Poverty and Marriageability: Parallels in Two Jane Austen Texts
Jane Austen’s novels perform multiple functions individually as moral tales. However, they also occasionally work together to explore propriety in early nineteenth century England. Proper behavior for women often centered on their interactions with men. A woman’s reputation was the backbone for her marriageability, and because marriage was the only method of success for women, it was also their bread and butter. Socio-economic status was a major component to a woman’s ability to find a good husband as well. In Jane Austen’s novels, she explores the relationship between social rank and decorum, coming to a moral or didactic conclusion in the form of marriage. The novels are often viewed individually in this respect. However, the novels Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion work together to create a more expansive, almost sociological view of women in British culture in the late 1790s to the early nineteenth century. The most outstanding figures of these novels which function on this level are the two eldest Dashwood sisters and the two eldest Elliot sisters. The driving force behind how the sisters navigate their hopes for marriage is not just financial and social, but a moral device in which the two novels work side by side to show the pitfalls extreme ideas.
Marianne and Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility have seemingly opposed methods of directing their emotions, but closer examination shows that the women represent two sides of the same coin. A woman’s control over their emotional state was partially dependent on her ability to appear unaffected by circumstances. To be too open with one’s emotions was damaging to this image. Sense and Sensibility “is obviously aligned with something opposed to sensibility, specifically the good ‘sense’ and propriety that […] Elinor continually displays in the face of disappointment or adversity, it remains […] just as faithful to the sisters as a unit (as opposed to a binarism) or to a sisterhood writ large” (Galperin 187). Elinor often obfuscates her passions with her ability to maintain composure. While Elinor represents a moderate womanhood through her use sense, Marianne cannot fathom how a man of milder disposition than herself could attract a woman. When thinking about the possibility of Elinor’s attachment to Edward, she exclaims, “the more I know of the world, the more am I convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love. I require so much!” (Austen 32). Her high emotional state and her emphasis on sentimentality come together to create a woman governed solely by passion. Her eventual failed love affair with Willoughby changes her opinion later in the novel, but in the beginning of her story, her focus on passion sets her up for trouble. She represents an extreme, a cautionary tale for women who may allow their passions to guide them, rather than guiding their passions. Elinor’s love for Edward is not weak in comparison to Marianne’s attachment to Willoughby. In a way, the sisters are actually coming from the same social rank, reputation, and background. Their differences show how behavior affects women in similar positions in society. The roles of Elinor and Marianne set the stage for viewing other novels as part of a larger concept than simply a single didactic novel on romance.
Anne and Elizabeth Elliot of Persuasion provide two more sisters in seeming opposition, except that they demonstrate how either appreciation or pretentious ideas of one’s social standing can shift a woman’s marriageability. At the opening of the novel, both sisters are well into spinsterhood, with Elizabeth at twenty-nine years old and Anne at twenty-seven. Unmarried women were considered old at a relatively early age. The threat of spinsterhood was real and “typically entailed the loss of inclusivity, esteem, and status” (Neubauer 126). Anne avoids this dangerous outcome when she allows herself to speak openly about her opinions on the depth of emotional attachment between men and women. She tells Captain Harville that she believes women’s feelings for men to be “the most tender” (Austen 446). It allows Captain Wentworth to see that Anne had not turned him down because of arrogance for her social rank as a baronet’s daughter, but rather from the belief that she was doing the right thing for her family. The obviously unhappy ending in Persuasion comes to Elizabeth, who loses what she saw as her chance to marry Mr. Elliot when Anne becomes engaged to Captain Wentworth. Austen tries to temper the difficulty that she will likely face later in life when estate settles on Mr. Elliot by saying, “It would be well for the eldest sister if she were equally satisfied with her situation, for a change is not probable there” (Austen 478). She does not give Elizabeth a happy ending for all her conniving focus on a man’s economic benefits to her, instead cautioning ambitious women to find a way to be happy when their endeavor fails. Showing too much pride in one’s financial prospects leads to Elizabeth’s ruin. These seemingly individualistic concerns of daily life provided contemporary readers with a glimpse into how their choices might affect their long-term happiness. The nuances of their daily lives not only reveal the women’s character but also set the backdrop for the circumstances in which the women with happy endings can learn the lessons which will end their spinsterhood.
The happy endings achieved in the novel provide diverse types of rewards for women who follow the belief in moderation. Austen’s goal in her narrative construction seems to be at least partially to instruct. One of the most relatable methods of accomplishing that task is “to provide models for ethical development, then a primary pathway to that development is through the details of everyday experience” (Weiss 256). The three women who come to learn moderation, either of feeling or composure, are Anne Elliot, and the two Dashwoods. Anne and Elinor, who began their stories with the most sense, decorum, and composure marry the men with whom they had initially fallen deeply in love. Marianne loses Willoughby but gains a far more honorable match in Colonel Brandon, though heartbreak alters her spirits and it is unclear whether she loves him or not. Marianne learns to moderate her intense passions, allowing her to have at least a kind ending. She will not be a spinster. Marianne does not end up with a dishonorable husband or a poor one. Austen explains the reason for Marianne’s change in fortune when she tells Elinor, “I compare it [behavior] with what it ought to have been; I compare it with yours” (Austen 644). While the details are relevant to the didactic theme of the novels as a unit, larger themes play a role in this as well.
One of the potential impediments each of these four women experience is how financial difficulties can lead to family degradation. As one scholar notes of the elegiac tone in scenes in which character meditate on family honor, “the regret Anne expresses appears to be related to the heroine’s sense of degradation in her family’s social position, a feeling of injured pride articulated the moment Anne crosses the threshold of the apartment in Bath” (Solinger 272). Both families suffer economic decline early in the novels. How each sister attempts to get over that hurdle on the marriage market in part determines her ability to find a husband. At the start of Persuasion, Elizabeth has been “presiding and directing” over the domestic affairs of the Elliot estate for thirteen years (Austen 10). In her tenure as a major decision maker in the family’s finances, she has played an active part in the increase of their debts by not seeing any way in which the family could “retrench” (Austen 16). By the end of the novel, she has not changed much. Anne, however, had “wanted more vigorous measures, […] a quicker release from debt” (Austen 22). Anne’s ability to compromise with Lady Russell in developing the financial plan shows her moderation from the very beginning. The Dashwood sisters look to marriage, however, as they are not the daughters of a titled gentleman. Austen’s endings for each character provides the ultimate cautionary tale for women to adhere to moderation in both shrewdness and sentimentality.
The aforementioned narrative elements of the two novels allow them to work separately and together as didactic novels which taught contemporary readers to moderate both their emotional and logical selves. Judy Stove discusses Jane Austen’s possible thoughts on the purpose of novels writing, “the background to Austen’s comments [about novels] was the widespread view that to instruct was not only an added benefit, but should be the prime purpose, of the novel” (Stove 3). Anne and Elizabeth Elliot from Persuasion along with Elinor and Marianne Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility create a spectrum of women’s attitudes toward marriage and fortune. On one end of this spectrum, Marianne represents women who want to marry for love and passionate emotions, initially focusing on the sentimental aspects of romantic love. Elizabeth Eliot occupies the other extreme and seems to focus primarily on the financial benefits of a good match. She says little on the subject of love or affection. Elinor and Anne show more moderation from the beginning and occupy the central space. Elinor’s love for Edward Ferrars is not in question, yet she shows this affection only twice. She knows that her station and financial situation affect her ability to compete in the marriage market. Thus she keeps it to herself. The descriptions of Anne’s reactions to Captain Wentworth show that she continued to love him in his absence, though she hardly allows herself to hope that he might still return those feelings. Her age, as well as her fortune and social rank, are a hindrance to her ability to chose Captain Wentworth when they first meet, eight years before the novel. Ultimately, the women who find the most obvious happiness were the ones with greater moderation from the beginning.
When the two novels are viewed in conjunction with one another, the educational quality of Austen’s novels becomes richer and more nuanced than when the two are seen separately. Jane Austen’s novels have multiple potential readings and interpretations. While none of the common interpretations are inherently incorrect, the debate over her intention is less important than the effect her novels have on modern readers as well as the effect they had on her contemporaries. Through carefully crafted narratives Austen developed a contemporary mythology for women to navigate the world of marriage competition. Her practically scientific revelations of how behavior affects social rank on the marriage market show that her little English villages are actually microcosms of the country’s social dynamics. While her novels showcase enduring romances, sharp criticism of the culture’s failings, and allow for readers to develop their interpretation of several endings, such as Marianne’s, the didactic quality should not be overlooked. Moderation in all things seems to be the key to happiness according to Jane Austen’s novels.Works Cited
Austen, Jane. The Annotated Persuasion. Annotated and edited by David M. Shapard, Anchor Books, 2010.
Austen, Jane. The Annotated Sense and Sensibility. Annotated and edited by David M. Shapard, Anchor Books, 2011.
Galperin, William. “Adapting Jane Austen: The Surprising Fidelity of Clueless.” Wordsworth Circle, vol 42, no. 3, EBSCOhost, Summer 2011, pp. 187-193.
Neubauer, Breanna. “This Old Maid: Jane Austen and Her S(p)i(n)sters.” Midwest Quarterly, vol 56, no. 2, EBSCOhost, Winter 2015, pp. 124-138.
Solinger, Jason. “Jane Austen and the Gentrification of Commerce.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction, vol 38, no. 2/3, EBSCOhost, Spring/Summer 2005, pp. 272-290.
Stove, Judy. “Instruction with Amusement: Jane Austen’s Women of Sense.” Renascence, vol 60, no. 1, EBSCOhost, Fall 2007, pp. 2-16.
Weiss, Deborah. “Sense and Sensibility: Uncertain Knowledge and the Ethics of Everyday Life.” Studies in Romanticism, vol 52, no. 2, EBSCOhost, Summer 2013, pp. 253-273.
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