In today’s marriage debates it is far too easy for some to forget that for over 2,000 years the definition of marriage was a closed issue. Not closed because other relationships were unknown, especially among the social elite, but because natural differences and long custom had established a view of the relationship that was held as self-evident.
Victorian culture, however, eroded this foundation. Not (as many would say) by placing too great an emphasis on marriage, but in doing so for the worst of reasons – money – and thereby reducing marriage to a mere economic relationship. In my view, the clearly reasoned and passionately portrayed argument against this view remains one of Austen’s chief accomplishments. Her works are filled with women experiencing the ubiquitous tension between marital bliss and financial stability. Yet, it would be easy to overlook the fact that for men, too, this became a real issue in the pursuit of one’s lifelong companion.
Consider the villains of two of Austen’s more famous works, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. In both cases the male character that in the end becomes the antagonist is none other than the man who chooses to marry for wealth rather than true regard. Thus, while both the readers and the characters themselves are initially won over by the charm of John Willoughby and George Wickham, in the end both men fall from grace. The tension between wealth and happiness is therefore just as present in the lives of Victorian men, but even more lamentable, since it remains primarily in their power to change things for the better.
But as we have pointed out before, Austen does not propose systematic reform, but instead calls on otherwise eligible bachelors to act in accord with their heart and head, while also tempering women’s expectation that marriage will solve all of their problems. Otherwise, the prominent women in her stories would have died old maids; instead, they fall in love, marry rich men, and settle down to live happily ever after. Austen therefore reminds us that while financial security remains an important part of family life, happiness cannot be bought.
What was even worse with the Victorian view of marriage, though, was its subjugation of the souls of men and women to these essentially economic ends. Education in Victorian England thus became focused on producing male heirs in order to provide for one’s future financial security. And this, of course, led to a logical conclusion for women: educating them in order to secure an advantageous marriage.
Thus for the Victorian woman, education became one of “accomplishment” in various home-grown skills as opposed to any formal system of schooling. Though such an arrangement would perhaps be effective in particular subjects for both boys and girls, it had the effect of producing skill without instilling a commensurate regard for good sense. Consider the early conversation at Netherfield in Pride and Prejudice concerning such “accomplished” women:
“Oh! certainly,” cried his [Mr. Darcy’s] faithful assistant [Miss Bingley], “no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved.”
Miss Bingley clearly intends her remarks to appropriate to herself the honor of being “accomplished,” in contrast to Elizabeth. Darcy, however – in order to deflect Miss Bingley’s overt attempt to impress him and to point to Miss Bennet’s greatest asset – states that a good reader is to be preferred over one who is accomplished in everything but the use of her mind.
A similar conversation arises at Rosings Park, in which Lady Catherine becomes at first gravely interested and then outright shocked that Elizabeth and her sisters have never had a governess to look after and instruct them in such feminine arts. Her concern is that such a lack of attention and diligence on the part of the parents must only produce an equal lack of diligence on the part of the children; the girls must have been greatly neglected. Elizabeth’s reply presents a quite different view: “Compared with some families, I believe we were; but such of us as wished to learn never wanted the means. We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary. Those who chose to be idle, certainly might” (ch. 29).
In both conversations, and in rather different contexts, then, we see Darcy and Elizabeth come to the same conclusion concerning education: much is certainly to be learned and some of this does indeed require specialized instruction, but in the end a broadminded, diligent reader will never fail to be the better student.
Austen’s views on marriage are therefore intimately connected to her views on virtue and human nature. Neither marriage or education can thus be tied to economic ends (a lesson both capitalists and communists need to learn), but must instead seek to cultivate the perfection of our lives through the reformation of our souls. In other words, what makes Austen’s novels work so well (and distinguishes her these days as a conservative) is her belief in right and wrong.