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Austen, Jane (1775-1817)

Published onFeb 15, 2024
Austen, Jane (1775-1817)

Jane Austen (1775-1817)


Jane Austen (1775-1817)

By Dr. Emily Bell
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Jane Austen was born at Steventon Parsonage on 16 December 1775. She was the daughter of a clergyman, and the seventh of eight children. According to her first biographer, her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, she had a happy childhood in the country. However, Austen’s sister Cassandra destroyed all of her sister’s remaining letters and manuscripts after her death, so what we know about Austen comes from the recollections of those who knew her, mostly recorded after her death. The lives and careers of her six brothers (two admirals, two clergymen, and one adopted by wealthier relations) clearly influenced her fiction, and she was very close with her sister Cassandra all her life; we can see the importance of this relationship in Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, which both revolve around sisters. Jane and Cassandra both had romantic relationships, but neither ever married. Austen started to write at a young age, performing dramatic sketches and poems for friends and family, and her family played a key role in sharing her works and securing publication. She moved on from her juvenilia and started work on the novel that would become Sense and Sensibility in 1793. Pride and Prejudice was begun in 1796, after Austen visited her brother Edward and his wife, Elizabeth, in Kent. This was the first novel to be completed, and it was first submitted it for publication in 1797, though it would ultimately not appear until 1813. There was a substantial delay to the publication of many of Austen’s works, with Northanger Abbey and Persuasion only appearing after her death, though the former was most likely written in 1798–99, while Persuasion was written 1815–16. In 1809, Austen, her mother, and her sister moved to Chawton in Hampshire, living in a house given to them by her wealthy brother Edward. Here Austen spent her happiest years and prepared all six of her novels for final publication (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion). She died at the age of just forty-one on 18 July 1817, and it was not until after her death that she gained widespread critical attention.

Austen-Leigh’s memoir of his aunt, published in 1870, promoted the idea of Austen as shy, unassuming, and uninterested in fame, though the revisions in her manuscripts show her commitment to pursuing publication, and modern readers should consider what is known about Austen in the light of what was expected of women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Her novels focus on the domestic sphere, and have been criticized for their narrowness in not dealing with Britain’s imperial past, or issues outside of a certain class. On the other hand, many nineteenth-century critics dubbed her a ‘prose Shakespeare’, and acknowledged her masterful use of free indirect discourse, a style of third-person narration that allows the writer to capture different characters’ voice and idiosyncrasies in the narration, moving between them while retaining a clear narrative style.

Austen: Social Judgement 

Kathryn Sutherland
The British Library
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Jane Austen depicts a society which, for all its seeming privileges (pleasant houses, endless hours of leisure), closely monitors behaviour. Her heroines in particular discover in the course of the novel that individual happiness cannot exist separately from our responsibilities to others. Emma Woodhouse’s cruel taunting of Miss Bates during the picnic at Box Hill and Mr Knightley’s swift reproof are a case in point: ‘“How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation? – Emma, I had not thought it possible.”’ Emma is mortified: ‘The truth of his representation there was no denying. She felt it at her heart.'  Austen never suggests that our choices in life include freedom to act independently of wider obligations. If we are fortunate (as Emma is), we have a duty of kindness and protection to those who are not; society, in the form of public opinion or the judgement of other individuals, like Mr Knightley, provides a check on conduct. ‘“[Miss Bates’s] situation”’, argues Mr Knightley to Emma, ‘“should secure your compassion”’ (ch. 43).

One of the reasons Austen’s world charms us is because it appears to follow stricter rules than our own, setting limits on behaviour. There are precise forms of introduction and address, conventions for ‘coming out’ into society (meaning a young girl’s official entry into society and therefore her marriageability), for paying and returning social visits, even for mixing with different social ranks. Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Persuasion are sensitive to questions of social status and can all be seen extending the definition of polite society to include previously excluded members of the professional and merchant classes and the navy. Above all, relations between young men and women are carefully monitored. One reason dance scenes are so prominent in Austen’s novels is that the dance floor was, in her time, the best opportunity for identifying romantic partners and for advancing a courtship, for testing relations between the sexes. But even the comparative freedom of a dance had its rules and etiquette: for the number of dances one might have with a single partner (only two); for the (limited) amount of bodily contact between partners; while a woman’s refusal of one partner effectively disallowed her from dancing with another. At the edges of the dance floor were the chaperones and those sitting the dance out, who watched, noticed and interpreted behaviour.

Pride and Prejudice unfolds as a series of public or semi-public events – assemblies, balls, supper parties, country-house gatherings – each one followed by anxious reviews shared by two people in private as they analyse its events. Charlotte Lucas and Elizabeth Bennet, Elizabeth and Jane Bennet, Elizabeth and Mrs Gardiner are discovered reading the behaviour of others, interpreting motives and intentions. In all her novels Austen portrays a society that closely restricts mental and physical space, particularly for women, who are allowed little solitude or independence. Many of the crucial events of an Austen plot take place indoors or in the confining presence of a number of people. Frequently the plot moves forward by means of overheard conversations; rumour plays a large part in transmitting and distorting news (think of the various speculations that swirl around Jane Fairfax in Emma); and everybody appears to be a gossip. The resolution of the plot of Persuasion at the White Hart in Bath develops from a group of people confined in a small space (a room in a hotel), conducting several private conversations and activities and overhearing, observing and reacting openly or covertly to what they discover about one another. The sense of being watched, hedged in and discussed by a whole community informs all Austen’s novels.

We know that Austen wrote a first version of Pride and Prejudice in the 1790s, almost 20 years before it was eventually published. This early date is important and may have left deep traces on the novel, among them its use of letters. Pride and Prejudice is filled with letters: as many as 42 are mentioned, and there is considerable emphasis on reading and re-reading letters. Many 1790s novels were actually written completely in letter form (epistolary fiction), as an exchange of letters between characters. Novels in letters take on a particular structure, openly inviting interpretation as characters engage in reading one another’s behaviour (literally reading it off the surface of their letters). This openness to debate and interpretation, whatever its deeper structural origin, is written large across the pages of Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennet in particular must learn to be a skilfull reader.

Chapters 34 to 36 show how this works: beginning with Elizabeth sitting alone, employing her evening reading ‘all the letters which Jane had written to her since her being in Kent ... Elizabeth noticed every sentence ... with an attention which it had hardly received on the first perusal’. Mr Darcy unexpectedly enters this quiet scene and proposes marriage. He is rejected and the next chapter (ch. 35) finds him interrupting Elizabeth’s morning walk and thrusting a letter into her hands. We read it, literally, over Elizabeth’s shoulder. It explains not only Mr Darcy’s behaviour in separating Bingley and Jane Bennet but, in supplementing what Elizabeth knows of Mr Wickham, requires her to reassess her opinion of him. The next chapter (ch. 36) opens with a description of how Elizabeth felt on reading the letter: ‘She read, with an eagerness which hardly left her power of comprehension’. Then we are told that she re-reads the letter ‘with the closest attention’. This second reading is reflective and more judicious. In re-reading she confronts her own errors and only now refashions her opinion. The lesson is clear: Elizabeth (and the novel reader) must learn to be good readers of behaviour and of words. Emma too contains similar lessons, especially around the letters sent by Frank Churchill and avidly and variously interpreted by the Highbury community (chs. 50 and 51).

There are words that Jane Austen works hard across all her novels: adjectives ‘agreeable’, disagreeable’, ‘amiable’ are favourites with her; so too is the noun ‘opinion’. What they share are social and moral valuations. The reader is informed, early in their acquaintance, that ‘it was not in [Elizabeth Bennet’s] nature to question the veracity of a young man of such amiable appearance as Wickham’ (Pride and Prejudice, ch. 17); Mr Bingley, too, is described as ‘“truly amiable”’ (ch. 16), while Mr Darcy is judged on his first appearance at the Meryton assembly rooms to have a ‘disagreeable countenance’ (ch. 3). By the novel’s end, Elizabeth’s confession of her love for Mr Darcy includes the statement, ‘“he is perfectly amiable”’ (ch. 59). In Emma, Mr Knightley challenges Emma’s description of Frank Churchill as ‘“an amiable young man”’ by distinguishing between the French and English meanings of the term. In this patriotically English novel this is a sufficiently strong warning to the reader: ‘“No, Emma, your amiable young man can be amiable only in French, not in English. He may be very ‘aimable’, have very good manners, and be very agreeable; but he can have no English delicacy towards the feelings of other people: nothing really amiable about him.”’ (ch. 18). Mr Elliot, introduced as ‘particularly agreeable’ (ch. 15), is eventually condemned in Persuasion for being ‘too generally agreeable’ (ch. 17). The reiteration of these words is a special feature of Austen’s style, subtle shifts in her usage suggesting how in learning to discriminate between true and false worth (true and false ‘amiability’) her heroines gain social and self-understanding. 

A moral slipperiness attaches to Austen’s favourite words, which can mislead reader and characters alike. Take the use of ‘opinion’ in Pride and Prejudice. The novel is awash with ‘opinions’ whose robustness will be probed and dismantled in the course of the narrative. In particular, Austen exposes the tendency of ‘opinion’ to masquerade as informed judgement when it may be no more than ignorance or prejudice: ‘“My good opinion once lost is lost for ever”’ (Mr Darcy, ch. 11); ‘mingling with a very good opinion of himself’ (Mr Collins, ch. 15); ‘“I have never desired your good opinion ... my opinion of you was decided”’ (Elizabeth Bennet, ch. 34); ‘“It is particularly incumbent on those who never change their opinion, to be secure of judging properly at first”’ (Elizabeth Bennet, ch. 18). 

Time and again in Austen’s novels, opinion substitutes for truth. Opinions are bandied about as if they are truths. Who speaks truth in Jane Austen’s novels? The convergence of narrative voice with character voice, one of Austen’s great legacies to the 19th-century European novel, is crucially an affirmation of opinion, or point of view, even of the gossip of village communities, over general truth. What this means is that just as her fictional worlds are constituted from multiple opinions, from people watching and commenting on one another’s behaviour, in the same way, Austen argues, novels can teach readers the essential skills of interpreting character and learning to live in society, by bearing others’ opinions in mind and knowing when to adjust our own.

Austen: Social Realism and the Novel

By Kathryn Sutherland
The British Library
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Jane Austen lived at a time when novel reading had become one of the major forms of entertainment for the middle classes. New works were prohibitively expensive to buy, but there were various methods of sharing and borrowing the latest fiction through circulating libraries, subscriptions libraries and reading clubs. Though widely read, the novel’s status was not high. Fiction poured from the printing presses, tales of adventure, mystery and intrigue with improbable settings and clumsy plots that lurched from one sensational incident to another. They often had bizarre titles, like Anna: or Memoirs of a Welch Heiress: interspersed with Anecdotes of a Nabob (1785), by Anna Maria Bennett, of which one contemporary reviewer wrote: ‘In some parts of it the incidents are scarcely within the verge of probability; and the language is generally incorrect’. Ann Radcliffe’s popular ‘Gothic’ fictions, enjoyed by Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey, and Harriet Smith in Emma, occupied the high end of the market. In The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Radcliffe's heroine, the sensitive and romantically named Emily St Aubert, is imprisoned by her wicked uncle in an Italian castle where she undergoes numerous terrors before she eventually escapes.

Jane Austen avidly devoured this pulp fiction, but she also reacted critically to it in writing her own novels. Her spoof Plan of a Novel, according to hints from various quarters, written in 1815-1816 around the time of the publication of Emma, mocks its extravagance. The Plan (a recipe for how not to write a novel) has several specific targets among the day’s bestsellers. Of these, Mary Brunton’s Self-Control (1810) is the most interesting because it is a novel that Austen refers to in several of her letters as the kind of work against which her own novels are written (see, for example, her letter to Anna Lefroy, 24 November 1814). In Self-Control the heroine Laura Montreville (note again the romantic, non-English sounding name, so different from those of Austen’s heroines) suffers dreadful experiences in her attempts to elude the lecherous villain Colonel Hargrave. She travels from Scotland to London, is kidnapped, endures a perilous sea crossing to Canada, and eventually escapes by canoe from a band of American Indians.

Jane Austen commented specifically on her own novels in relation to this kind of extravagantly romantic writing that,

I could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any other motive than to save my Life, & if it were indispensable for me to keep it up & never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first Chapter. – No – I must keep to my own style & go on in my own Way; And though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other   

(1 April 1816, to James Stanier Clarke, an enthusiastic admirer of romances).

By contrast, and from the beginning, her readers saw that Jane Austen was doing something new with the novel, that she was using it to describe probable reality and the kinds of people one felt one already knew. The narratives of her heroines play out within the realms of the possible. They are set in southern England, in places and a landscape Austen knew well. As Scott suggested, her plots are minimal and the adventures her heroines meet with are no more than the experiences of her readers: preparations for a dance, an outing to the seaside, a picnic. Austen used fiction to describe social reality within her own time and class (the gentry and professional classes of southern England in the early 19th century). By so doing, she was able to introduce something closer to real morality in describing the range of human relationships that we all are likely to encounter in ordinary life. Her subjects are the behaviour of parents to their children, the dangers and pleasures of falling in love, of making friends, of getting on with neighbours, and above all of discriminating between those who mean us well and those who may not.

Jane Austen’s social realism includes her understanding that women’s lives in the early 19th century are limited in opportunity, even among the gentry and upper middle classes. She understands that marriage is women’s best route to financial security and social respect. Many of the crucial events of her stories take place indoors, in the female space of the drawing room. Often her plots move forward by means of overheard conversations. She writes some of the most natural and real-seeming conversations in literature. Rumour places a large part in transmitting news, and in her small, enclosed communities, everyone is a gossip.

‘[T]here is scarcely an Incident or conversation, or a person that you are not inclined to imagine you have at one time or other in your Life been a witness to, born a part in, & been acquainted with’, observed one reader, whose impressions Austen recorded in Opinions of Mansfield Park. The contemporary novelist, Walter Scott, reviewing Emma in 1816 described it as ‘keeping close to common incidents, and to such characters as occupy the ordinary walks of life’ and, he continued, ‘Emma has even less story than [Jane Austen’s] preceding novels.’ This may seem like an odd kind of compliment but Scott meant it as the highest praise. Ten years later, in March 1826, he wrote in his diary: ‘[R]ead again and for the third time at least Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with.’

To say that Austen is a realist as a writer is not quite the same as saying she describes society as it really is. Her novels are also romantic comedies. In novel after novel, love and good fortune win out and the future looks perfect for the handsome young couple whose union is finally confirmed in the closing pages. This happens despite the fact that many married couples are portrayed as ill-suited or ridiculous (think of Mr and Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice or Mr and Mrs Elton in Emma). Realism is a literary device rejecting escapism and extravagance to produce a lifelike illusion and not a direct translation of reality.

Austen: Status, Rank and Class

John Mullan
The British Library
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Jane Austen expected her readers to be sensitive to questions of social status, but she remorselessly satirised characters who were obsessed with fine social distinctions. There is certainly no association in her novels between high rank and any great virtue or ability. Aristocrats are at best buffoons, at worst paragons of arrogance. The most famous case is probably Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice, a woman with whom no one before Elizabeth Bennet has ever disagreed. But think also of the amiably stupid Sir John Middleton in Sense and Sensibility, the cold and deluded Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park, or the vain spendthrift Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion. All three men are baronets, the lowest rank of hereditary title.

‘Rank is rank’, Mr Elliot tells Anne in Persuasion, explaining why the company of her father’s cousin, the vapid Lady Dalrymple, and her awkward daughter is to be desired (ch. 16). ‘Rank’ is a word most often used of those with titles, and a respect for rank is subject to particularly withering satire in Persuasion. Lady Russell respects Sir Walter Elliot because he has an hereditary title while she is only the widow of a knight. Mary Musgrove carelessly and constantly offends her in-laws by her insistence on her precedence on social occasions because she is the daughter of a baronet while they are mere country gentry.

Sir Walter Elliot’s reading of the Debrett’s Baronetage alerts us to his anxious attention to status. The guidebook had been made necessary by the large number of ‘new’ baronetcies created in the late 18th century. Sir Walter reassures himself that his own title dates from the 17th century. Even among this group of minor aristocrats there is a pecking order. It is unconsciously mocked by a waiter in the inn in Lyme Regis who tells Mary Musgrove that Mr Elliot’s servant ‘said his master was a very rich gentleman, and would be a baronight some day’ (ch. 12).

But what were you if you were not an aristocrat? The key word in Austen’s world is ‘gentleman’. When Lady Catherine de Bourgh tells Elizabeth Bennet that she is too lowly to marry Mr Darcy, her retort is angrily authoritative. 'He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal’ (ch. 56). ‘Gentleman’ is the most vexed of terms. Mr Bingley’s indolent and impolite brother-in-law Mr Hurst, we are told, ‘merely looked the gentleman’ (ch. 3). In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor Dashwood meets Colonel Brandon for the first time and sees that ‘his address was particularly gentlemanlike’ (ch. 7). In the first case, Mr Hurst has only the clothes and mannerisms of a refined person, but is in fact rude and boorish. In the second case, Colonel Brandon’s tact and politeness are a good guide to his sterling qualities.

In 18th-century literature, the definition of a gentleman had sometimes seemed to be a man who did not work for his living. However, this is clearly not the case in Austen’s fiction. Elizabeth Bennet’s uncle Mr Gardiner is in trade in an unfashionable part of London, yet he is evidently a gentleman. Indeed, he is befriended by the discriminating Mr Darcy. Jane Austen’s father was a rural vicar, and clearly an educated ‘gentleman’ with noble family connections. Yet he took on tutorial pupils to bolster the domestic economy and farmed on local land. Austen’s brothers took up professions, as clergymen or naval officers. In Persuasion, Sir Walter Elliot looks down his nose at the navy men, but is clearly idiotic for doing so, particularly in an age in which military men were widely admired and paraded proudly in their uniforms. Sir Walter’s beloved Baronetage can be contrasted unflatteringly with the navy list that Austen’s heroine Anne Elliot knows well, whose leading figures seem to signify a more meritocratic society. 

Austen analysed the pretensions of all who thought themselves superior to others. In Pride and Prejudice the Bingley sisters think themselves better than the Bennets, but they like to forget that ‘their brother's fortune and their own had been acquired by trade’ (ch. 4). Sir William Lucas has a title, but has made his fortune ‘in trade’ and is ridiculous in a nouveau riche way for calling his house Lucas Lodge. Austen was alive to all the small ways in which members of her own rural society tried to assert their status and distinguish themselves from those below them. It is the main subject matter of her satire.

Austen’s satire is most subtle in Emma, where it is the heroine herself who is the greatest snob. Emma begins the novel confident that she knows who are ‘the chosen and the best’ in Highbury (to be treated as equals) who are the ‘second set’ (characters like Miss Bates, to be summoned at will to divert Emma’s father) and who are beyond the pale (like the farmer, Mr Robert Martin) (ch. 3). By the end of the novel she has been mortified and made to contemplate the real possibility that the gentlemanly Mr Knightley might want to marry Harriet Smith, the illegitimate daughter of ‘somebody’. Mr Knightley himself enjoys the company of Mr Robert Martin, in whom he finds ‘true gentility’ (ch. 8). Luckily for Emma, Harriet will eventually marry Mr Robert Martin and Emma, taught a stern lesson, will think with ‘great pleasure’ of getting to know him (ch. 54).

Austen: The Balls

By John Mullan
The British Library
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

In Jane Austen's fiction, as in many novels of the 19th century, a ball is the ultimate occasion for a heady kind of courtship – a trying out of partners that is exciting, flirtatious and downright erotic. Couples perform together, feeling each other’s physical proximity (though both men and women wore gloves throughout) while being watched by others. Many of the dances were physically demanding: a ball might last for six hours or more, and end only as dawn approached (in Sense and Sensibility Marianne is delighted to hear of Willoughby dancing ‘from eight o'clock till four, without once sitting down’ (ch. 9)). In a crowded room lit by candles the heat could be overwhelming. When you are told in Pride and Prejudice that Mr Bingley ‘danced every dance’ at the Meryton assembly ball you should realise that he is a thoroughly vigorous young man (ch. 3).

In reality, Austen loved balls, which were the most exciting events in provincial life. In her novels, she uses them brilliantly for their combination of propriety and passion. In Pride and Prejudice, the mutual attraction of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy is established through their behaviour towards each other at a succession of balls. They approach and retreat, tease and repel each other, as in an elaborate dance. At the assembly ball (where anyone who pays for a ticket can take part) Mr Darcy fancies himself above it all. With extraordinary rudeness, he lets Elizabeth overhear his description of her as ‘tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me’ (ch. 3). He later tastes his own medicine when he offers himself as Elizabeth’s dance partner at the Lucases and is turned down. Finally, at the Netherfield ball (a grand occasion, entry by invitation only), he suddenly asks for ‘her hand’ and ‘without knowing what she did’ she accepts (ch. 18). ‘Without knowing what she did’ because at the ball Austen shows us Elizabeth’s unconscious interest in Mr Darcy.

Codes of behaviour were exacting. At the Netherfield ball Elizabeth must dance with Mr Collins because if a woman turns down one request for a dance she must turn down all others. Say no to Mr Collins and you must stand out for the whole evening. Elizabeth’s first two dances (the maximum you were allowed with the same partner) are therefore ‘dances of mortification’. Mr Collins, ‘often moving wrong without being aware of it’, gives her ‘all the shame and misery which a disagreeable partner for a couple of dances can give’ (ch. 18). He, of course, thinks that he has done brilliantly, the dance being a preparation for his proposal of marriage the next day.

Elizabeth’s mortification is all the greater because she is being watched by those who are not dancing. Spectators will be sizing them up as a couple. At the first ball in the novel Mrs Bennet watches her daughter Jane dancing with Mr Bingley and sees the prospect of a future marriage (rightly, as it turns out). At a ball there were plenty of people who were not dancing but either playing cards in an adjacent room (a proper private ball would have tables laid out for whist) or just watching. In Emma the heroine is distressed to see Mr Knightley ‘among the standers-by’ at the ball at the Crown, ‘with the husbands, and fathers, and whist-players’ (ch. 38). Those who stand by are removed from the sexually charged pleasures of performance. She is later delighted to see him dance with Harriet, and to see that his dancing is ‘extremely good’ (ch. 38). At the end of the chapter we know something really significant is happening when he asks Emma herself to dance – and she accepts.

The patterns of steps and movements were often complicated and required a great deal of practice. Books were published to guide would-be dancers. Look at these patterns and you might sympathise with Mr Collins for his incompetence. Even the Bennet girls, whose education was entirely neglected by their mother, would have had lessons. Dancing well was a test, and when Austen's heroines take the floor with the men they love it is in order to perform well together. Dancing is one of the female ‘accomplishments’ that Miss Bingley lists during Elizabeth’s earlier stay at Netherfield (ch. 8). When her fellow dancers at the Netherfield ball see Elizabeth take the floor with Mr Darcy, they are suitably in awe. As she stands opposite him, she reads ‘in her neighbours’ looks’ their ‘amazement’ (ch. 18). They are in awe because of his social status, and because he has chosen to dance with one of the local girls. Some of the other young ladies will also have to come into contact with him as they prance and rotate.

The drama of Austen’s fiction is shaped around the very protocol of the ball. A man can only ask a woman to dance if he has been formally introduced to her. In Northanger Abbey, Henry Tilney gets the Master of Ceremonies, who presides at any public ball, to introduce him to Catherine Morland. He must already have had his eye on her. When he attends the Meryton assembly ball, Mr Darcy declines to be introduced to any woman in the room. He will dance only with the women he already knows, the baleful Bingley sisters. Not only is he too proud to mingle with the vulgar locals, as a rich young man he is also sick of being the target of husband hunters.

At the balls in Austen's novels, you can talk during dances, especially those that require some partners to wait while others perform. In Mansfield Park, we can feel the anticlimax when Fanny finally gets to dance with Edmund, the man she loves, and he tells her that he does not want to talk. ‘“You will not want to be talked to. Let us have the luxury of silence’". In Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy do eventually dance together they also have their most erotically charged conversation, a kind of verbal fencing match. It is a verbal intimacy to parallel their physical closeness. In the crowded room, everything seems to narrow to these two people. Once these two have danced together, they are destined for each other. Anyone in that ballroom should have been able to see it, even if they did not see it themselves.

Austen: Courtship, Love, and Marriage

By John Mullan
The British Library
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

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.

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) .

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.

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.

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.

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.

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