being able to more or less choose their own studies, and in not being subject to the rather mixed blessings of a more uniform Classical curriculum. [Notice in the two quotes above that the disapproving Catharine is Jane Austen's spokeswoman, while the cynical and even humorously overstated Lady Susan is definitely not.]
In the novels, Darcy makes the remark that besides the accomplishments, a woman "must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading". And Jane Austen makes fun of the opposite opinion in Northanger Abbey with her mock-editorial comment (on Catherine Morland during the walk from Bath to Beechen Cliff) that:
"Where people wish to attach [others to them], they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can. The advantages of folly in a beautiful girl have already been set forth by the capital pen of a sister author [Fanny Burney in Camilla]; -- and to her treatment of the subject I will only add in justice to men, that though to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well-informed themselves to desire anything more in woman than ignorance."Jane Austen's more serious opinion as to the desirability of ignorance is probably expressed when Emma, in the novel of the same name, teases the sensible Mr. Knightley by professing sentiments similar to the above, and he decidedly rejects them.
And in any case, the conventional "accomplishments" were not totally to be despised -- in the days before phonographs and radio, the only music available was that which amateur or professional performers could produce on the spot, so that the ability to play music did have a practical social value. Similarly painting, drawing, and the ability to write a good long informative letter (itself also something of a "female accomplishment") were valued in the age before photographs and cheap fast transportation.
"I often wonder how you can find time for what you do, in addition to the care of the house; and how good Mrs. West could have written such books and collected so many hard works, with all her family cares, is still more a matter of astonishment! Composition seems to me impossible with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb."
"I will only add in justice to men, that though to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well informed themselves to desire any thing more in woman than ignorance."
"...when a young lady professes to be of a different opinion from her friends, it is only a prelude to something worse. -- She begins by saying that she is determined to think for herself, and she is determined to act for herself -- and then it is all over with her"
Jane Austen a feminist? That has not been the traditional view (in 1870, Anthony Trollope declared that "Throughout all her works, a sweet lesson of homely household womanly virtue is ever being taught"), but once the question has been asked (which it was not, until relatively recently), it is not hard to see some feminist tendencies.
Of course, Jane Austen is not a simple ideologue -- when a character in a Jane Austen novel makes a broad statement that seems to stand up for women in general, this is actually usually done by an unsympathetic character (such as Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey or Mrs. Elton in Emma), and is not meant to be taken seriously. In Pride and Prejudice the main example is Caroline Bingley's statement to Darcy that "Eliza Bennet is one of those young ladies who seek to recommend themselves to the other sex by undervaluing their own, and with many men, I dare say, it succeeds. But, in my opinion, it is a paltry device, a very mean art." Here Caroline Bingley is "undervaluing" Elizabeth, and Darcy sees through her easily. Conversely, Henry Tilney's teasing remarks on the subject of women during the walk from Bath to Beechen Cliff in Northanger Abbey are not really meant to invalidate his character.
And it has been pointed out that Jane Austen makes an implicit statement by simply disregarding certain strictures of her era that may not be obvious to modern readers. For example most of Jane Austen's heroines (Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, Anne Elliot in Persuasion, and even Emma Woodhouse in Emma) don't have anyone whom they can confide in, or whose advice they can rely on, about certain delicate matters. Thus they must make their own decisions more or less independently (for example, Elizabeth Bennet doesn't reveal to Jane, her sister and closest confidante, her changed feelings about Darcy until he has actually proposed again, and she has accepted). Similarly, in a letter of November 30th 1814 to her niece Fanny Knight, discussing whether Fanny should engage herself to one Mr. Plumtre, Jane Austen wrote: "...you must not let anything depend on my own opinion. Your own feelings & none but your own, should determine such an important point".
Such moral autonomy on the part of young women would by no means have been universally approved of in Jane Austen's day, as can be seen from Sir Thomas's diatribes in Mansfield Park, when Fanny Price is resisting his advice to marry Henry Crawford. Thus another novel writer, (Fanny Burney) had her heroine Evelina write the following non-Austenian sentiments to her adoptive father: "I know not what to wish: think for me, therefore, my dearest Sir, and suffer my doubting mind, that knows not what way to direct its hopes, to be guided by your wisdom and counsel". In her Plan of a Novel, Jane Austen makes fun of the novel-heroine who "receives repeated offers of Marriage -- which she refers wholly to her Father, exceedingly angry that he should not be first applied to".
Jane Austen also makes a positive statement by having Elizabeth Bennet insist on being treated as a "rational creature", rather than as an "elegant female", when trying to make her "No" be understood as "No" to Mr. Collins.
Here's a a brief summary (taken from Women's Life and Work in the Southern Colonies by Julia Cherry Spruill) of an early 18th century etiquette book, The Lady's Preceptor, which was not out of the ordinary in conventional advice books for women in Jane Austen's period:
"It admonished her to abstain from gossip and a spirit of contradiction, which, while disagreeable in everyone, was especially so in the ``fair sex''; to be careful not to be too quick and passionate in conversation, or too inquisitive; and to ``endeavour that Cheerfullness, Sweetness, and Modesty be always blended in your countenance and Air.'' It gave special directions for her conduct when with men, advising: ``Be careful of maintaining that strict Watch over your Eyes, Words, and Heart, that they may not in the least perceive you have any special Regard for them.'' Men, it warned, took great pleasure in being thought irresistable lovers, and in gaining victories over ``the most rigid virtue''; therefore, the young lady should put little confidence in what they promised, and when fine things were said to her, should ``acquit yourself by a gentle Smile accompanied with a Blush, to shew that you are neither a Prude or a Coquette.'' When questioned on the subject of matrimony, without betraying any personal inclination, she should reply that she was not the person to be consulted ``upon such a Head'', but rather her father and mother, whose will she would always make her own."
(See also a summary of Fordyce's Sermons to Young Women (mentioned in chapter 14 of Pride and Prejudice).
It is interesting that the most explicit feminist protests by Jane Austen in her six novels all have to do with literature. In Persuasion, Anne Elliot debates Captain Harville on who loves longest, women or men:
"But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in... I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men so good-for-nothing, and hardly any women at all -- it is very tiresome."
Here the last sentence is as succinct a summary as one could wish of the objections of feminist historiography, social history, and/or the Annales school to the traditional "Great Man" theory of history. (See also Jane Austen's own farcical History of England.)
Go to Jane Austen quotes on gender differences
"Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony"
In Jane Austen's time, there was no real way for young women of the "genteel" classes to strike out on their own or be independent. Professions, the universities, politics, etc. were not open to women (thus Elizabeth's opinion "that though this great lady [Lady Catherine] was not in the commission of the peace for the county, she was a most active magistrate in her own parish" is ironic, since of course no woman could be a justice of the peace or magistrate). Few occupations were open to them -- and those few that were (such as being a governess, i.e. a live-in teacher for the daughters or young children of a family) were not highly respected, and did not generally pay well or have very good working conditions: Jane Austen wrote, in a letter of April 30th 1811, about a governess hired by her brother Edward: "By this time I suppose she is hard at it, governing away -- poor creature! I pity her, tho' they are my neices"; and the patronizing Mrs. Elton in Emma is "astonished" that Emma's former governess is "so very lady-like ... quite the gentlewoman" (as opposed to being like a servant).
Therefore most "genteel" women could not get money except by marrying for it or inheriting it (and since the eldest son generally inherits the bulk of an estate, as the "heir", a woman can only really be a "heiress" if she has no brothers). Only a rather small number of women were what could be called professionals, who though their own efforts earned an income sufficient to make themselves independent, or had a recognized career (Jane Austen herself was not really one of these few women professionals -- during the last six years of her life she earned an average of a little more than £100 a year by her novel-writing, but her family's expenses were four times this amount, and she did not meet with other authors or move in literary circles).
And unmarried women also had to live with their families, or with family-approved protectors -- it is almost unheard of for a genteel youngish and never-married female to live by herself, even if she happened to be a heiress (Lady Catherine: "Young women should always be properly guarded and attended, according to their situation in life"). So Queen Victoria had to have her mother living with her in the palace in the late 1830's, until she married Albert (though she and her mother actually were not even on speaking terms during that period). Only in the relatively uncommon case of an orphan heiress who has already inherited (i.e. who has "come of age" and whose father and mother are both dead), can a young never-married female set herself up as the head of a household (and even here she must hire a respectable older lady to be a "companion").
When a young woman leaves her family without their approval (or leaves the relatives or family-approved friends or school where she has been staying), this is always very serious -- a symptom of a radical break, such as running away to marry a disapproved husband, or entering into an illicit relationship (as when Lydia leaves the Forsters to run away with Wickham); when Frederica Susanna Vernon runs away from her boarding school in Lady Susan, it is to try to escape from her overbearing mother's authority completely.
Therefore, a woman who did not marry could generally only look forward to living with her relatives as a `dependant' (more or less Jane Austen's situation), so that marriage is pretty much the only way of ever getting out from under the parental roof -- unless, of course, her family could not support her, in which case she could face the unpleasant necessity of going to live with employers as a `dependant' governess or teacher, or hired "lady's companion". A woman with no relations or employer was in danger of slipping off the scale of gentility altogether (thus Mrs. and Miss Bates in Emma are kept at some minimal level of "respectability" only through the informal charity of neighbours). And in general, becoming an "old maid" was not considered a desirable fate (so when Charlotte Lucas, at age 27, marries Mr. Collins, her brothers are "relieved from their apprehension of Charlotte's dying an old maid", and Lydia says "Jane will be quite an old maid soon, I declare. She is almost three and twenty!"). (See also the reflections on the recompenses of old-maidhood from Jane Austen's Emma, published in 1815 when she was herself 39 years old and never-married.)
Given all this, some women were willing to marry just because marriage was the only allowed route to financial security, or to escape an uncongenial family situation. This is the dilemma discussed in following exchange between the relatively impoverished sisters Emma and Elizabeth Watson in Jane Austen's The Watsons:
In Pride and Prejudice, the dilemma is expressed most clearly by the character Charlotte Lucas, whose pragmatic views on marrying are voiced several times in the novel: "Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want." She is 27, not especially beautiful (according to both she herself and Mrs. Bennet), and without an especially large "portion", and so decides to marry Mr. Collins "from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment".
All this has more point because Jane Austen herself was relatively "portionless" (which apparently prevented one early mutual attraction from becoming anything serious), and once turned down a proposal of marriage from a fairly prosperous man.
In addition to all these reasons why the woman herself might wish to be married, there could also be family pressure on her to be married. In Pride and Prejudice this issue is treated comically, since Mrs. Bennet is so silly, and so conspicuously unsupported by her husband, but that such family pressure could be a serious matter is seen from Sir Thomas's rantings to Fanny Price to persuade her to marry Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park.
There are also the more trivial attractions of the married state: Isabella Thorpe of Northanger Abbey "knew enough [about what her father-in-law-to-be would contribute] to feel secure of an honourable and speedy establishment, and her imagination took a rapid flight over its attendant felicities. She saw herself at the end of a few weeks, the gaze and admiration of every new acquaintance at Fullerton, the envy of every valued old friend in Putney, with a carriage at her command, a new name on her tickets [visiting cards], and a brilliant exhibition of hoop rings on her finger."
Similarly, according to Mr. Collins: "This young gentleman [Darcy] is blessed with every thing the heart of mortal can most desire, -- splendid property, noble kindred, and extensive patronage". And when Lydia is to be married, Mrs. Bennet's "thoughts and her words ran wholly on those attendants of elegant nuptials, fine muslins, new carriages, and servants". And on Elizabeth's marriage she exclaims: "What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages you will have! ... A house in town! ... Ten thousand a year! ... I shall go distracted!" (See also The Three Sisters.)
Jane Austen expresses her opinion on all this clearly enough by the fact that only her silliest characters have such sentiments (while Mr. Bennet says "He is rich, to be sure, and you may have more fine clothes and fine carriages than Jane. But will they make you happy?"). However, Jane Austen does not intend to simply condemn Charlotte Lucas (who finds consolation in "her home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry, and all their dependent concerns") for marrying Mr. Collins -- Charlotte's dilemma is a real one.
Go to Classifications of the marriages in Jane Austen's writings
Go to The wedding ceremony ("Form of Solemnization of Matrimony") from the Church of England Book of Common Prayer
"People that marry can never part, but must go and keep house together."
"Ay, you may abuse me as you please," said the good-natured old lady; "you have taken Charlotte off my hands, and cannot give her back again. So there I have the whip hand of you."
There are also reasons why marriage was not a state to be entered into lightly. Marriage was almost always for life -- English divorce law during the pre-1857 period was a truly bizarre medieval holdover (readers of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre will remember that Mr. Rochester couldn't divorce his insane wife). Simplifying a bit ("saving myself the trouble of writing what I do not perfectly recollect", as Jane Austen wrote in her History of England), almost the only grounds for divorce was the sexual infidelity of the wife; a husband who wished to divorce his wife for this reason had to get the permission of Parliament to sue for divorce; and the divorce trial was between the husband and the wife's alleged lover, with the wife herself more or less a bystander. All these finaglings cost quite a bit of money, so that only the rich could afford divorces. There was also the possibility of legal separations on grounds of cruelty, etc. (where neither spouse had the right to remarry), but the husband generally had absolute custody rights over any children, and could prevent the wife from seeing them at his whim.
Go to Caroline Norton's English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century (1854) [LONG] (Caroline Norton's incompatible marriage was a celebrated case of problems created by the peculiar and biased pre-1857 laws.)
Here's a quote from Caroline Norton:
``In Scotland, the property, personalty, and rights of the wife, are far more strictly protected than in England: and in divorce cases, she has the advantage over the English wife, in the fact that the first step is to inquire into the truth of the allegations against her. The English wife, in an action for "damages," brought as a first step towards divorce, by her husband against her lover, is not considered as a party in the suit; cannot have counsel; and can only benefit by such chance circumstances in her favour as belong to the defence made by the man against whom the action is laid. Lord Brougham, in 1838, mentioned a case in the House of Lords, in which not only the man proceeded against was not in truth the woman's lover, but not even an acquaintance; and the action was an agreed plot between him and the husband, who desired to be rid of his wife!''
Here's a quote from the judgement of Mr. Justice Maule in the case of Thomas Hall, a labourer convicted of bigamy in 1845:
``Prisoner at the bar, you have been convicted before me of what the law regards as a very grave and serious offence: that of going through the marriage ceremony a second time while your wife was still alive. You plead in mitigation of your conduct that she was given to dissipation and drunkenness, that she proved herself a curse to your household while she remined mistress of it, and that she had latterly deserted you; but I am not permitted to recognise any such plea. You had entered into a solemn arrangement to take her for better, for worse, and if you infinitely got more of the latter, as you appear to have done, it was your duty patiently to submit. You say you took another person to become your wife because you were left with several young children... but the law makes no allowance for bigamists with large families. Had you taken the other female to live with you as a concubine, you would never have been interfered with by the law. But your crime consists in having -- to use your own language -- preferred to make an honest woman of her. Another of your irrational excuses is that your wife had committed adultery, and so you thought you were relieved from treating her with any further consideration -- but you were mistaken. The law in its wisdom points out a means by which you might rid yourself of further association with a woman who had dishonoured you; but you did not think proper to adopt it. I will tell you what the process is. You ought first to have brought an action against your wife's seducer, if you could have discovered him; that might have cost you money, and you say you are a poor working man, but that is not the fault of the law. You would then be obliged to prove by evidence your wife's criminality in a Court of Justice, and thus obtain a verdict with damages against the defendant, who was not unlikely to turn out a pauper. But so jealous is the law (which you ought to be aware is the perfection of reason) of the sanctity of the marriage tie, that in accomplishing this you would only have fulfilled the lighter portion of your duty. You must then have gone, with your verdict in your hand, and petitioned the House of Lords for a divorce. It would cost you perhaps five or six hundred pounds, and you do not seem to be worth as many pence. But it is the boast of the law that it is impartial, and makes no difference between the rich and the poor. The wealthiest man in the kingdom would have had to pay no less than that sum for the same luxury; so that you would have no reason to complain. You would, of course, have to prove your case over again, and at the end of a year, or possibly two, you might obtain a divorce which would enable you legally to do what you have thought proper to do without it. You have thus wilfully rejected the boon the legislature offered you, and it is my duty to pass upon you such sentence as I think your offence deserves, and that sentence is, that you be imprisoned for one day; and in as much as the present assizes are three days old, the result is that you will be immediately discharged.''
"I exulted as much as a fortune-hunter who has got an heiress into a post-chaise with him to set out for Gretna-Green."
Of course, any property that a woman possessed before her marriage automatically becomes her husband's, unless it is "settled" on her; this leads to the "fortune-hunter" phenomenon: men who marry a woman only for the sake of the woman's fortune -- after the marriage, the woman and her money are legally in the husband's power (without any of the limitations of pre-nuptial legal "settlements", which the wife's family might have insisted upon if she had married with their approval) -- an example in Jane Austen is Captain O'Brien's marriage to Emma Watson's Aunt Turner in The Watsons. This is the reason why Wickham tries to elope with Georgiana Darcy, who has £30,000. The other side of the same thing was the forced marriage of an heiress, to ensure that her money passes into family-approved hands; this appears in Jane Austen only in Colonel Brandon's story in Sense and Sensibility (which appears to have been drawn more from literature than from Jane Austen's observations of the life around her).
"Louisa Burton was naturally ill-tempered and Cunning; but she had been taught to disguise her real Disposition, under the appearance of insinuating Sweetness, by a father who but too well knew that to be married would be the only chance she would have of not being starved, and who flattered himself that with such an extraordinary share of personal beauty, joined to a gentleness of Manners, and an engaging address, she might stand a good chance of pleasing some young Man who might afford to marry a Girl without a Shilling."
The seeming preoccupation with money in connection with marriage in Jane Austen's work may mislead modern readers. While there is no lack of greed and shallow materialism on the part of some characters, even sensible people must devote serious thought to this topic, since it is rather foolhardy to marry without having a more-or-less guaranteed income in advance -- not only was marriage for life, but there was no social security, old age pensions, unemployment compensation, health insurance, etc. (as pointed out by Craik) -- it is only the ridiculous Edward in Love and Freindship who extolls "the Luxury of living in every Distress that Poverty can inflict, with the object of your tenderest Affection".
Jane Austen's sister Cassandra was engaged for several years without being able to marry, due to lack of money on the part of her and her fiancé (and their families). So though Wickham is a rogue, even a sincere man with his limited income might be deterred by financial reasons from marrying Elizabeth (this more or less what happened to Jane Austen herself once).
Jane Austen wrote a satirical charade (word-puzzle) on the resulting "marriage market", where personal attractions are weighed against financial considerations (here "my whole" is the word to be guessed, "my first" is its first syllable, and "my second" its second syllable):
You may lie on my first on the side of a stream,
The groom's income, and the money that the bride may have had "settled" on her (such as Georgiana Darcy's £30,000), was frequently augmented by contributions from one or both of their families (in line with the view of marriage as an "alliance" between the two families).
Passages in Pride and Prejudice dealing with money and marriage:
In the context of marriage, a "settlement" is a legal document that usually ensures that some or all of the property that the wife brings to the marriage ultimately belongs to her, and will revert to her or her children (though she does not necessarily have personal control over it during her marriage); otherwise it would basically belong entirely to her husband. And a settlement can also specify a guaranteed minimum that the children of the marriage are to inherit ("Five thousand pounds was settled by marriage articles on Mrs. Bennet and the children."). In Northanger Abbey, Henry Tilney can't be entirely disinherited by his father, General Tilney, because some of his inheritance is guaranteed by the marriage settlement of his late mother; also, in Sense and Sensibility the money that came with Mr. Henry Dashwood's late first wife is settled on their son, and it can't be used to help his second wife or his daughters by his second wife (see the genealogy). A settlement is generally part of an overall pre-marital financial agreement between the wife or wife's family and the husband or husband's family (and can guarantee the amounts to be contributed). So to ensure Lydia's marriage, Mr. Bennet is required to guarantee to Lydia and Wickham "by settlement, her equal share of the five thousand pounds secured among his children after the decease of" Mr. Bennet and his wife, "and, moreover, to enter into an engagement of allowing her, during his life, one hundred pounds per" year. In addition, Darcy undertook to pay his debts and purchase an officer's commission (as an ensign or sub-lieutenant) in the regular army.
"Her husband, however, would not agree with her here; for... his cousin Charles Hayter was an eldest son, and he saw things as an eldest son himself."
"Sir William Mountague was the son of Sir Henry Mountague, who was the son of Sir John Mountague, a descendant of Sir Christopher Mountague, who was the nephew of Sir Edward Mountague, whose ancestor was Sir James Mountague, a near relation of Sir Robert Mountague, who inherited the Title & Estate from Sir Frederic Mountague."
An entail was a legal device used to prevent a landed property from being broken up, and/or from descending in a female line. This is a logical extension of the then-prevalent practice of leaving the bulk of one's wealth (particularly real estate) to one's eldest son or "heir" (thus Darcy has an income of £10,000 a year, representing a wealth of about £200,000, while his sister has £30,000; similarly, Bingley has £100,000, and his two sisters £20,000 apiece).
Entailed property is usually inherited by male primogeniture, in more or less the same way as are some titles of nobility -- i.e. by the nearest male-line descendant (son of son etc.) of the original owner of the estate or title, whose ancestry in each generation goes through the eldest son who has left living male-line descendants (thus the male-line descendants of the second son of an owner will not have a chance to inherit until all the male-line descendants of the eldest son have died out). So, for example, Mr. Elliot is the heir to Sir Walter in Persuasion. Entailment also prevents a father from disinheriting his eldest son -- a factor in Lady Susan (father to son: "You know... that it is out of my power to prevent your inheriting the family Estate."). Women generally inherit only if there are no male-line heirs left, and if there is more than one sister, then they are all equal co-heiresses, rather than only the eldest inheriting.
The following diagram may help illustrate the mysterious workings of such an entail; the original possessor of the estate is at the top of the diagram, males are denoted by "M", females by "F", the current (male) owner of the estate by "X", siblings are arranged left-to-right from eldest to youngest, and the potential heirs to the estate upon the death of "X" are numbered in the order of successsion (potential co-heiress-ships are shown by several women being given the same number):
M(dead) | +-----------+----------+-------+ | | | | M(dead) F(12) M(7) M(9) | | +------------+--------+------+------+ M(8) | | | | | X M(1) F(11) M(5) F(11) | | | +------+ +-----+ M(6) | | | | F(10) F(10) M(2) M(4) | M(3)
Note that the technical interpretation of this chart is that, given this family configuration, the individual numbered (1) is the immediate heir of the man labeled "X"; but if (1) died before "X", then (2) would be X's immediate heir; and if (1) and (2) died before "X", then (3) would be X's immediate heir, and so on down the line (i.e. if all individuals labelled with numbers (1)-(11) were to die before "X", then the individual numbered (12) would be X's immediate heir).
Go to a brief discussion of the implications of the above type of inheritance for the relationship of Mr. Collins to Mr. Bennet.
The following is an edited version of a post to AUSTEN-L:
The law behind entails showed the usual British legal tendency to accumulation of complexity over time, so that only a true expert could explain all the arcane ramifications (for example, in Jane Austen's period what was called an "entail" was technically a "strict settlement"), but it may be mentioned that entails had to be periodically renewed, and could be "broken" with the consent of a heir who has come of age (cf. Chapter 50: "When first Mr. Bennet had married, economy was held to be perfectly useless; for, of course, they were to have a son. This son was to join in cutting off the entail, as soon as he should be of age, and the widow and younger children would by that means be provided for").
If Mr. Collins were to leave only daughters on his death, and there were no further patrilineal heirs lurking in the wings behind Mr. Collins, I don't know whether Longbourn would then actually revert to the Bennet daughters upon the death of Mr. Bennet and Mr. Collins (as would be predicted by strict application of the principle of seniority); it's certainly an intriguing possibility (though if the entail were considered to have come to an end with the death of the last male-line heir, then the estate would be divided among Mr. Collins's daughters by the normal operation of common law).
The entail on the Longbourn estate (according to which Mr. Collins is the heir) is treated somewhat lightly in the novel (or at least Mrs. Bennet's reaction to it is), but Jane Austen expected her readers to understand that it is no joke that if Mr. Bennet died, his wife and five daughters would have to leave Longbourn and live on the interest of £5,000, or a little more than £200 a year (because Mr. Bennet has been unable to save anything). Since Lydia alone costs Mr. Bennet about £90 a year, it is obvious that their standard of living would drop considerably (Mrs. Bennet: "else they [her daughters] will be destitute enough"); probably they would be partly dependent on the charity of the Gardiners, the Philipses, or even Mr. Collins. (After Jane Austen's father died in 1805, Jane Austen and her mother and sister Cassandra needed an income of about £450, which had to be partly supplied by some of Jane Austen's brothers.)
Therefore Mrs. Bennet's threat to Elizabeth that "If you go on refusing every offer of marriage, you will never get a husband -- and I am sure I do not know who is to maintain you when your father is dead" has some realism. This is the background against which Elizabeth and Jane are not desperate to be married to anyone with a good income (unlike Charlotte Lucas) -- see "Marriage and the Alternatives".
"Sister" is used frequently for "sister-in-law", and "brother" for "brother-in-law". Similarly "son" for "son-in-law". Lady Catherine even extends "brother" to cover the wife's sister's husband. Elizabeth imagines herself being presented to Lady Catherine as "her future niece" (i.e. as the fiancé of Lady Catherine's nephew Darcy); Caroline Bingley taunts Darcy that Mr. and Mrs. Phillips will be his "uncle and aunt" if he marries Elizabeth; and Wickham (when talking to Elizabeth after his marriage to her sister Lydia) refers to "our uncle and aunt", meaning her uncle and aunt, the Gardiners.
The use of the same terms for one's spouse's family as for one's own family reflects the view of marriage as uniting or allying the two families of the couple. (Thus later on in the 19th century, there was a long debate about whether or not it is incest to marry one's dead wife's sister.) This is why Lady Catherine conceives herself to have the right to prevent Elizabeth's possible marriage to her nephew Darcy. (Mary Musgrove in Persuasion: "I do not think any young woman has a right to make a choice that may be disagreeable and inconvenient to the principal part of her family, and be giving bad connections to those who have not been used to them.")
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