Courtship, love and marriage in Jane Austen's novels

Professor John Mullan explores the romantic, social and economic considerations that precede marriage in the novels of Jane Austen.

Professor Kathryn Sutherland discusses the importance of marriage and its relationship to financial security and social status for women in Jane Austen’s novels. Filmed at Jane Austen’s House Museum, Chawton.

It is right that the three words at the head of this article come in the order that they do, because in Jane Austen’s novels the manoeuvring by which a man presents himself to a woman (and her parents) as a possible husband often comes before any signs of love. Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice offers the most tough-minded and unsentimental analysis, counselling that Jane Bennet should secure her rich husband first and think about love only after they are married. ‘Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance’ (ch. 6). She is not the only articulate cynic. Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, possessed of a good fortune and on the lookout for a husband, calls marriage ‘a manoeuvring business’ (ch. 5). Conduct books of the period tend to represent marriage as a solemn religious duty but in Austen’s novels the harsh economic reality of a young woman’s value in the marriage market is what preoccupies most of the characters.

The Female Instructor

The Female Instructor [page: 182-83]

The Female Lover’s Instructor, a conduct manual published around 1811, emphasises the Christian framework of marriage, and a woman’s duties within that framework.

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Marrying for love

Yet we are also invited to think that Charlotte Lucas’s and Mary Crawford’s views are dismal. Austen’s novels, while alive to the pressures of family expectations, unreservedly endorse the aim of marrying for love. Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey declares, ‘to marry for money I think the wickedest thing in existence’ (ch. 15). She is an unworldly 17-year-old, but her heart is right. And women’s choices, while constrained, are their own. In the earlier novels of the 18th century, fathers often try to command their sons and daughters whom to marry. In Austen’s world, as she says in the last chapter of Persuasion, ‘When any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverance to carry their point’ (ch. 24) .

Manuscript of chapters 10 and 11 from Jane Austen's Persuasion

Manuscript of chapters 10 and 11 from Jane Austen's Persuasion [folio: f. 9v]

Manuscript of alternative last chapter of Persuasion, written in 1816.

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Map of the land of matrimony

Map of the land of matrimony [page: single sheet]

Marriage was a popular subject for spoof cartography in the 18th and 19th centuries. Here, A New Map of the Land of Matrimony shows the Land of Matrimony surrounded by the Ocean of Love.

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Young women and marriage

And young means young. Lydia Bennet marries at 16 and her mother talks of her sister Jane attracting the attentions of a well-qualified suitor at the age of 15. Catherine Morland becomes engaged at the age of 17. Marianne and Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility and Fanny Price in Mansfield Park all become engaged while still in their teens. At a certain age, somewhere between 15 and 19, a young woman was said to be ‘out’. That meant that she could be courted. Lady Catherine de Bourgh quizzes Elizabeth Bennet about how many of her sisters are ‘out’ and is rather astonished to find that they all are (ch. 29). Every one of them is in the marriage market, which is Mrs Bennet’s obsession from the first page of the novel.

Conduct book for women

Conduct book for women [page: 388-89]

In the conduct manual An Enquiry Into the Duties of the Female Sex (1797), the clergyman Thomas Gisborne criticises mothers who try to secure wealth or status for their daughters through marriage. Jane Austen read An Enquiry in 1805.

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The men they marry are usually older than them, in some cases strikingly so. Aged 35, Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility is some 18 years older than Marianne, whom he marries. There is a similar age difference between the heroine of Emma and the man she marries, Mr Knightley. Yet we should not assume that this was the norm for the period: in both these cases the difference in ages is a reason for the young woman not even to consider the possibility of the older man as a suitor, until late in each novel. Only one man in all Jane Austen’s novels marries a woman older than himself: Mr Collins, aged 25, marries Charlotte Lucas, aged 27. The disparity speaks of the unselectiveness of both parties. Yet three of Jane Austen’s own brothers married women older than themselves.

Receiving a proposal

Courtship was a semi-public process, acted out according to fixed conventions. Young men and women would rarely be permitted to be on their own together. We should also be struck by how short a courtship can be. Henry Tilney proposes to Catherine Morland after they have known each other for just 11 weeks and she joyfully accepts. The marriage proposal itself followed a certain protocol, which Mr Collins pretends to understand. The rule in Austen’s novels seems clear: if a man proposes as if he cannot imagine that the answer will be no – the answer will be no. Austen relishes the equally disastrous proposals of Mr Collins and Mr Darcy. Both men are amazed when Elizabeth refuses them. The most important truth is stated bluntly by Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey: ‘man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal’ (ch. 10). In 1802, aged almost 27, Jane Austen herself accepted a proposal of marriage from Harris Bigg-Wither, the brother of family friends, only to change her mind by the next morning.

Guide to writing love letters

Guide to writing love letters [page: pp. 20-21]

The New Lover’s Instructor; or, the whole art of courtship (c.1780) contains sample love letters which follow the conventions of the time. Readers could copy or adapt such letters for their own purposes.

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If a woman accepted, the man should then ‘apply’ to her father. Mr Darcy does this formally in Pride and Prejudice. Once a marriage has been made it is well-nigh irreversible. A woman cannot divorce her husband, and a man can only divorce his wife in extreme circumstances at the cost of public disgrace. In Mansfield Park, Mr Rushworth divorces Maria for adultery, but this is a scandal, reported in the newspapers. The marriage choices that Jane Austen’s characters make are absolute. Mr Bennet, Austen tells us, married Mrs Bennet because he was ‘captivated by youth and beauty’, but then discovers her true nature. ‘Respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown’ (ch.42). He likes the country and his books, and these must console him for his error; he has made his choice and can never unmake it.
  • John Mullan
  • John Mullan is Professor of English at University College London. John is a specialist in 18th-century literature and is at present writing the volume of the Oxford English Literary History that will cover the period from 1709 to 1784. He also has research interests in the 19th century, and in 2012 published his book What Matters in Jane Austen?

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