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Jane Austen’s novels are far less romantic than one imagines, as this analysis of the 'other women' in the Austen novels proves.
Jane Austen’s novels are far less romantic than one imagines, as this analysis of the ‘other women’ in the Austen novels proves.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” so begins one of the most loved novels of all times, Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.
Of course, Austen was using the sentence in a heavily ironical manner, because it was not really the single men of her time who were most in ‘need’ of matrimony, but the single women. While we usually tend to think of the Austen novels in terms of the romance in the lives of their lead female protagonists, there are many ‘other women’ in each of her famous novels, whose lives are affected by marriage or the lack of it in pretty dramatic ways; as one could argue that it did in Jane Austen’s own life. (Watch this vivid telling of her life, in which historian Dr. Lucy Worsley talks about a very ‘suitable’ proposal that Jane turned down, because it would have meant making babies, not books.)
I have recently been through a binge listening of all the four major Jane Austen novels one after the other – Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, Emma and the less popular Mansfield Park. I have of read all of them repeatedly at various periods of my life and even listened to them on audio before, but perhaps for the first time, it struck me forcefully that Jane Austen’s novels are not really conventional romances in the sense of man-and-woman-fall-in-love-and-live-happily-ever-after.
Yes, they include beautiful romances that come to satisfying conclusions, but there is also a darker vein running underneath. For every Elizabeth Bennett who gets her Mr. Darcy with good sense and character as well as ten thousand pounds, there is a Charlotte Lucas who has to make do with a silly Mr. Collins and find a happiness that consists in minimizing your husband’s presence in your daily life.
So, with the fresh reading of all the novels running through my head, here are some notes on the other women of the Austen novels (and if you’d like to listen to the novels yourself, Karen Savage’s recordings of the Jane Austen novels on Librivox are versions I cannot recommend enough).
This work assumes that you have read the novels yourself, so I will not be discussing the plots or offering a background in major detail here. If you haven’t read them, you could do a quick hop over to these notes to understand the broad outlines, but go on to read them sometime, ok?
Besides Elizabeth Bennett who is the ‘heroine’ of this novel, and her sister Jane who is a sort of second heroine, there are multiple other women in the novel to whom marriage matters. One of the few nasty characters in Austen novels is Miss Bingley, who is superficially friendly with Jane but cuts her when she realizes that she would rather not have Jane married to her brother. Miss Bingley is shown as exceedingly vain, fawning to those above her in the social hierarchy, condescending to those she considers below her, careful of appearances, capable of being deceitful – and above all, intensely desirous of attracting Mr. Darcy.
While Miss Bingley’s hypocrisy invites us to laugh at her, it is worthwhile looking at why Miss Bingley is so very keen to attract Mr. Darcy’s attention to herself. Austen makes a distinction between the overtly ingratiating tactics that Miss Bingley employs to get a man, and the ‘amiable’ qualities of the two older Bennett sisters that naturally attract sensible men to them. But the reality is that Bingley or Bennett, every woman without an independent fortune needed to put herself out in the way of catching a man, while creating the illusion that the man had wooed and caught her.
The fate of the Bennett sisters should they fail to land good marriages, will be dire indeed, with their father’s property being ‘entailed’ away from them simply because they are women. With the laws of the time often being loaded against women, marriage was a woman’s ‘truest preservation from want’.
Indeed, when Elizabeth seems to be in danger of falling for the charming Wickham, her aunt Mrs. Gardiner ventures to give her a hint that it would be a most ineligible match, since neither of them would bring any money to the marriage. Mrs. Gardiner assumes that ‘Lizzy’ does not need to be convinced on this point – that she knows already too well her duty to her family, which is to marry a good man certainly, but also, a man with some fortune.
So, the necessity of catching a personable man of some fortune was well known to all ‘genteel’ women and it is merely Miss Bingley’s rather hurly-burly way of going about it that is a mark against her. If women must marry, and marry well, it does feel a little unfair to Miss Bingley that she is not allowed to go about it in a manner more suited to her own personality!
The novel also presents multiple other cautionary tales, which when looked at closely make me wonder if Pride & Prejudice is a romance at all.
First, there is Mrs. Bennett who is shown as a silly woman who can only think of making marriages for her daughters, but Mrs. Bennett is marriage-obsessed precisely because she has five daughters to be married off – five daughters birthed in the hope of getting that elusive son who would ensure the succession of the Bennetts’ property within their own family. Now if these daughters had had the chance to work and earn in their own ways, marriage need not have been such an obsession. Jane Austen’s own mother was left in dire straits by the untimely death of her husband, needing to stretch her limited income to support herself as well as two unmarried daughters, Jane and Cassandra. So Mrs. Bennett may be foolish, but not quite so foolish as one may assume.
Then there is Charlotte Lucas whom I mentioned earlier, and Charlotte is quite clear that she is making the best of a bad bargain in accepting the pompous and foolish Mr. Collins – without the advantages of beauty or fortune, the only coin women have to play with, she has to make do with what she can get. Georgiana Darcy and Lydia Bennett, both of whom become involved with the profligate Wickam, illustrate what happens, or can happen to women who marry without the support of their families. Not only must a woman marry, but she must marry in the right way – there are few second chances.
Seen against these tales, the Jane-Bingley and Elizabeth-Darcy successes are the exceptions where love and fortune come together to make women’s lives comfortable.
If Pride & Prejudice has Miss Bingley competing with Elizabeth for Mr. Darcy’s attentions, Sense & Sensibility presents an even more complex antagonist. While Miss Bingley will at least not starve if she stays a spinster, Lucy Steele, the ‘other woman’ of Sense & Sensibility truly needs a man to make her way in the world.
Having become engaged to Edward Ferrers (the unlikely introvert hero of the novel) at a very young age, she refuses to release him from the engagement even when it is clear to her that the affection has lapsed and that he loves Eleanor Dashwood, the sober heroine of the novel.
It is easy to dislike Lucy, because she does not even have the excuse of being foolish. Instead, she is presented as being extremely clever in an opportunistic sort of way – whether it is seizing on the chance to stay with the well-off Mrs. Henry Dashwood (Eleanor’s sister-in-law) or later on, breaking her engagement to Edward and choosing to get married to his more dashing brother, Robert Ferrers.
Eleanor and Marianne Dashwood may represent Sense and Sensibility respectively but in one respect they are both united – that they will not consider marriage without love or at least affection. Lucy Steele, I feel, is Jane Austen’s reminder that many women of the time could not afford to be so fastidious. Born to a family in very modest circumstances, and without relatives who can give her an inheritance or any significant long-term support, Lucy Steele has to make her way up as she can, and she is clear that her first priority is the sustenance of Lucy Steele – something that goes against the very grain of what is considered appropriate feminine behavior.
While an Edward Ferrers, even if disinherited by his mother, can use his education to earn a living in some fashion, the same is not true for a Lucy Steele or any other ‘gentlewoman’ of the time, who received a middling education and had few professions open to her.
Lucy Steele and her ‘old maid’ sister who has lost her chance of marriage and salvation are the most important reminders of its critical importance to women. At the same time, Mrs. Dashwood, Eleanor and Marianne’s mother, is a reminder of a different sort – that marriage may be the only salvation on offer to women, but it is salvation of a dubious kind. Losing her husband unexpectedly, she is again left to the protection of a man, this time her stepson, who refuses to acknowledge her claims and leaves her and her daughters to a precarious existence. Clearly, marriage may be woman’s best chance of survival, but it is not a guaranteed one.
It is intriguing that the two female characters in the Jane Austen novels who are entirely independent of men – Lady Catherine De Burgh in Pride & Prejudice, and Mrs. Ferrers (Edward and Robert Ferrers’ mother) in Sense & Sensibility are both shown as highly proud and disagreeable women, caring only for their own opinion and heedless of anyone else’s comfort. I cannot help but wonder whether Jane Austen took some hidden delight in showing that women who acquired power could be as ruthless and self-willed as any patriarch of the time.
Emma should have been a proto-feminist novel since its heroine is the only woman in the Austen novels who declares that she is unlikely to marry, and not interested in getting married; that she can imagine a full life as a friend, an aunt and a valued member of her local community without being a wife.
Yet, to me, Emma is actually one of the more uncomfortable Austen novels, and far from viewing Emma herself as an autonomous woman, I feel that she is only given the slight appearance of independence.
Unlike Eleanor Dashwood or Elizabeth Bennett, Emma Woodhouse does not need to marry for security. Born to an affluent, respected family, one of the ‘first families’ in their parish, Emma is the proverbial child with a silver spoon. Not only is she wealthy, she is also beautiful, lively, talented, good-hearted and well liked – if not as perceptive or worldly-wise as she believes herself to be. There is no mention of any entails here, so presumably, Emma and her older (married) sister will inherit their father’s considerable estates and be able to live comfortably even after his death.
Yet, for all her protestations that she will never marry, at the age of 21, Emma ends up marrying the 38-year-old Mr. Knightley; and for all Mr. Knightley’s goodness, integrity, his love for Emma, his solicitude for her father, and truly considerate behavior to everybody else in their little community, it is hard to avoid coming to the conclusion that an Emma who had more opportunity to meet a few more men, may not have been quite so quick to marry Mr. Knightley.
After all, while Emma declares that she has no need to marry (from a financial perspective), her life as a spinster living alone after her father’s death would not have been all that comfortable. Women of the era did not usually live alone, and Emma would have had to either look for a suitable companion to live with her (not necessarily a friend or confidante), or perhaps even move to her sister’s household and be the aunt in constant attendance, not one who occasionally indulges the children.
Emma has been used to an independent and dignified role as the manager of her father’s household from a very young age, but what is unsaid is that this honour derives from the presence of her father. In his absence, even if the finances permitted it, custom and the demands of ‘propriety’ would not have allowed her to live life as her own mistress.
So Emma does need to marry after all, and in a world where 21-year-old Emma Woodhouse will never go to University or even travel freely, where is she to meet any men other than the few who come to their village? Emma (and Jane Austen therefore) is not unaware of this, when she reflects on the freedom that young men have to travel and work, which is not available to most women.
Emma lives at a time when most young people do not really have all that much independence – Frank Churchill for instance is bound to the whims and fancies of his cranky aunt; yet, young men still lead far less circumscribed lives than young women of the time – it is astonishing for instance that living in an island kingdom, Emma has never seen the sea, or even been to London.
The other women in the novel are worse off. Miss Taylor who becomes Mrs. Weston is shown as intensely conscious of her ‘obligation’ to Mr. Weston, who in offering marriage at an ‘advanced’ state in her life, has rescued her from the poverty in old age that is the fate of most governesses. In manners and education, Mr. Weston is shown as unequal to his wife and yet it is she who must be grateful for the gift of marriage bestowed on her.
Jane Fairfax is similarly rescued, and marriage to the adoring yet flighty Frank Churchill is the reward for her immense dignity, elegance and other virtues. Harriet Smith who is everything Emma is not – poor, silly, forever falling in love – is perhaps the extreme manifestation of women’s need to marry. Miss Bates is the dire warning to young women who do not marry.
Emma is the one novel in which all the women come to happy endings, paired off in ‘suitable’ ways. Including Isabella and John Knightley, there are fully five ‘happy couples’ at the end of the novel and yet, I’ve never found it a particularly cheerful novel. I’ve always wondered if lively Emma would not come to regret her marriage to a man almost twice her age when she has had so few chances to meet any other men.
I cannot help feeling that rather than being a romantic, Jane Austen was spinning a cautionary tale, telling her (female) readers, “Watch out! This is the best you can hope for.”
Mansfield Park is the darkest of Jane Austen’s four major novels, with marriage being almost out of bounds for its heroine Fanny Price. Raised to be a companion and general dogsbody to her Aunt Bertram, it is assumed that Fanny will never marry, and her unrequired love for her cousin Edmund is painful to watch. While Fanny is assured of a home, her place in it as the ‘poor relation’ is not always comfortable, and if Fanny didn’t marry, one has to wonder where she would have gone after her aunt and uncle passed away.
The other women in Mansfield Park are especially interesting characters, because they test the boundaries of society far more than any of the other female characters in Austen novels. Maria Bertram is engaged to the seriously stupid Mr. Rushworth and almost manages to disengage herself by her intense flirtation with Henry Crawford; yet, she cannot bring herself to discard the engagement when Crawford doesn’t ‘come up to scratch’ – if she cannot have one man, she must have another, and it is a tragedy for everyone when she elopes with Crawford just a few months after her wedding.
The novel is extremely unsympathetic to her and one of the cases where Austen really portrays a ‘fallen woman’, but I think a modern retelling could look at this character very differently. Raised to think only of fine clothes and attracting men, women like Maria and Julia Bertram are then punished when they put in practice what they have been taught.
I am not holding a candle for adultery here, but clearly, there is far more blame heaped on Maria Bertram than either Mr. Rushworth (to whom it should be clear enough that Maria cares two hoots for him) or Henry Crawford who actively participates in the affair but suffers very little for it. Maria on the other hand is ‘banished’ from all good society and can never be allowed to participate in normal life again.
Mary Crawford, the other key woman in the novel (and a sort of polar opposite to shy little Fanny) is also constantly admonished – for daring to have an opinion about the clergy as a poor choice of career and for being so bold as to share her opinions quite freely. I almost dislike Jane Austen in this novel for making her such a disagreeable character – simply because she has a mind of her own, doesn’t believe a little flirtation is such a bad thing, talks to men on equal terms, and has the gall to set some criteria on which man it will suit her to marry, rather than falling over any man’s proposal with gratitude. To modern minds, it is not clear at all why Mary Crawford is such a bad person. Because she has some financial independence and doesn’t quite need to marry desperately, it is clear that she is being choosy – not a very ‘amiable’ quality in a woman.
Written over two centuries ago, the ‘genteel’ women of the Jane Austen novels bear little apparent resemblance to upper class urban Indian women like me – yet, looking beneath the surface, the themes of marriage, dependence and independence that emerge will probably continue to resonate with us for some time to come.
Editors’ note: Tomorrow, 16th December, is Jane Austen’s birthday. This is a tribute to a genius who passed away too early at 41, and whose books have inspired so many.
Header image is a still from the movie Pride & Prejudice, 2005
Founder & Chief Editor of Women's Web, Aparna believes in the power of ideas and conversations to create change. She has been writing since she was ten. In another life, she used to be read more...
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