Courtship, love and marriage in Jane Austen's novels
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.
The Female Instructor
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.View images from this item (29)
Marrying for loveYet 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 alternative last chapter of Persuasion, written in 1816.View images from this item (33)
Map of the land of matrimony
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.View images from this item (1)
Young women and marriageAnd 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
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.View images from this item (37)
Receiving a proposalCourtship 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
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.View images from this item (16)
The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.