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Character, Contemplation, and Counteraction: Jane Austen’s Three Keys to Extraordinary Marriages

Jane Austen adored “happily ever after” endings. Her novels unfailingly conclude with wedded bliss—Jane and Bingley, Lizzy and Darcy, Emma and Mr. Knightley, Elinor and Edward, Marianne and Colonel Brandon, Anne and Captain Wentworth, Catherine and Henry, Fanny and Edmund. However, Austen did not naively believe all marriages were happy. Her novels are strewn with ill-suited, disgruntled couples. Has Austen abandoned her heroines to the whims of matrimonial fate? Are her abbreviated denouements not a stylistic choice but a wish to close the narrative before marital discord appears? Does an author so quick to ridicule human folly indulge in it herself by universally granting fairy tale nuptials, despite the unlikely odds? No. Jane Austen’s novels are coming-of-age stories, where the personal growth of the main characters, built on foundations of virtue, position them to enter matrimony with sufficient favorable auspices to promise marital harmony.

Determining the keys to happy marriages begins with understanding the marital customs of Regency England. Parental involvement ran the gamut from authoritarian dictates to ignored opinions. At one extreme is arranged marriages, pairings determined by the parents of those to wed, with little consideration for the bride and groom’s wishes. These parental edicts could be longstanding, such as Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s for Anne and Darcy, or of more recent invention, as in Mrs. Ferrars’ interest in Miss Morton. While these weddings were not forced, only extreme measures could prevent them. The loss of Mr. Darcy’s parents, coupled with his unyielding temper, empowered him to oppose the overwhelming force known as Lady Catherine. Edward Ferrars lost his fortune due to his non-compliance. At the other end of the spectrum are unions made despite parental objections. Wickham and Lydia lived in anonymous impropriety in London. Fearing repercussions for her sister’s misbehavior, Julia Bertram fled with John Yates to Scotland’s laxer marriage laws. Robert Ferrars and Lucy Steele went to the altar privately, not letting Mrs. Ferrars hear of (and object to) the plan. The majority of marriages, however, fell between these extremes.

Most betrothed in Jane Austen’s novels sought parental blessings for their desired unions. While many Georgian youths would be grieved to disappoint a parent, financial and legal concerns also motivated them to obtain permission. Picking an approved partner was necessary to ensure receiving a portion of the parents’ assets or assistance obtaining a clergyman’s living or a military commission. Parental consent was also a necessary legality. Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act, aimed at eliminating clandestine marriages, required parental consent for youths under the age of 21. If the parents refused, the couple must wait until they were of age or elope to a nearby Scottish border town such as Gretna Green.

Some married for love, while others united for convenience. Young ladies of this social class could not work, so those not in possession of a sufficient fortune must wed or become a burden to their families. In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas accepted Mr. Collins’ proposal “solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment”; she felt no genuine affection (91). Rapidly approaching spinsterhood, Charlotte chose the security of life with a foolish man over the possibility of bare subsistence. Although Lizzy lambasted Charlotte’s choice, she understood that finances must play a role in wedding plans. Concerning Wickham’s pursuit of Ms. King, Lizzy queried, “What is the difference in matrimonial affairs, between the mercenary and the prudent motive? Where does discretion end, and avarice begin?” (112). Further, she felt no ill will toward Colonel Fitzwilliam, whose pecuniary concerns prevented him from considering young ladies without fortunes (134). With ladies’ nonexistent options for income and gentlemen’s limited respectable professions, young people faced the reality that taking vows must intersect with practicality. With the complexities surrounding the marital situation now delineated, it remains to analyze the marriages in Austen’s novels to determine why she felt justified in gifting all her heroines wedded bliss.

Is there a secret to guaranteeing marriage will lead to happiness for husband and wife? How can couples avoid the fate of Wickham and Lydia, where “affection . . . soon sunk into indifference” (Pride 280)? Can spouses desire each other’s company, or are they doomed to Charlotte Collins’ fate of hiding in the sitting room her husband is less likely to frequent? The secret lies with the most felicitous of Austen’s established couples, Persuasion’s Admiral and Mrs. Croft. Considered “particularly attached and happy” by Anne, the Crofts truly enjoyed each other, whether dawdling outdoors, sailing the seas, or courting disaster in their gig (Persuasion VIII). What qualities are needed to achieve the domestic felicity of the Crofts? Mrs. Croft revealed the first key while speaking to her husband: “I had known you by character, however, long before” (X). The most fundamental aspects of marital success do not rely on the compatibility of the two parties but on each person independently. Success in marriage, as in life, depends on each individual’s moral character.

Morality is a must for both parties. Being a good person is requisite to being a good spouse. Fanny Price wisely refused to accept Henry Crawford. As devoted as he seemed, his past belied the absence of the firm foundation of good principles essential to guide him through life’s decisions. Although Anne could not charge Mr. Elliot with moral failings (except for behavior in the distant past), his want of openness made her question how much of his character she truly was acquainted with. Time proved her qualms justified. A lack of solid moral grounding results in disastrous relationships. Maria Bertram, who abandoned first her wifely affection and then her home, “had been instructed theoretically in [her] religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice” (Mansfield XLVIII). Not only do good marriages require integrity in both parties, but those involved must also be able to contemplate their possible shortcomings and amend their behavior to counteract those weaknesses.

Austen highlights a person of character’s further need for reflection and remediation as she notes Marianne Dashwood’s “extraordinary fate” in Sense and Sensibility: Marianne “was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims” (268). Heartbreak at the revelation of Willoughby’s character, coupled with a debilitating illness, gave Marianne Dashwood the time to reflect on her behavior. She recognized her past as “nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself, and want of kindness to others” (244). But realization alone will not suffice. One must change future conduct as well. Marianne shared her commitment with Elinor: “The future must be my proof. I have laid down my plan” (245). Learning to moderate her feelings and restrain her behavior gave her new tranquility, ultimately leading to a joyous attachment with Colonel Brandon.

Simply enduring hardships is insufficient; one must learn from them and seek to improve, as evidenced by a contrast between Emma’s Emma Woodhouse and Frank Churchill. Both Emma and Frank display flaws. Emma meddled in others’ romances without proper understanding and publicly embarrassed Miss Bates with her inconsiderate speech. Frank’s repeated tardiness in visiting his father and new bride exposed his failure at the “one thing . . . a man can always do, if he chuses . . . his duty” (125). Frank and Emma both behaved with impropriety, as part of Frank’s desire to deflect suspicion from his secret engagement to Jane Fairfax. Both Emma and Frank transgressed, but Emma is the one who, after Mr. Knightley’s reproofs, successfully acknowledged her errors and strove to correct them. She made amends toward Jane and Miss Bates and rejoiced when Harriet Smith accepted Mr. Martin. Emma assured Mr. Knightley that his attentions were beneficial: “I was very often influenced rightly by you . . . I am very sure you did me good” (402). Frank, however, did not earn his wished-for marriage to Jane through self-improvement but by the well-timed death of his aunt. The reader wishes them future happiness but suspects they will endure some painful lessons. Emma, on the other hand, rejoiced in the knowledge of Mr. Knightley’s superiority of character and the blessings that would bring to their lives.

Finally, Jane Austen’s three keys to extraordinary marriages—character, contemplation, and counteraction—depend on both parties’ worth. Consider Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland, a sweet girl, albeit naive and easily influenced, who wanted to do what was right. When Isabella was her constant companion, her character suffered. Not only was she unwittingly led into inappropriate schemes, but Isabella influenced Catherine’s imagination to run wild. Even after their separation, Catherine suffered the lingering effects of their fascination with the sensational, condemning the General of murder. However, Henry’s influence soon counteracted Isabella’s. He encouraged self-reflection: “Such feelings ought to be investigated, that they may know themselves” (25). Catherine, in the company of a mature soul, flourished and grew.  As in friendship, marriage is the synthesis of two souls.  To succeed, they must jointly hone each other.

Pride and Prejudice illustrates Austen’s three-fold theory: sound principles, accurate self-evaluation, and behavior improvement are necessary for happy marriages. Lizzy Bennet and Mr. Darcy were raised with strong morality but realized that they lacked in areas they perceived as strengths. After reading Mr. Darcy’s letter, Lizzy could comprehend what she had previously been blind to.

How despicably have I acted!’ she cried. “II, who have prided myself on my discernment! . . . Yet, how just a humiliation! . . . Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away where either were concerned. Till this moment, I never knew myself.” (151)

Correcting her misconceptions took time, but she learned to view Darcy and Wickham’s true worthiness. Mr. Darcy likewise addressed the unpleasant truth that he was not living up to his ideals. “I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit . . . . You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous” (267). Though not a pleasant process, both characters humbled themselves. Not only did they recognize their failings, but they sought to improve. At Pemberley, Darcy showed Lizzy “that [her] reproofs had been attended to” (267-8). Later, Lizzy observed that they both had “improved” their past conduct (266). The initial proposal would have resulted in a disastrous marriage. The intervening months allowed each to reflect and grow. They confronted their mistakes and made the necessary amends. Darcy confessed his wrongs toward Bingley. Lizzy restricted Wickham’s involvement with her and her family as much as possible. Their maturity and development allowed them to respect and love each other, embarking on married life with every promise of happiness.

Which path to matrimony promises conjugal bliss for both parties? Is marrying for love the best chance—or even the only chance—to achieve such a union? Although Austen would no doubt encourage marrying for love, it is neither a guarantee of wedded bliss, nor is its absence a sentence to regret. While not taking Charlotte’s dim view that “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance . . . it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life,” Austen would not deny the possibility marriages of convenience and arranged marriages between the right people could be happy (Pride, 17). Only those who elope are unlikely to find joy, as their actions show they yet lack the requisite moral character. The lessons gleaned from Austen’s novels apply whether or not romantic love has already blossomed. Loving a spouse is ideal; knowing his character is essential. Austen knew that adopting Charlotte’s advice is to blindly gamble away future felicity.

What, then, is the reader to glean from reflecting on the relationships in Jane Austen’s novels? Austen’s stories are not so much about the romance plot as about the maturation of her characters. Good people who strive to better themselves will grow to find themselves in good marriages. If a youth (or even a decrepit 35-year-old!) wants the best chance of achieving his own “happily ever after,” he should focus within first. She should develop character, not singing skills. He should contemplate his behavior, not his hairstyle. She should counteract her errors, not act counter to propriety. Then, when the time comes to turn his attentions outward, he should ascertain that the object of his interest matches his commitment to integrity and improvement. When choosing a marriage partner focuses on merging two upright people, not two fortunes, that blessed union will be “as secure as earthly happiness can be” (Mansfield, XLVIII). Those couples will indeed head toward an extraordinary fate.

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