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“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
The novel begins with a satirical quote, representing many people’s opinions on love and marriage at the time of writing. To many, marriage was a way of bettering themselves socially and economically, but seldom for happiness and love. Throughout the novel there are numerous and frequent references to this way of thinking, and Austen makes characters who think of love and marriage in this way appear ridiculous.
One character made to look absurd is Mrs. Bennet. Most find her intolerable, and even her own daughters and husband are embarrassed by her regularly. In chapter one she says, “A single man of large fortune… What a fine thing for our girls!” Nothing of Mr. Bingley’s character is mentioned, but the fact that he is wealthy seems reason enough for Mrs. Bennet to approve of him.
As will be future explored, Mrs. Bennet is derided throughout the novel, clearly showing that Austen herself does not approve of her way of thinking, as it is centred around the material rather than being centred around love or moral reasons.
Despite being under constant pressure from her mother, due to the details of the entailment on the Bennets’ estate, Jane Bennet desires to marry for love, and eventually does so.
The ever-important matter of money, however, does lie at the back of her mind. In chapter four, Elizabeth says, “…I give you leave to like him. You have liked many a stupider person”. This suggests that Jane has courted men before, but they have either been lacking in character or in money, so she has not pursued their affections.
In chapter four following the first ball a conversation between Jane and Elizabeth Bennet takes place. Rather than mentioning Bingley’s fortune, Jane states that she admirers him due to his being “sensible, good humoured, lively” and states that she has never seen such “happy manners”.
Throughout the book Jane is described positively, which influences the reader to think highly of her and views on marrying for love as just.
Elizabeth, too, is presented as sensible and likeable. Though she mentions that the moment she fell in love with Mr. Darcy was after “first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley”, she also mentions that she fell in love with him gradually, ensuring that his wealth was not the only factor taken in to account as she accepted his second proposal of marriage.
Her primary interest seems to be in marrying for love, as she turned down a proposal from Mr. Collins which would have ensured her money, a home and a good reputation. With all of this taken into account, Eliza refuses due to Mr. Collins’ personality and the fact that she does not love him.
In chapter nineteen Mr. Collins – another ridiculed character – makes his first proposal to Elizabeth. He makes it clear that he only makes the proposal due to Catherine DeBurgh’s advice. He also thinks it may benefit his happiness, though mentions nothing of hers. Much of the proposal is an insult to Miss Bennet as he retells Lady Catherine’s exact words (“let her be an active, useful person, not brought up too high”). Mr. Collins obviously does not love Elizabeth, nor is he pretending so. He seems to think that, due to the fact that he has good connections, Elizabeth would jump at the chance of marrying him. She refuses politely, yet Mr. Collins cannot see why she would refuse his offer. He is a prime example of someone who doesn’t think love is a necessity for a successful marriage. He sees his proposal as an honourable gesture; as a way to compensate the Bennet family for the fact that he shall inherit the house upon Mr. Bennet’s death, but somewhat selfishly to better his own status and comfort.
Soon after this, as Mr. Collins retreats with a slightly bruised ego, we learn that Miss Charlotte Lucas, a close friend of the Bennets, has accepted another proposal from Collins, presumably one of the same type. After Elizabeth confronts her on the news of their engagement Charlotte justifies her thoughts with the following: “I am not romantic… I ask only a comfortable home… connections, and situation in life, I am convinced my chance of happiness with him is fair, as most people can boast on entering the marriage state”. This, as well as her earlier comment relating to Jane “fixing” Mr. Bingley (almost as though discussing an animal, or assuming Bingley is ‘broken’ due to his being unmarried).
Perhaps Charlotte only seeks the above, or perhaps she is worried about what her peers would say about her being unmarried at such an age. In this period in time, women were talked about if unmarried in their late twenties.
Someone with an opposite view to Charlotte is Caroline Bingley. Where the Bennet sisters and Charlotte Lucas aim to marry high and ensure their financial security, Caroline seems to scorn them for wishing to do so. She disapproves of Jane and her brother’s relationship, which can be gathered from her trying to keep the fact that Jane was in London at the same time as her brother a secret. She seems convinced that her friends marrying anyone of a lower ‘rank’ would be shameful, and that anyone wishing to marry her brother of Mr. Darcy must be after their money. While chasing the hope of gaining a desirable social status and money, Caroline Bingley may well forget about love and, even if it ever came along, may well suppress it in hopes of something ‘better’.
The issue of indipendence may also be one that Miss Bingley considers. She lives with her brother and has to ‘up and leave’ when he does so. The security and indipendence a marriage would bring is surely something she would have looked forward to.
Her friend, Mr. Darcy, is well aware of women’s attitudes at the time. He even goes as far as to warn his best friend against Jane Bennet, as he fears that she doesn’t love Bingley as is only showing an interest in him for his wealth. This cynical attitude may have grown due to his pride and perhaps the effect of spending too much time with Charles Bingley’s sisters.
This seems evermore the case when listening to the piano at Netherfield; he thinks to himself that it may become dangerous to pay too much attention to Lizzy. He makes it clear that he regards her of a lower class in his refused proposal (“He spoke well, but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed… His sense of her inferiority – of its being a degradation – of the family obstacles.”) and is obviously concerned about other people’s opinions.
Despite the fact that the story ends happily and both Elizabeth and Jane marry for love, the underlying theme of the novel is, predictably, pride and prejudice. Lydia, though eager to marry Wickham for love, runs the risk of being ostracised due to her living with him outside of wedlock. This, in turn, would ruin the reputation of her sisters. Despite being in love, would Darcy and Bingley want to get married to the siblings of a disgraced woman? If Darcy had not have been able to persuade Wickham to marry Lydia, would he in turn have abandoned Elizabeth?
Though Austen strongly hints that she approves of marrying for love rather than money (through satirising some characters and not others), it is clear that reputation and etiquette were still as important, if not more important than love in one’s marriage.