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Love and marriage in Jane Austen’s day

Drawing of two couples dancing. The first quadrille at Almack's – J. C. Nimmo: London, 1892 [1891] Courtesy of the British Library
Balls and dancing provided an avenue for people to find husbands and wives. The first quadrille at Almack’s, from The Reminiscences and Recollections of Captain Gronow – J. C. Nimmo: London, 1892 [1891] Courtesy of the British Library.

“Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage” according to the Frank Sinatra song, but marriage in the Regency era was more like a business arrangement, designed to consolidate or amass wealth and land, and provide families with heirs on the one hand, and “save” women from spinsterhood and poverty on the other. The idea must have caused a great deal of anxiety for women such as Mrs. Bennet, trying to get their daughters married in a time of war.

In “Pride and Prejudice,” another mother, Lady Catherine de Bourgh is eager to have her heiress daughter marry Mr. Darcy, a union planned in their infancy. Fortunes and properties would stay in the family.

On the flipside, Miss Bates, the poor spinster in “Emma,” is often a source of ridicule from the lead character — although one of empathy from Mr. Knightley.

But escape from poverty came at a price. In “Jane Austen’s England”, Roy and Lesley Adkins write that “When a woman married, she passed from the control of her father, who ‘gave her away’ at the wedding to the control of her husband.” All she owned would become her husband’s. Only a marriage settlement would allow a wife to earn her own income or own land. Even children would belong to the husband.

Rich young women could fall prey to mercenary young men, as Miss King and Georgiana Darcy, with their respective £10,000 and £30,000, almost do to Wickham in “Pride and Prejudice.”

Similarly, a woman’s debts would also become her husband’s upon marriage—except in the case of “smock weddings,” where a woman would get married naked (or wearing a smock) to show that she had nothing to bring to the marriage, as the Adkinses describe in their book.

Most weddings were simple affairs, as the industrial wedding complex hadn’t yet taken hold, but wealthy families did like to flaunt their status through new, fine clothes and carriages. But if time was of the essence, couples could elope to Gretna Green, as Lydia Bennet thought she and Wickham would do in “Pride and Prejudice.” “Scottish marriage law required only a declaration before witnesses,” thus couples could avoid announcing the wedding in the parish as required by the Marriage Act of 1753 and potentially meeting with resistance from their families.

Bad Behavior

Not everyone’s behavior aligned itself to the conduct books of the time. People had premarital sex, and it was more than frowned upon. The Adkinses describe the wedding of an Elizabeth Howlett and Robert Astick, who were forced to marry, not because of “premarital sex, but [for] causing a penniless woman and baby to be a burden on the parish.”

That said, not everyone was forced into a marriage because of that. Wealthy men could afford to have indiscretion upon indiscretion (see Lord Byron or the prince regent).

“Royal and aristocratic rakes did not attempt to work within or around sexual strictures. They merely ignored them. To be sure they needed to marry respectably to sire a legitimate heir, and to behave with courtly refinement to ladies in salons or wives in domestic settings….Once they had stepped outside polite circles and posturings, however, they frequently reveled in almost unfettered sexual freedom.” — Robert Morrison, “The Regency Years”

Sexually free women were not afforded the same tolerance, garnering insults from even Lord Byron.

While this paints a pretty dismal picture of marriage, especially from a woman’s point of view, we still have Austen’s novels that depict love conquering all — familial and societal pressures and opposition, differences in class, and misunderstandings. And although our heroes’ journeys end soon after the trip to the altar, we do have examples of good marriages, where mutual respect and love are evident.

Examples of good marriages

  1. Mr. and Mrs. Weston in “Emma”

  2. Admiral and Mrs. Croft in “Persuasion”

  3. Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner in “Pride and Prejudice”

  4. Mr. and Mrs. Moreland in “Northanger Abbey”

Examples of bad marriages

  1. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice”

  2. Lydia Bennet and Wickham in “Pride and Prejudice”

  3. Mr and Mrs. Rushworth in “Mansfield Park”

  4. General and Mrs. Tilney in “Northanger Abbey”


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