2011 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner College/University Division
Whims of the Wealthy: Marriage and Desire for Sense and Sensibility’s Miss Grey
Barton cottage is described as a pleasant house—solidly built, well-situated, and comfortable—but the narrator tells us that tears were still shed among the Dashwoods when they arrived for, “In comparison to Norland, it was small and poor indeed!” (22). Yet, despite the cottage’s detractors—its “dark narrow stairs, and a kitchen that smokes” (55)—the Dashwood’s lifestyle and the house itself are continually idealized by other, wealthier characters. Willoughby declares that he would prefer to tear down his own large home and build an exact replica of Barton cottage in its place, Robert Ferrars informs Elinor with a great deal of panache that he dreams of the day when he can build his own cottage, and Mrs. John Dashwood dismisses her mother and sister-in-laws’ need for financial aid by projecting an image of poverty-induced bliss: “They will have no carriage, no horses, and hardly any servants; they will keep no company, and can have no expences of any kind! Only conceive how comfortable they will be!” (10). The absurd glorification of the Dashwoods’ precarious financial situation highlights the tendency of characters in Sense and Sensibility to desire and privilege the things that they do not possess—not necessarily a revolutionary insight into human nature, but a significant consideration when analyzing the interplay of wealth and desire in the novel. If characters’ desires are shaped by the things that they lack, then it is not money but the absence of money that becomes consequential to a person’s happiness.
Elinor and Marianne recognize this phenomenon in their debate over a definition of competence and wealth in the seventeenth chapter—it is the relationship not between happiness and wealth, but between happiness and a lack of wealth that engages their conversation and underlies the difficulties they will face later in the novel. Even more specifically, the subtext of their conversation revolves around finding this happiness in marriage, as Marianne’s requisite £2,000 per year makes clear. Marianne might be able to live—indeed, she is already living—on less than a gentleman’s income, so the high financial bar that she sets is really a reflection of the necessary income needed to create a happy marriage with Willoughby, since she declares that, “a family cannot well be maintained on a smaller” (69). In this sense, wealth should act as a means of broadening a woman’s marriage prospects and chance at marital happiness since an independent possession of wealth or competence allows her to choose a marriage partner outside of financial considerations. Yet, if wealth’s obvious role in marriage is to broaden a woman’s horizons, how does the reader account for the choice of Miss Sophia Grey?
In examining the marriage of Mr. Willoughby and Miss Grey, the gentleman’s motivations are blatantly stated—he simply declares that, “her money was necessary to me” (249). Her motivations, however, are not so clear; why does Miss Grey, with all her advantage of fortune, choose to marry a man whom she knows to be indifferent and mercenary? In the complex marital algorithm of money and companionable happiness that influences Austen’s characters, Miss Grey is not a gainer on either end; as Mrs. Jennings herself sarcastically declares, “a pretty choice she has made!” (145).
Of course, for many women of Jane Austen’s time, the ability to choose at all was severely curtailed by social realities. As Henry Tilney observes in Northanger Abbey, a woman could not literally choose her future spouse any more than her dancing partner—and even her ability to refuse a proposal was losing its sting in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Throughout the 1700s, women had steadily outnumbered men in England, and by 1851 there were 365,000 more females than males in the country (Jones 171). These facts, coupled with upper class women’s economic reliance on a husband, greatly favored men in the marriage market. Does Miss Grey simply fall prey to lopsided statistics?
The answer depends greatly on the extent of Miss Grey’s fortune, and that fortune is telling us “no.” Consider the context in which we must examine her inheritance of £50,000: The Miss Dashwoods only have £1,000 apiece, and, as we can conclude from their husband-hunting, relation-mooching ways, the Miss Steeles are not much better off. Fanny Dashwood secured her husband with only £10,000. If we wanted to treat Miss Grey’s lump sum as a yearly income, we could imagine her investing it in government bonds at 5% interest, yielding £2,500 per annum (Copeland 165). By comparison, Edward and Elinor Ferrars marry on £850 per year. Willoughby’s estate, Combe Magna, brings in £600-700 per year—an income he is unable to live within. Colonel Brandon’s £2,000 per year is the largest income that a bachelor in the novel boasts, but he is still £500 a year poorer than Miss Grey.
Even if we broaden our scope to include other Austen novels, Miss Grey’s inheritance is still unrivaled among women—Emma Woodhouse and Georgiana Darcy come closest with their £30,000 each. Both fall far short of Miss Grey in economic power, yet Emma still considers her own fortune ample for an independent lifestyle, even if she chooses never to marry. Miss Grey, with her five fortunes in one, should be immune to the economic factors that might steer a woman into the arms of an unaffectionate husband. She has the means, not only to abstain from marriage in general, but also to widen her sphere of choice when she does decide to marry. Unlike Marianne, she can marry a penniless man because her fortune provides an income; unlike Elinor, she can marry a wealthy man because his family would not object. It is not Miss Grey’s ability to choose that is narrowed; it is the choice itself that is flawed.
Choosing or, perhaps more accurately, falling prey to a fortune hunter is exactly the scenario that conduct book writer Francis Lye warned young heiresses against while describing Willoughby’s brand of courtship: “When they chance to think of MARRIAGE, it is with feelings of the most perfect indifference; for…should one Lady refuse their Proposal, they coolly turn round, and seek for another who may be weak enough to accept it” (qtd. in Jones 8). Willoughby himself does not sketch a much different picture in describing his motivations to Elinor: “all [was] insufficient to outweigh that dread of poverty…the necessity of riches…I had reason to believe myself secure of my present wife, if I chose to address her” (Austen, Sense 245). Both Willoughby and Lye make assumptions about the kind of woman who will accept a fortune hunter—she is “weak,” unperceptive, and yielding. Does Sophia Grey fit this description?
Austen does not give Miss Grey a great deal of presence in the text—she is seen once by Elinor and Marianne at a distance; her only form of direct communication is the letter to Marianne that is not even in her own name; details of her appearance and character come to us second-hand through Mrs. Jennings, Willoughby, and, very briefly, from the narrator—yet, even from this restricted circle of information, a surprisingly detailed picture of Miss Grey can be sketched for the reader—it does not reveal a weak and yielding woman. Miss Grey does not have the folly of youth that Willoughby’s other conquests, Eliza and Marianne, do. She is described several times as a “young woman,” but she must be at least twenty-one because she is of age, and can choose her own husband (145). Mrs. Jennings hears rumors that her headstrong ways cause her to quarrel with her guardian, Mrs. Ellison. Willoughby describes her as impudent and envious—not to mention manipulative. She adopts an “air of playfulness,” in order to seize his mail, produces a cold, calculating letter that breaks Marianne’s heart, forces Marianne’s letters from Willoughby’s pocketbook, and seizes every memento that he cherishes from his past lover (249). Miss Grey is neither weak, nor compliant, and, perhaps most significantly, she is not naïve. After their marriage, Willoughby says of his wife: “She does not deserve your compassion. –She knew I had no regard for her when we married” (250). This is not a wishful claim on Willoughby’s part—Miss Grey has all the proof that society’s rumors, Marianne’s love letters, and even her rival’s lock of hair can suggest.
Marianne is everything Miss Grey is not—she is lovely, good-humored, and engaging where Miss Grey is “not handsome” and disagreeable—and Willoughby’s affection for Marianne persists despite his engagement to another woman: “I felt that [Marianne] was infinitely dearer to me than any other woman in the world” (247). Marianne’s ability to possess Willoughby’s love, rather than deterring Miss Grey from a mercenary marriage, encourages her to move forward with the nuptials: if characters of means in Sense and Sensibility tend to desire the things that others possess, Miss Grey’s motivations for marriage are no different from Robert Ferrars’ enthusiasm for cottages or Mrs. John Dashwood’s sighs over her mother-in-law’s plate and china. In addition to this misplaced desire that wealth can create, the freedom of choice that Miss Grey’s wealth bestows is detrimental to her happiness. Willoughby is selfish, extravagant, and immoral—a poor choice of husband for any woman—but Marianne’s poverty protects her from such a husband where Miss Grey’s wealth does not. Miss Grey has not been duped by Willoughby, and she can afford a companionable marriage, made on her own terms; by dictating these terms on the sole basis of selfish desire, however, her money only frees her to make poor choices.
Miss Grey is not alone in her poor management of wealth and its power. Wealth in Sense and Sensibility often leads, not only to a desire for unobtainable possessions, but also to an acquisition of more wealth. The John Dashwoods, one of the wealthiest families in the novel, are also the most concerned with accumulating and possessing wealth—whether this means marrying off their nearest and dearest to the Colonel Brandons and Miss Mortons of society, or reneging on familial financial obligations. Willoughby’s income is certainly narrower, but it is nothing to scoff at: he lives alone on £100-200 more per year than the four Dashwood women’s entire income. Yet, his inability to curtail an expensive lifestyle forces Willoughby to obtain new wealth at whatever cost.
Even Colonel Brandon’s narrative reflects, to a certain extent, Miss Grey’s marriage to Willoughby. Although Marianne and Brandon’s marriage is far more companionable and positive than the latter, the Colonel’s £2,000 per year is still necessary to his ability to pursue Marianne apart from her own affection: she is his “reward” even before her own inclinations are consulted, and the Colonel is “deserving” both because of his faithfulness and his estate—“without debt or drawback” (146-47). Even the characters who are not swept up in a drive to acquire or possess are characterized by ineffectiveness or inertia. Lady Middleton and Sir John are freed by wealth to engage in their individual interests of mothering and hunting, respectively, but, instead of contributing to others’ happiness or comfort, they become narrowly defined by a single occupation—in Lady Middleton’s case, rather a failed one at that.
Instead of acting as a force for good—or even for happiness—wealth only creates misplaced desire, greed, and narrow-mindedness. Many characters in the novel are wealthy, but they are not necessarily happy—and, sometimes, it is the wealth itself that corrupts their desires, choices, and motivations. Thus, when Elinor retires to her country parsonage at the end of the novel, the reader should not lament her lack of wealth or compare her fortune with the mistress of a Pemberley, a Donwell Abbey, or a Delaford. On the contrary—Marianne must learn to love the Colonel, Willoughby must always pine what he has lost, and Robert Ferrars is left drawing up “several plans for magnificent cottages” (286), but it is in Elinor, who is defined by moderation in all her actions and expectations, that the reward of complete, not moderate, happiness is manifested.
Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
Copeland, Edward. “What’s a Competence? Jane Austen, Her Sister Novelists, and the 5%’s.” Modern Language Studies 9.3 (1979): 161‐168. Project Muse. Web. 18 Feb. 2011.
Jones, Hazel. Jane Austen and Marriage. London: Continuum, 2009. Print.