Thursday, 7 February 2013


Two Mondays ago, it was the 200th anniversary of the first publication of Pride & Prejudice, whose author we know was Jane Austen. Most people can tell you how the story goes or can quote the opening line from it: 'It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.' Is marrying for money still relevant today? With more women climbing up the corporate ladder, would this same line be considered true if reversed? Does a single woman in possession of a good fortune want a husband as much?
Marrying for love rather than money was a repeated theme in Jane Austen's books. Quite a few of her female characters managed to happily achieve both. Charlotte Lucas was the exception; after Lizzie refused Mr. Collins, she prudently engaged his addresses towards herself. Who can blame her? She knew this was her chance to marry well, so she took it. She couldn't guarantee her own happiness, but she could secure her future. How many women now would willingly betroth themselves to someone as vexing as Mr. Collins?
Matrimony was a business; it was the only eligible way an well-educated woman could provide for herself. Women had no independent means; as daughters they were the rightful property of their fathers; as sisters, they belonged to their brothers; and on being wed were possessed by their husbands. To remain unmarried was a disgrace; younger daughters were prevented from 'coming out' and the family had to worry about the continued financial responsibility. Romance wasn't considered necessary if the suitor had the prospect of wealth and a comfortable home.
In Jane's own case, she was determined and lucky; she obviously had an understanding family for she wasn't the only maiden aunt, there was also her sister, Cassandra. Any brief dalliances Jane may have had came to nothing. If a match didn't have an appropriate living then a romantic attachment was unsuitable. This is what Jane captures so well in her novels; her leading female characters will not sacrifice their happiness for these values. Their affections will be engaged and will be reciprocal. The irony is Jane couldn't pursue this in her own life, but her work is better for it. What she gained was far more important: she had more freedom to live as herself. While she may have been beholden to the whims of her brothers, her name stood for itself.
Today, unlike Jane's day, women do not need to enter into matrimony to gain their independence or secure a comfortable future. The power to provide no longer lies outside, women can provide for themselves. Liberated, marriage is deterred as women do not wish to curtail this with 'house-husbands'. There's no longer a need to inquire of men: How much do you earn? What are your aspirations? Because most women are Janes; they use their brains to support them.