Jane Austen was born in 1775 and lived only 41 short years. In this time she published four novels and left two to be published after her premature death in 1817. A seventh lay incomplete and never published.
Each of her novels featured female protagonists in romantic and pastoral settings. Well known for her realism, biting irony and social commentary, Jane Austen is one of the most widely read novelists of the English language.
Her plots, though fundamentally comic, highlight the predicament of women in a world in which their social standing and economic security depends largely on men. Giving voice to women’s thoughts and feelings, Austen did so with wit and stunning insight.
George Whatley, reviewed Austen’s work in 1821, shortly after her death:
We suspect one of Miss Austin’s [sic] great merits in our eyes to be, the insight she gives us into the peculiarities of female characters. … Her heroines are what one knows women must be, though one never can get them to acknowledge it.
Austen’s strength is in her lack of sentimentality. In fact she is noted for critiquing the sentimental novels of the late 18th century and marking a move to realism in the 19th century. She makes fun of:
such novelistic clichés as love at first sight, the primacy of passion over all other emotions and/or duties, the chivalric exploits of the hero, the vulnerable sensitivity of the heroine, the lovers’ proclaimed indifference to financial considerations, and the cruel crudity of parents.
Her portraits of women, and of men, are subtle, insightful, acerbic and cuttingly close to home. Sir Walter Scott writing in 1816, commended her ability to copy…
…from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life, and presenting to the reader … a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him.
Nevertheless, every tale ends in a marriage not of sentimental love, nor of economic expediency but of the meeting of true minds and hearts.
Austen-men are known by women the world over to form a constellation of gentlemen who well…. er…..express their feelings.
John Willoughby, Colonel Brandon, Edward Ferrars, Fitzwilliam Darcy, Charles Bingley, Edmund Bertram, George Knightly, Edward Wentworth and the list goes on.
Each of her heroines find love, quite truthfully, and yet, Jane Austen herself never married.
Indeed she is recorded as saying,
The more I know of the world, the more I am convinced that I shall never see a man that I can really love.
So what is the disconnect for Austen between the narratives of her fictional characters and the marriage and love she saw in the world around her?
Julie Szego, in her article published in the Age earlier this year titled, Traditional Marriage: A bourgeois bargain for men, writes:
The American scholar Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History, says that while love has existed throughout history, “only rarely in history has love been seen as the main reason for getting married”. At different times, marriage served to forge ties between monarchs, emperors and tribes (read: finding the right in-laws), to affirm religious belief and to secure the inheritance of legitimate children…..
It wasn’t until the 18th century that marriage became bound up with an ideal of romantic love, and that coincided with the retreat of women into the domestic sphere. And even in our cynical age, the happily-ever-after fantasy sputters on, retailed through a bridal industry that’s light on irony – the virginal white gowns, the glossy photo spreads of rapturous bride and groom, the impossible expectations lurking off camera.
Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/comment/traditional-marriage-a-bourgeois-bargain-for-men-20150728-gimm90.html#ixzz3nlJfQiIW
Many of social requirements for marriage including economic need, title, land, sexual ownership, legitimacy of children and more have fallen away prompting social commentators to declare the institution obsolete.
In contrast however, while the social contraints that defined marriage in past generations have reduced, the popularity of marriage as an ideal and in fact intensity of debate surrounding the nature of marriage has only increased.
Considering that Jane Austen’s novels are as popular as ever, and stories enduringly end with the motif of marriage, the significance of the motif to our lives lies in something far deeper than social custom and commentary belies.
Maybe within such a contradiction lies the key to Jane’s hesitation to enter a marriage while writing consistently about it.
Articles such as Szego’s above posit that when marriage must lose much of its bourgeois connotations of heterosexual ownership for it to symbolise in truth, a union based on love.
Indeed, the symbol as marriage as the union with a lost “other”, culmination of narrative tension indicates there is something far more spiritual and transcendent about it.
It seems that the definition of marriage as the fulfilment of personal happiness is where definitions have gone wrong. Fulfilment, happiness, success – all these notions skim the surface of love and so marriage, remaining bourgeois and trite.
The power of literary embodiments of love, and the motif of wedding at the culmination and resolution of the conflict, brings marriage further into a notion of redemption, than of “happiness”.
Naturally the Judeo-Christian understanding of God does not resonate in a post-Christian society. But indeed, ones understanding of the divine will inform ones notion of redemption and of marriage as “sacrament”.
Marriage is an image of the union of God and humanity. Marriage is an earthly representative of return to what was lost, reunion with a lover, a divine wedding party at the end of time.
The Bible – both Hebrew scripture and Greek New Testament are full of such imagery.
Despite the proliferation of polygamy in the Ancient Near East, the Hebrew scriptures consistently depict the chaos, jealousy and strife caused by polygamous marriages. God throughout the Hebrew writings is depicted as long suffering lover whose beloved consistently betrays him to chase other lovers.
In scripture, the image of marriage and the possessiveness of love becomes redemptive. This lover suffers for his beloved.
When powerholders surrender economic and social security to provide ultimate freedom through the giving up of all rights and power in doing so, bring forth life and flourishing.
This is a motivating love story.
However one defines marriage, the image of a lover, sacrificing their status, power and independence, to bare their soul, and give of themself to sensible and intelligent beloved, is ultimately motivating and profoundly powerful.
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This was an interesting article. I hadn’t thought much about the question before reading your post. I imagine the idea of marriage being the “highest” state of a romantic relationship, which seems all-pervasive in literature in the past, is quite controversial in many quarters nowadays. The idea of making sacrifices for a romantic partner, though, may still have widespread appeal.
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Thanks for the comments BunKaryudo. I do believe the power of art lies in what it points to beyond the immediate. Are you a blogger?
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I’m afraid so. I wish I could say I’m more of an expert in the field, but sadly I’m just a lowly blogger. I did major in English Literature, though, so I was interested in your post.
I’m struck by the fact that Jane Austen is still so popular nowadays whereas someone like Sir Walter Scott, who was a literary superstar in his day, is far less widely read.
I did try Heart of Midlothian two or three years ago. Although I quite enjoyed it, I couldn’t help feeling the story was being told to me by my elderly great aunt. I don’t think many people feel that way about Jane Austen.