“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Austen 3) This opening line of Pride and Prejudice sets the stage for the theme of marriage found in the book and the author’s opinion that marriage in her time was for financial reasons, and love was often a matter of chance. Through the marriages portrayed in her novel, Jane Austen connects lives of her characters and illustrates her ideas for a happy marriage.
Ahearn states that Austen’s work is viewed by some critics as “the very evidence of social history.” (399) As Stone notes in his historical research about 19th century England, happiness was not the main reason for many people to marry. (667) Most women married for wealth and stability while most men viewed marriage as a way to provide themselves with companionship and comfort. A man might also seek a wife based on the dowry and allowance she would receive. Society at that time had little social acceptance of a woman who remained single. It was also difficult for women to acquire money without inheriting or marrying. (668) “In everything that women attempt, they should show their consciousness of dependence”, meaning their dependence on a husband. (331) “Marriages are here the consequence of politic schemes for forming interests, carrying on business. Love had very little or no share in the matter.” (294)
The union between Mr. Collins and Charlotte is the perfect example of this type of financial arrangement. Charlotte was older than many women when they married, so finding a husband was getting more and more difficult. She accepted Mr. Collins’ proposal simply to guarantee herself security and to avoid being an old maid. “Miss Lucas, who accepted him solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment, cared not how soon that establishment were gained.” (Austen 83) Mr. Collins needed companionship and someone to care for his home and his needs. His lack of desire for love in a marriage seemed obvious because he was able to turn his attention from one person to another so quickly. Once he discovered that Jane might be engaged, he “only had to change from Jane to Elizabeth.” (48). When Elizabeth refused him, he turned his attention to Charlotte. Harding observed that through Elizabeth, Austen was able to express her unwillingness to accept that basis for a marriage. (298) He also noted that autobiographical information indicated that Austen herself refused a marriage proposal that was for financial gain. (299)
Marrying for financial reasons did not ensure happiness, but neither did marrying for physical attraction and the excitement of a new relationship. Lydia and Wickham’s marriage had this type of beginning. Lydia is totally swept away by Wickham’s good looks and charming behavior. According to Van Ghent, she is more impressed by the uniform than with the man wearing it. (302) However, with the small allowance that Lydia was to receive, it was doubtful that Wickham would have actually married Lydia without Darcy stepping in and contributing to their finances. When asked by Darcy why he had not married Lydia immediately, Wickham replied that he “still cherished the hope of more effectually making his fortune by marriage, in some other country”. (Austen 210) Once the excitement and newness wore off, the relationship between Lydia and Wickham changed. “His affection soon sunk into indifference; hers lasted a little longer.” (253)
Although Austen does not describe how Mr. and Mrs. Bennet began their marriage, there are clues that their relationship was similar to Lydia and Wickham. (Chan) Mr. Bennet had married a woman based on her attractiveness, but he found other traits of hers to be annoying after they had been married for some time. In a statement to Elizabeth he says, “My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life.” (Austen 246) He also sought refuge from his wife by retreating to his library or simply not paying attention to his family. Through these two marriages, Austen showed that choosing a spouse should be based on more than a physical attraction or the relationship can disintegrate, and people can lose respect for one another. (Chan)
Although Jane and Bingley found each other attractive, there is more depth to their relationship than just on a physical level. They had personalities that complimented one another, and their conversations showed respect and deep feelings growing in their relationship. Austen used Jane and Bingley as one of her examples of a successful marriage. She expressed this opinion through Elizabeth:
… she had to listen to all he had to say, of his own happiness, and of Jane’s perfections; and in spite of his being a lover, Elizabeth really believed all his expectations of felicity, to be rationally founded, because they had for basis the excellent understanding, and super-excellent disposition of Jane, and a general similarity of feeling and taste between her and himself.” (Austen 226)
Austen used Darcy and Elizabeth’s courtship and marriage to represent a truly happy and successful marriage. They developed a deep love for one another as well as financial security, equal intellects and physical attraction. Their relationship was not one that happened quickly. They spent time getting to know one another which helped both of them overcome the prejudices that they had when they first met each other. The events they experienced gave them an opportunity to learn more about one another and establish a firm base for their relationship to last. Elizabeth even explained this to her father in “relating her absolute certainty that his affection was not the work of a day.” (246)
Even though the marriages of Jane to Bingley and of Elizabeth to Darcy contain the “social formula of marriage-to-property” (Van Ghent 303), these couples are able to build their relationships on more than superficial qualities. (Chan) In Pride and Prejudice, Austen showed contrasts in the marriages of her characters not only to connect their lives but to also express her ideas for the basis of a happy and lasting marriage. Those ideas are relevant for today’s relationships just as they were in Jane Austen’s time.