Marriage is a main theme in Pride and Prejudice. This can be seen by the opening lines of the novel, said by the omniscient narrator, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
This opinion stated as a fact, was the typical attitude towards marriage held by the occupants of Regency England and can be seen as the attitude held by most of the characters in the novel, by their actions. For example Charlotte Lucas who believes “happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.”
Over the last two hundred years, attitudes have changed drastically towards marriage. This new attitude can be compared and contrasted to the marriages and view of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Charlotte and Mr. Collins and finally, Elizabeth and Darcy.
Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s marriage could be seen as representing youth and the passion of the moment, being a poor foundation for lasting happiness. This is shown by Mr. Bennet being captivated by, “youth and beauty”, but soon realised that Mrs. Bennet had a “weak understanding and illiberal mind”, which quickly put an end to “all real affection for her”.
This loveless marriage causes Mr. Bennet to retreat to his study and view his family as a stranger, “He was fond of the country and of books”. This therefore leads to Mr. Bennet neglecting his duties as a father. There are many examples of this, firstly when he agrees to Lydia going to Brighton out of convenience, “we will have no peace at Longbourne if Lydia does not go to Brighton.” Secondly how he has been too lazy to make sure his daughters’ dowries are above 1000.
Dowries were an important aspect of Regency marriage, as they provided the women with money for her future children or if she was to become widowed. Luckily for Elizabeth and Jane, Darcy and Bingley were still rich enough to marry them despite such a small dowry.
Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are shown to be extremely mismatched, as “twenty-three years had been insufficient to make his (Mr. Bennet’s) wife understand his character.” This shows that Mrs. Bennet does not actually know Mr. Bennet as a wife should. Austen also uses two short lines, set alone. These lines, “Mr. Bennet made no answer”, and “This was invitation enough”, are a response to Mrs. Bennet’s constant blabbering about Mr Bingley and could be seen as showing how Mr. Bennet is not at all interested. The shortness of lines compared to the long sentences that Mrs. Bennet uses, could be interpreted as showing how contrasted Mr and Mrs Bennet’s personalities are.
Another way that Mr and Mrs. Bennet can be seen as mismatched is Austen’s description of them both. She uses repetition in three to emphasise both of their personalities, which are highly contrasting. Mr. Bennet is described as having “sarcastic humour, reserve and caprice”, on the other hand, Mrs. Bennet is described as having, “mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper.”
Although Mrs. Bennet could be seen as a comic caricature, her “Business of life” being to get her daughters married, is on a level understanding. This is because in Regency England, young women were expected to have no profession but matrimony. However, her lack of moral discrimination can not be counted for. For example her concern for Lydia’s wedding clothes, “But the clothes, the wedding clothes!”
Mrs. Bennet could be seen to demonstrate her lack of deep affection for Mr. Bennet by only being concerned by his death due to herself and her daughters being thrown out of Longbourne because of entailment, “As soon as Mr. Bennet were dead.” This is another reason why she is obsessed with marrying her daughters, as entailment meant that Mr. Bennet’s estate would go to the next closest male relative, Mr. Collins.
Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s marriage is vastly different to one in modern day England. For example, is one party in the marriage was so unhappy (Mr. Bennet), divorce would be likely. However, in Regency England divorce was frowned upon.
Also, Mrs. Bennet’s obsession with marrying her daughters would be unlikely to occur in modern society as women now have more rights, and their status is not dependant on their husband or father, but by what they achieve.
Another marriage which could be seen as showing the typical marital ideas of Regency England is Charlotte and Mr. Collins’.
Charlotte’s view on marriage could be interpreted as unsentimental. The fact that she explains to Elizabeth that “All I want is a comfortable home.” shows her readiness to settle for financial security rather than emotional security. The fact that Austen chooses Charlotte to say “All I want”, could be interpreted as revealing Charlotte has no other goals than a “comfortable home”, and even if she does she would be willing to let go of them in order to obtain marriage.
Her attitude could also be seen as her acceptance of her role in society. “He was neither sensible nor agreeable” demonstrates that she does not love Mr. Collins, and she never had high regard for “either men or matrimony”, yet still, “Marriage had always been her object”. This could be interpreted as Charlotte’s acknowledgement that marriage was imperative for any woman to have a good social status or security.
This particular attitude was widely held in Regency England, and could be seen as an underhand criticism of society by Austen, that Charlotte would be willing to give up all her individuality for marriage.
Another view on marriage that Charlotte could be seen to hold, is that marriage should be obtained as quickly as possible. This can be seen by, “At the age of twenty-seven, she felt all the good luck for it.” At the time, twenty-seven was seen a late age to get married as girls in their late teens were encouraged to marry as soon after their debut into society, as possible. This could be the reason for Charlotte’s lack of personal pride and willingness to compromise her true feelings, for marriage.
“Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.” Could be seen as Charlotte demonstrating her disbelief in love and her view that people will never stay the same, however well you know them. “They continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards” shows this. It could also show his lack of trust in those around her.
The fact that “the boys were relieved from their apprehension of dying an old maid”, could be seen as Austen showing the reader that twenty-seven in Regency England was very late to be married and that also Charlotte’s brothers must have been relieved as brothers were expected to take in widowed mothers and unmarried sisters.
Mr Collins’ attitude towards marriage is that a man of his “status” (a clergy man) should set an example by marrying. He puts this at the top of his list for marrying, “to set the example of matrimony in his parish”, this reveals a lot about Mr Collins’ character and shows that he is not marrying for love, this was the case for many marriages in Regency England, and is an example of the kind of agreements marriages in that time sometimes were.
Mr. Collins also depicts his attitude towards marriage by telling Elizabeth, whom he was proposing to, that there are “many amiable young women.” This could show that he is not particular as to who he marries.
Charlotte and Mr. Collin’s do match in a certain way, because neither is really looking for a loving marriage, but one that provides security and social standing. This kind of marriage was often had in Regency England, when the woman gave up her wants for a “safe” marriage.
Ironically, Charlotte, like Mr. Bennet, uses the backroom as her haven away from Mr. Collins.
Charlotte and Mr. Collins’ marriage, and attitudes to marriage, can be hugely contrasted to a modern day marriage, and attitudes towards it. To start, twenty-seven years old, is not late for a woman to get married, in fact most women get married around this age.
Marriage in modern day England is also normally acquired after many years of knowing each other unlike Charlotte’s view that “it is best to know as little of the defects” of your future husband or wife.
Finally, modern women would not usually give up their own individuality in pursuit of marriage. This is because they now have their own rights which enable them to make a living without a need for marriage at all.
Lastly, Elizabeth and Darcy show many attitudes towards marriage, some of which are not typical of the Regency period.
Elizabeth shows her refusal to marry for anything but love, throughout Pride and Prejudice. This can be seen by her first refusal to marry Darcy, “you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed to marry.” Despite him being one of the richest men in England, “his having ten thousand a year.” Elizabeth could also be seen to demonstrate this by showing her “distressing” shock at Charlotte being engaged to Mr. Collins as she could never imagine Charlotte “to be happy in the lot she had chosen.”
Elizabeth can be seen to represent a change of the conventional image of women in Regency England. She is witty, independent, and refuses to put marriage in the centre of everything. This can be seen by her refusal of two marriage proposals which would be very advantageous to her. In this way, Austen could be basing many of Elizabeth’s ideas on Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote for women’s equality.
However, ultimately, Elizabeth looks forward “with delight to the time when they should be removed from society to all the elegance of their family party at Pemberly.” Meaning, she looked forward to being mistress of Pemberly. This fits in with the typical attitude of women in Regency England, as Elizabeth is excited about being in charge of such a fine estate.
When Elizabeth does, finally, agree to marry Darcy, it can be seen that she really loves him. This can be seen by the use of the metaphor of “At night she opened her heart to Jane.” This could be interpreted as demonstrating how Darcy is in her heart, therefore she loves him.
Darcy shows his determination to marry Elizabeth despite her lower status and “family obstacles”. This was unusual in England at the time, as the extremely rich often married those with similar wealth.
He too, also could be seen to demonstrate how he is marrying Elizabeth for love. This can be seen by when she tells him that she loves him “the expression of heartfelt delight, diffused over his face.” This attitude towards marriage is much more modern than the one had in Regency England.
Darcy admires Elizabeth’s individuality, something extremely unusual, as women were supposed to be agreeable and simple. This individuality it summed up perfectly by Elizabeth who explains why Darcy fell for her.
“The fact is that you were sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention. You were disgusted with women who were always speaking and looking, and thinking for your approbation alone. I rouse and interested you, because I was so unlike them.”
All of these points could be seen to show that Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage is unlike any other the others in the novel. It is more rational than any other because they know why they love each other, as seen above. They have mutual respect, due to the denouement in chapter 58, when both characters misconceptions are cleared up. Lastly, they know each others flaws, such as Darcy’s pride, before being married. This is very different to Charlotte and Mr. Collin’s marriage, in which Charlotte chooses not to know any of his “defects”.
Due to these differences from the other marriages in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth and Darcy’s attitudes towards marriage are the most modern, although many aspects are still closely linked with Regency England. For example Elizabeth did not consider replying to Darcy’s letter, an epistolatory device used by Austen, to explain Darcy and Wickham’s relationship, as there was an inflexible law, which did not permit correspondence between not engaged marriageable people; hence Darcy’s letter was to be kept a secret.
Also, a modern day woman would not normally look forward to being the mistress of her husband’s house, as she would already have the ability to buy her own house if she wanted.
In conclusion, the attitudes towards marriage represented by marriages in Pride and Prejudice have changed considerably over the past two hundred years. These changes are mostly due to women in modern day England having equal rights to men, something that was not the case the Regency England, and being able to live a fulfilling life without marriage. For example, regardless of that Elizabeth could be as a more independent woman in Regency England, at the end of the novel, her happy ending is still a good marriage. Other legal procedures, such as divorce, are also much more common in today’s society and are not frowned upon, as they were two hundred years ago.