Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen

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In her biography of Elizabeth Macarthur (review) Michelle Scott Tucker makes the point that Elizabeth, who grew up at about the same time as and in similar circumstances to Jane Austen, was an Elizabeth Bennet who married a Wickham rather than a Darcy. I was thinking about that as I listened to P&P this week, my nth re-reading since high school, in preparation for arguing the case that Elizabeth (Bennet) should have married not Wickham, nor Darcy, but Mr Collins.

Jane Austen was born in 1775 (Eliz.Macarthur in 1766) and Pride & Prejudice was first offered to a publisher in 1797. Elizabeth Bennet is 20 or 21 and we can assume that the year in which the story takes place is about 1795. At that time Napoleon was at war with Austria and Prussia (timeline) but not with England. I don’t know my English history well enough to know why England had a standing militia – Wickham is of course in the county militia – but perhaps in preparation for the war with France which was finally declared in 1803. The previous (English) war, as far as I know was the American War of Independence (1775-83) in which the young John Macarthur fought before joining the NSW Corp and sailing in the Second Fleet, which left England for NSW in 1789.

I wanted to establish that to make clear that there was no reason for an unusual shortage of husbands at the time of P&P as there may have been 20 years later after Wellington’s campaigns in Spain and then Waterloo. Also, we (readers of Georgian romance) tend to regard the prospects of younger sons as entirely hopeless, but in fact we know – and the story of the Macarthurs is an example – that there were considerable opportunities throughout the New World.

Jane Austen and her older sister Cassandra both had chances or half chances to marry but appear to have preferred to withdraw from the marriage market and to live together with their mother, and while he was alive, their father. This is not an option Austen allows her heroines, all of whom marry for love, and if not all of them marry into prosperity as Elizabeth and Jane Bennet do, then at least into comfortable livings.

Jane’s father retired in 1801 and died in 1805, leaving Mrs Austen, Cassandra and Jane in straitened circumstances for four years until Edward Knight (Jane’s brother) offered them a house on his estate at Chawton. How predictable this was a decade earlier when P&P was written I’m not sure, but the situation of Mrs Bennet and her daughters is more or less identical – that they would be homeless and almost without income when Mr Bennet died. And it must have been something Jane was thinking about because it was also the situation of Mrs Dashwood and her daughters in Sense & Sensibility, for which there was a first draft by 1800.

So the big question is why does Elizabeth reject security not just for herself but for her mother and sisters, when it is offered by Mr Collins. Charlotte Lucas, six years older than Elizabeth and all qualms quashed by impending spinsterhood, sees exactly what Mr Collins is offering and has no hesitation in seizing it.

When Elizabeth refuses Mr Collins her father famously says:

An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents – Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.

Then, near the end, after Mr Darcy has offered for Elizabeth, her father says more seriously:

I know your disposition, Lizzy. I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable, unless you truly esteemed your husband; unless you looked up to him as a superior. Your lively talents would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage. You could scarcely escape discredit and misery. My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life. You know not what you are about.

So clearly, Mr Bennet favours Elizabeth waiting for Mr Right, and we can guess that his sentiments are those of the author. Austen in her own life seems to have chosen poverty ahead of marriage, and in P&P she has both Jane and Elizabeth run the risk of certain poverty (on the eventual death of their father) while holding out for improbable suitors – Jane and Mr Bingley are at least of the same class, if of unequal wealth, but Mr Darcy is another step up again.

There are many reasons to read Jane Austen, and one of mine, the principal one even, is my enjoyment of the romances. But these romances are just that, romantic, and gloss over the realities of life for genteel women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Women were dependent, on their fathers, on the generosity of the head of their wider family, and ultimately on their husbands. Even if they brought wealth into a marriage, they did not retain or control it.

Austen barely introduces us to any of the militia other than Wickham, who of course proves unsuitable, but what I was attempting to tease out in my opening paras was that if Elizabeth had found an officer she liked – and her younger sisters certainly found plenty to choose from – and was prepared to start out relatively humbly, then she may have eventually found some comfort as an officer’s wife. But Austen does not make this an option.

The option she does offer Elizabeth – if we allow that at the time of Mr Collins’ visit Jane’s expectations of Mr Bingley were worth holding out for –Β  is vastly superior – a husband with a good living at Rosings and the certainty of inheriting her father’s estate, and with it the opportunity to provide an ongoing home for her mother and those of her sisters who had not married. That’s why I say Elizabeth has a duty to accept Mr Collins, not just to secure her own future, but also that of her mother and sisters.

 

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, first pub. 1813, version reviewed published by Audiogo, read by Lindsay Duncan

Other Austen-related posts –

Mothers of the Novel, Dale Spender, here
Evelina, Fanny Burney, here
Sense and Sensibility, here
Three Novels, Jane Austen, here
Love and Freindship, here
Jane Austen: Independent Woman, here
Jane’s Fame, Claire Harman, here
Sue at Whispering Gums, here

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19 thoughts on “Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen

  1. Methinks you forget the hazards of childbirth. Many women did marry in order to provide for impoverished family, but we should never forget that marriage meant a high risk of dying young in childbed. To take that risk for a fellow you didn’t care for, seems like a big ask to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That was Miles Franklin’s view of the situation too, though I’m not sure it was JA’s – very few young mums in her novels, and very few large families when you think about it. Still, I’m not the party at risk, am I.

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      • I’ve had a very busy week since last Tuesday, so am only catching up now. Lisa is right. Jane Austen makes a few statements in her letters about childbirth.

        Here are a couple (both from around 1798): “I believe I never told you that Mrs. Coulthard and Anne, late of Manydown, are both dead, and both died in childbed”
        And around a similar time comes this very famous statement: “Mrs. Hall, of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.”

        Her brother Edward’s wife Elizabeth died two days after giving birth to their 11th child!! It was only after this that he offered his mother and two sisters the Chawton home.

        So, I don’t think it’s something she would have undertaken lightly.

        Pragmatically you are right that Elizabeth Bennet “should” have married Mr Collins for the sake of herself and her mother and sisters, but while Austen was somewhat pragmatic, I think she wanted to tell some different stories about women’s lives. After all, she had already published Sense and sensibility and shown the struggle the Dashwood mother and girls faced (albeit she eventually plucked E and M out of what was going to be a tough life.)

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      • That “should” was the only concession I was seeking. I enjoy a soppy romance as much as the next guy, I just wanted to point out that like all romances P&P wasn’t very realistic.

        Of course I can see childbirth is a compelling argument against marriage, but I’m not convinced it was an argument much made at that time

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  2. It’s nice to read a review of a book that we (assumptions made there!) all know so well, so thank you Bill.

    I guess duty guided a lot of things in Austen’s age (and still does) however there’s always room to break ranks – and aren’t we glad that Jane and Lizzie did?

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  3. I was assigned this book in college, but I never finished it. I was taking too many classes in my attention span was waning. I have seen the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, of course, and everyone loves it, including me. I do need to read the book at some point in time, though. Not long ago I read Northanger Abbey, and I found it rather dry in all the places where the narrator describes society. Whenever the two main lovers got together, I really enjoyed myself as I read their banter. Austen sure can be funny, but in that book she added in a lot of dryness in the Pump room.

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    • I was assigned this book in my final year of high school and read and re-read it instead of studying – with predictable results. Since then I’ve read everything of Jane Austen’s that I could, including some of the recent spin-offs (which are of variable quality) and now I’m making a start on her predecessors.

      Austen is funny, she attacks her victims with a dry wit. I love it all – the descriptions and the back stories and the love stories. I can only recommend you one day fit P&P into your busy schedule – read it to your husband in bed maybe. One warning though, Darcy doesn’t do the wet shirt thing in the actual book.

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      • Ha! I didn’t think Darcy would really get his shirt wet! You’re too fun, Bill 😁 I think you’re right; it’s a good idea to read to my husband. He loves Victorian lit. I believe David Copperfield is his favorite.

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      • What do Anglo-Saxons have with this wet shirt scene in the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice?
        I don’t understand the fascination, really but I’ve seen it mentioned over and over.
        Any clue?

        I guess Elizabeth should have accepted Mr Collins but she wouldn’t be herself anymore if she had.

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      • As a guy, I can only report that Darcy emerging from the lake is the first thing any woman mentions when you say Pride & Prejudice. Can’t see it myself! I guess you’re right about Elizabeth though I’m inclined to think she would have struggled more with her sense of duty than JA gives her credit for.

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      • The wet shirt scene among my JA friends is a bit of a hoot. None of us serious JA readers take it seriously but the romantics in us all get a laugh out of it, partly because it is the woman’s answer to all those sexist wet t-shirt competitions where men ogle women. For me it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek when I join in. After all, I like thinking men rather than hunks.

        As for the “should” I’m very happy to give you that concession. As for whether Elizabeth would think about it more than JA lets on, all I can say is that Elizabeth begins and ends on the page. The rest is just speculation!!

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      • Ah! That’s British / feminist sense of humour! Silly French me couldn’t see it, probably because I don’t think that Colin Firth is particularly attractive. πŸ™‚

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      • What?! Colin Firth not attractive? That must be a French perspective 😁 I haven’t fallen for many Darcys but I think he is gorgeous, even twenty years older, now, I think he’s worth a second look. Haha. And the wet shirt scene has nothing to do with it as I’m all about eyes, as smiles!

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