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Growing into Love: A Comparison of Adolescent Marriage in Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility

Although she did not wed her own Mr. Darcy, Jane Austen wrote novels in which protagonists experienced maturity and growth that led them to marital unions. These unions were rooted in respect, love, and mutual understanding, but more important than the actual marriage is the journey of character growth for Austenian heroines. The characters who experience introspective growth are awarded the most advantageous marriages (e.g. Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Elliot, and Emma Woodhouse). Yet for every Elizabeth in Austen’s novels, there is a Lydia—a character who provides an example of what can happen when one does not seize the opportunity for growth.

It is a bit unfair to pit Lydia against characters who are five or more years her senior, but Lydia is not the only adolescent to grace Austen’s pages. As teenagers, barely out in society, Lydia Bennet (15) and Marianne Dashwood (16) each represent the adolescent point of view. Their perspectives stand in stark contrast to their older sisters (Elizabeth and Elinor) who represent experience and maturity, and who are often praised for their ability to sensibly navigate sticky social situations.

The period we know today as adolescence was not an acknowledged aspect of human development during the 18th century (Maurer). Shawn Lisa Maurer explains that a female navigating the 18th century needed both financial and psychological stability and could not afford to take risks because it could reflect poorly on herself and her family. These risks could be classified as running away with a soldier while unmarried or boisterously reacting to seeing your beloved in a crowded ballroom. Lydia and Marianne often receive the brunt of criticism for their behavior; however, they are simply gaining life experience. For Austen, the measure of worthiness does not come from avoiding mistakes. Instead, it comes from what characters do with themselves afterward.

Marianne and Lydia are both daughters of gentlemen and thus have a moderately high standard of living and should understand how to properly navigate polite society. They both face the complications of entailed inheritance. Lydia will one day join her sisters in being displaced at Longbourn by Reverend Collins, and Marianne’s standard of living falls precipitously when her stepbrother takes possession of the Dashwood family estate. As such, the Bennet and Dashwood daughters are intimately familiar with the pressure to marry to ensure their financial security, and, if possible, to provide for their families. Yet neither Marianne nor Lydia seems to take this responsibility into account as a priority for finding a prospective husband. Marianne would marry the man, whether prince or pauper, who fulfilled her requirements for passion, and Lydia would marry the man who showed her any modicum of attention.

At the beginning of the novel, Marianne has very decided opinions on marriage. In a conversation with her mother, she says,

“I could not be happy with a man whose taste did not in every point coincide with my own. He must enter into all my feelings; the same books, the same music must charm us both . . . the more I see 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 11)

Her view is romanticized, narrow, and immature, but understandable for her age. She recognizes she is seeking a man who may not exist and is resigned to the fact that she may not find him. About this resolute belief, Stuart Tave says: “To be fixed in opinion at her time of life, as Marianne sees herself, is to have stopped living and it makes her vulnerable” (as qt. in Morgan). We see that very vulnerability when her belief in love is challenged by a man whom she thought to be her one and only match.

Unlike Marianne, Lydia does not explain her views on marriage, but we gain a sense of her beliefs from her actions and the characterization of her behavior by her family. Throughout the novel, Lydia is driven by her need for attention and admiration. Instead of showing concern for her ill sister, she pursues her desire for a ball by requesting that Bingley keep his promise of hosting. Elizabeth Veisz argues, “Kitty and Lydia seem to have little inkling of the potential stakes involved in even the smallest units of social interaction, and they see plenitude, rather than a scarcity, of potential partners at their beloved dances and assemblies.” For the youngest Bennet daughters, courting is a matter of quantity over quality. Lydia does not care what qualities her future husband possesses because she doesn’t respect herself as an individual. Instead, she finds merit and worth in the status of being a wife, so any man will do.

Lydia is a teenager in desperate need of boundaries and guidance. As Elizabeth entreats her father to keep Lydia from traveling with the Fosters, she outlines Lydia as the

“most determined flirt that ever made herself and her family ridiculous. A flirt too, in the worst and meanest degree of flirtation; without any attraction beyond youth and a tolerable person: and from the ignorance and emptiness of her mind, wholly unable to ward off any portion of that universal contentment which her rage for admiration will excite” (Austen 116).

Lydia is youthful and tolerable to be around, but she is also naïve. Her inexperience and strong desire to elevate her status to wife will lead to trouble, and that trouble comes in the form of George Wickham.

Their vulnerabilities lead both Marianne and Lydia to crossroads that test their view of self and their beliefs about love: Lydia’s challenges occur when she runs away and lives with a man outside of wedlock, and Marianne’s begin when she gives her heart to a man, only to have him break it. It's these climaxes that test the mettle of their self-perspective and their ideals about love and marriage.

Lydia is impulsive and seems to conclude that Wickham loves her as much as she thinks she loves him, but Wickham had no interest in marrying Lydia. He is cornered and forced into it. The Bennets view the full scope of their unequal union when the couple visits. However, Lydia is oblivious to her wrongdoing and to Elizabeth’s disappointment at the entire affair. In response to Lydia’s attempt to describe her wedding, Elizabeth says, “I think there cannot be too little said on the subject.” To which Lydia responds, “La! You are so strange” (Austen 382). Lydia does not recognize the social damage her actions could potentially bring to her entire family. Instead, she is more preoccupied with a personal celebration of becoming a wife before her sisters.

While not so harrowing as forced marriage, Marianne suffers immense heartbreak when Willoughby becomes engaged to Miss Grey. Marianne lacks the emotional maturity to accept that Willoughby flirted with her and entertained the idea of a future with her while it suited his happiness. His actions, though despicable, didn’t break social convention, but he did shatter Marianne’s faith in true love.

Marianne’s heightened sensibility, and belief that Willoughby was her one and only, led her to an emotional and physical decline. With a fixed belief, Marianne cannot reconcile Willoughby’s engagement with the words he exchanged with her. She tells Elinor, “I felt myself to be as solemnly engaged to him as if the strictest legal covenant had bound us together” (Austen 102). Marianne was compelled to submit to the realization that Willoughby did care for her, but not enough to choose her. Her strict understanding of love leaves her with only one option: to live out her life alone. She is very much resolved to her fate; however, Austen allows Marianne space “first to inhabit and subsequently to grow out of adolescence” (Maurer 731). Marianne is not perfect, but she learned she can change her opinions.

Lydia does not change. Just as she was oblivious to her behavior at the beginning of the story, she remains so to the end. Her marriage is marred by unequal footing with a man who never wanted her and who uses her to procure a fortune from Darcy. As Lydia’s letter to Elizabeth so brazenly declares, “It is a great comfort to have you so rich . . . I do not think we shall have quite money enough to live upon without some help” (Austen 420). Lydia achieves her solitary goal of becoming a wife; however, Wickham’s affection sinks to “indifference” and Lydia’s lasted only a little while longer. Her inability to improve her self-worth is punished with a loveless marriage and the hope of survival based on her sister’s good fortune. Lydia behaves like the average teenager. She is exploring her world and making mistakes, and this is not the issue. Her fatal flaw is refusing to acknowledge and learn from the mistakes she makes.

When faced with the option of adhering to her strict beliefs or reconsidering her opinions, Marianne chooses the latter. Her shift in ideals happens gradually: first, she recognizes that her happiness was never Willoughby’s main objective, then through time, she is impressed with Colonel Brandon’s positive characteristics.

Colonel Brandon represents everything Willoughby is not, and consequently, everything Marianne believes she does not want. In her eyes, Colonel Brandon is old and troublesome, but we get a true sense of Colonel Brandon’s character from Elinor. He is “a companion whose judgment would guide, whose attendance must relieve, and whose friendship might soothe her! . . . Whatever he might feel, he acted with all the firmness of a collected mind” (Austen 169). Colonel Brandon is constant, discrete, attentive, and selfless. He is not full of the passionate fire Marianne first desires, but by the end of the novel, intimate knowledge of his goodness and “a conviction of his fond attachment to herself” (Austen 206) lead her to accept his advances. At nineteen and more settled in herself, Marianne agrees to marry Colonel Brandon. She discovered happiness in making him happy and eventually devoted herself to him instead of Willoughby.

If we map Lydia’s romantic trajectory, it begins with flirting with every eligible bachelor, shifts to the goal of becoming a wife at all costs, and concludes with living life in mutual indifference. Marianne’s romantic trajectory is guided from an idealized passionate romance to gratitude, to respect, to esteem, and finally love. Marianne’s limited understanding of relationships led her to staunchly hold principles she believed exhibited true sensibility. Fortunately, she acquired sense when it mattered most. Austen writes she had an “extraordinary fate” to discover her opinions were wrong and to change. She came to terms with her shortcomings and corrected her behavior. She learned nothing was fixed in stone, and that “Instead of falling a sacrifice to an irresistible passion” or “of remaining even forever with her mother,” she could find happiness with Colonel Brandon (Austen 206).

As Heidi Giles, an Austen critic, states, “For Austen, female ‘self’ and resolve are more important than marriage.” This is clear in the comparison of Lydia’s and Marianne’s marriages. In Lydia, we see the consequences of being stuck in adolescence, and with Marianne, we see the reward of maturing and recognizing she deserved to be respected. Lydia did not capitalize on opportunities for growth, while Marianne did. Thus, it is Marianne who finds herself “submitting to new attachments” (Austen 206) in the form of an advantageous marriage to a man who cares for her, provides an ample estate, allows her to be close to her beloved sister, and to whom she gives her whole heart.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Complete Novels: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition). National Geographic Books, 2006
  • Giles, Heidi. “Resolving the Institution of Marriage in Eighteenth-Century Courtship Novels.” Rocky Mountain Review, vol. 66, no. 1, Project Muse, 2012, pp. 76–82. https://doi.org/10.1353/rmr.2012.0017
  • Maurer, Shawn Lisa. “At Seventeen: Adolescence in Sense and Sensibility.” Eighteenth-century Fiction, vol. 25, no. 4, University of Toronto Press, Jan. 2013, pp. 721–50. https://doi.org/10.3138/ecf.25.4.721
  • Morgan, Susan E. “Polite Lies: The Veiled Heroine of Sense and Sensibility.” Nineteenth-century Fiction, vol. 31, no. 2, University of California Press, Sept. 1976, pp. 188–205. https://doi.org/10.2307/2933501
  • Veisz, Elizabeth. “Lydia’s Prospect: Scandal, Sequels, and Second Chances.” Persuasions 35 (2013), 235-243.
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