LOVE AND MONEY IN JANE AUSTEN, AND WHY MRS BENNET IS NOT AS SILLY AS SHE SEEMS
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
In one of the best opening lines in literature, Austen lays out her wares: this is to be a story of marriage. How brilliant that the line should belong to a character who is rendered almost a caricature in her pursuit of a good marriage for her daughters, and yet that it should also contain so much wry truth.
Throughout Pride and Prejudice, Mrs Bennet’s single motivating force is to marry off her daughters, and she is prepared to resort to any means to achieve her purpose: she sends one daughter on horseback to dine with the sisters of a rich bachelor - “because it seems likely to rain; and then you must stay all night.” She is prepared to marry another off to the utterly ghastly but one day to be rich Mr Collins, and to send her fifteen year old to cavort with a camp full of officersin dissipated Brighton. Time and again, we are reminded of how ghastly she is. What can she understand of marriage, when her own is so unhappy? How awful she is – how shallow, and silly she appears to the modern reader! Shouldn’t she want something more for her girls? Teach them that they don’t need a man, help them to stand on their own feet? Well, yes, ideally. But as every contemporary reader knew, Mrs Bennet (and Austen) lived in a world in which women could only inherit property if there were no male heir, be he a distant cousin. A world in which a gentlewoman had no means of making money other than as a governess or teacher, which reduced her to the lowest of the low. Marriage in the world of Jane Austen is not about romance: it is about survival.
In order to fully understand Mrs Bennet, I find it helpful to consider another of Austen’s great comic characters, Miss Bates from Emma. Miss Bates is a gentlewoman, fallen on such hard times that she and has had to send away her beloved little orphaned niece Jane Fairfax, to be raised by wealthy friends of Jane’s late father. For years, Miss Bates lives and breathes by Jane’s letters, boring everyone with detailed accounts of her niece’s growing list of accomplishments. Her interminable monologues, punctuated by Austen’s idiosyncratic, breathless dashes, are comic genius. She is a brilliant caricature of a well-meaning bore, but Austen imbues her also with genuine pathos . “She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion”, Mr Knightley scolds Emma - and with that line, drives home the dark truth which haunts Austen’s work. Miss Bates is destined to live the rest of her life on a diminishing pittance, looking after her infirm mother, dependent on the charity of others and separated from the niece she adores but cannot afford to support.
With no family or husband to support them, women must face a bleak existence. When Mr Bennet dies, the Bennet family home will be inherited by a distant cousin. Aside from a small amount settled on Mrs Bennet by her parents when she married, she and any of her five daughters who remain unmarried will be entirely dependent on the mercy of relatives, and with no husband to rescue them, her daughters will suffer the same fate as Miss Bates. That is the reality of their situation, and that is why Mrs Bennet is such a brilliant character. Yes, she is silly, uneducated and hopelessly vulgar in her attempts to secure husbands for her daughters, but there is real pathos here too, for her efforts are born from pragmatism and fear.
“But what of love?” romantics may cry. Well, of course there is love. Austen, after all, is the woman who turned down a brilliant offer of marriage – one which would have guaranteed security for her, her sister and her mother for the rest of their days – because she did not think she and her enamoured were compatible. She was a sensible woman – indeed “sensible” along with “elegant” seems to be her highest compliment. She knew that marriage without attraction, respect and admiration was an unhappy affair – but she also knew also from her own experience how grinding poverty can be. And so the novels evolve in a perpetual balance between money and love. Austen is kind to her heroines, who all make dazzling matches to men they love – but it is notable that not one of them marries a poor man.Money, as much as love, drives her plots. Anne Elliot is persuaded to refuse Frederick Wentworth when his fortune is uncertain, and accepts him when he is rich. Frank Churchill keeps his relationship with Jane Fairfax secret from his rich aunt for fear of being disinherited. The outcome of every single love affair in Sense and Sensibility is determined by characters’ relative fortunes. And when Lydia – who is not a heroine - runs away with Wickham, we get a few passing references to the possibility of their being in love, but meticulous information about how much he was paid to marry her. The message is clear: without money, romance means very little.
Though nobody in Pride and Prejudice is actually poor, the fear of poverty is never far away. Satire survives only so long as it is based on truth. We love the romance, the dashing heroes, the secret liaisons. But Austen – and Mrs Bennet – knew that in the marriage market, everyone is looking for a bargain. This is the bleak reality that faces the Bennet sisters. It is what makes the outcome of their romances so satisfying, and it is the tension between necessary mendaciousness and socially acceptable behaviour that makes their mother so funny, but also so very right. That is why she is given the opening line, and that is why her triumph at the end of the book, rings so true. “Three daughters married! Ten thousand a year! Oh, Lord! What will become of me! I shall go distracted” –for once, we laugh with her and not at her, despite her terrible blindness to Lydia’s folly, her hypocrisy towards Mr Darcy and that dreadful line to Jane “I knew you could not be so beautiful for nothing”. She is ridiculous, but she is honest. She knew from the opening line what she wanted, and she got it. She is safe. Her daughters are safe. Now they can get on with the business of being happy.