The Context of Social Politics and Marriage in Austen’s Novel
During the mid to late 1700s, Maria Theresa, Queen of Hungary, oftentimes sowed and cemented the seeds of her influence through the diplomatic marriage of her several children, sending them off to serve as her political pawns. Such a concept, albeit dehumanizing and objectifying, was rather commonplace, for it provided both families royal and common with some sort of stability, whether that solidity be social or financial. Even after the Hungarian queen’s death in 1780, the notion she had exemplified– the idea of marriage for profit, of marriage as a business– did not disappear; the strategy carried over well into the future, even managing to contaminate the supposedly feminist text of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Thus, whereas some choose to view the novel as a story of one woman escaping the double standards of her society and finding happiness with a man she truly loves, the very blatant fact that these romantically-blinded readers have a tendency to overlook is that Elizabeth’s marriage to Darcy also lands her family heaps of money and status, which, through the lens of feminist theory, only perpetuates the notion of marriage being a business of sorts. Rather than providing the England of her time with a covertly feminist chronicle, Austen’s novel serves as a resounding reminder that, during the 19th century, marriage was a business teeming with double standards, as anti-feminist sentiments tinge even her supposedly most feminist characters.
Although most tend to view Elizabeth as a feminist character, a few of her sentiments towards a woman’s relation to marriage– as opposed to a man’s– reveal her inescapable susceptibility to feeding the double standard. First, under the double standard of her society, lower class women had to work tough jobs in order to survive and oftentimes faced abuse because society saw them as not worth protecting. Rather unfairly, “a woman whose racial or economic situation forced her to perform physical labor and made her the victim of sexual predators was considered unwomanly and therefore unworthy of protection from those who exploited her” (Tyson 89). In other words, those with no choice but to go against the grain in order to survive are more often than not the ones society punishes. Elizabeth serves to exemplify this notion, for instance, when Wickham turns his heart away from her and pursues Miss King for the connection to her wealthy family; in spite of what he has done, Elizabeth believes him to be just in his actions. Elizabeth says of Wickham’s pseudo-betrayal, “I should at present detest his very name, and wish him all manner of evil. But my feelings are… cordial towards him” (Austen 147). On the contrary, Charlotte does the very same in marrying Mr. Collins, but Elizabeth feels dissatisfied with her decision, even though it is the very same decision that Wickham is making. The relationship between the two girls beginning to wither, “there was a restraint which kept them mutually silent on the subject; and Elizabeth felt persuaded that no real confidence could ever subsist between them again” (125). In both the cases of Wickham and Charlotte, one person makes a sudden decision to train his or her affections on a potential partner of financial value, thus partaking in the business of marriage. The only difference between the two scenarios is that Wickham is male, and Charlotte is female. Even so– speaking volumes about the time period’s double standards–, when Wickham displays his capricious demeanor towards love for the sake of profit, Elizabeth manages still to feel “cordial towards him,” whereas when Charlotte does the exact same, the relationship between the two long-time friends quickly falls apart. Elizabeth’s upholding of the double standard– that it is okay for men to act fickle in matters of the heart, but not for women– reveals that even in a character Austen had written to be feminist, the odor of the time period’s societal expectations manages to seep into the fabric of the tale.
Moreover, Darcy– the culmination of Elizabeth’s feminist efforts to defy social norms– further portrays the ubiquity of the double standard within the institution of marriage through his disdain towards Elizabeth and her lower status. When Darcy initially proposes to Elizabeth, he speaks of “His sense of her inferiority– of its being a degradation– of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination” (185). To reiterate, he views Elizabeth as a burden of sorts, expressing his hesitation towards following his feelings for her due to her low social standing. However, at the same time, women are– in the majority of cases– unable to inherit property of their own. According to the Law of Primogeniture, “all realty [landed property] still devolves, by common law, on the eldest male descendant of the eldest line” (English 34). As such, when Darcy reveals his contempt, he also reveals his compliance with the double standard; women were unable to inherit property, and thus, they were completely reliant on a husband in order to be able to live a stable and secure life. If a woman wanted to live comfortably, she had to marry up, to find a man of status because the law left her in want of the means to live comfortably on her own. Yet, in spite of this choicelessness society provides women with, Darcy– along with most people of the time period– views women of lower status as charges on their husbands; he fuels the double standard by submissively agreeing to see women in a negative light that they never had the option not to be cast in.
Overall, regardless of Austen’s intentions for the novel, the influences of her society still managed to infiltrate her work, serving as a reminder of the inescapable double standard involving marriage as a business during her time period. Even Elizabeth, a supposedly feminist character, cannot escape societal norms, as she views Charlotte’s capricious behavior with much more disparagement than she does Wickhams, solely for the fact that society expects only females not to act in such a way. Additionally, Darcy complies with the double standard in his view of Elizabeth, despite his role as the happy outcome of her feminist efforts. All in all, what readers should gather from this piece becomes grimly apparent when one looks at the fact that Darcy, Elizabeth, and Austen herself are all meant to be feminist, yet fall into the pitfall of the double standard regardless, for it is just like a contagion hidden beneath the floorboards. We can mask the scent all we want with Febreze and open windows, but only when we we confront the malaise at its source will the stench of the double standard truly dissipate.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.
Brodrick, George C. English Land and English Landlords: An Equiry into the Origin and
Character of the English Land System, with Proposals for Its Reform. London: Petter,
Galpin and Co., 1881. Rpt. in Understanding Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Debra Teachman.
Westport: Greenwood Press, 1997. 34-37. Print.
Tyson, Lois. “Using Concepts from Feminist Theory to Understand Literature.” Learning for a
Diverse World: Using Critical Theory to Read and Write about Literature. New York:
Routledge, 2001. 83-89. Print.
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