2013 JASNA Essay Contest Third Place Winner College/University Division
Time and the Women of Pride and Prejudice
In Pride and Prejudice time is a relative concept, moving rapidly for certain characters and at a leisurely pace for others, depending on their age and social standing. For the Bennet sisters and the other young women who are ‘out’ in society it passes quickly in a social whirlwind of balls, walking to town and parties; because boredom and inactivity can be kept at bay, time for them does not drag on. They can enjoy all the diversions Meryton has to offer because they are at a vital age in life, between 16 and 23, when the sum of their future happiness (or misery) is being determined by the caliber of man they marry. Consequently, a great deal of their time is spent in pursuit of this eventuality, which is a matter of some urgency, as they have a limited period of time before they reach an age at which marriage is unlikely, if not inconceivable. After marriage, both men and women are expected to withdraw somewhat from society and generally live slower, more sedate lives than their unmarried counterparts. Although this etiquette is observed by both sexes, the sense that marriage must be hurried into at a young age is confined to women, and is a product of the time period of the novel. The attitude of Charlotte Lucas, a practical young woman with no romantic illusions whatsoever, summarizes the necessity of marriage perfectly; “Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservation from want.” (94). The underlying purpose of balls and the capacity they serve in Pride and Prejudice is introduction to potential suitors, and thus the rapid pace of life for young women is very much connected with their obligation to marry. With such high stakes and the window of opportunity in which to make a suitable match so small, it is little wonder that there is something of a rush to the altar for many characters, and although unpleasantly mercenary considerations such as wealth or timeliness are often denied or ignored by more principled individuals (such as Elizabeth Bennet), they are nevertheless powerful forces which run throughout the narrative.
Anxiety associated with the rush to be married reappears numerous times in Pride and Prejudice; the age at which the worrying truly begins is established by Mrs. Bennet, for whom “The marriage of a daughter … had been the first object of her wishes, since Jane was sixteen …” (230). The age at which it becomes unfashionable for a woman to be unwed is given by Lydia when she says, rather insensitively, “Jane will be quite an old maid soon, I declare. She is almost three and twenty! Lord, how ashamed I should be of not being married before three and twenty.” (165). Beyond twenty three or twenty four, marriage is still possible, as Charlotte Lucas demonstrates when she weds Mr. Collins at the relatively ancient age of 27, but by this point her sole concern is haste rather than finding a decent husband. Her fear of remaining unwed and a burden on a family of modest means is such that there no longer much of a choice to be made; regardless of the nature of the man proposing, she must accept, in order that her family may be “…relieved from their apprehension of Charlotte’s dying an old maid.” (93). Ironically, other than Charlotte, it is the vacuous Mrs. Bennet who feels the sense of urgency most acutely, and is most aware of the value of timeliness, as well as the dangers of missed opportunities; as she says to Elizabeth “…if you take it into your head to go on refusing every offer of marriage in this way, you will never get a husband at all - and I am sure I do not know who is to maintain you when your father is dead.” (86). She is perhaps overly hasty, as Elizabeth is not yet at an age where she might feel obligated to accept someone “solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment…” (93), but nevertheless, the pressure to find someone before reaching such an age is very great, and has been impressed upon each and every young woman. The younger, sillier ones such as Lydia take it to heart unthinkingly, without considering why exactly marriage before ‘three and twenty’ should be so important, but regardless what reason they may give themselves for it, time is short for the young women of Pride and Prejudice, and opportunities must be seized.
Timeliness is everything in Pride and Prejudice, and with regards to matrimony, delay for any reason can prove unfortunate indeed; in order to make a good match, or in the case of Charlotte Lucas any sort of match at all, speed is of the essence. It is because of delay and lost time, through no fault of her own, that Charlotte’s is forced to choose between a lifetime of guilt for burdening her parents, or marriage to the odious Mr. Collins, but it is through her ingenuity in quickly moving his affections from Elizabeth onto her, that she is given any sort of choice at all. He, too, is influenced by the necessity of timeliness in proposing to Charlotte so inappropriately soon after his ill-fated overtures to Elizabeth; his need for a wife is greater than his concerns about decorum. A similar instance of pressing material concerns affecting timeliness can be found in Mr. Wickham`s courtship of the wealthy Miss King immediately after the death of her grandfather, although in this case Mr. Wickham failed to be timely enough, and was too slow in winning her favour to keep her in Meryton. Nevertheless, it is evident that characters much move quickly in order to secure their desired matches lest they be snatched away (permanently, in the case of Miss King). Jane experiences a similar situation with Bingley, and although she is far too selfless to even consider the advantages of hurrying the relationship along, the ever practical Charlotte sums up her situation well; if she will not act hastily, she may “lose the opportunity of fixing him; and it will then be but poor consolation to believe the world equally in the dark… though Bingley and Jane meet tolerably often, it is never for many hours together; and as they always see each other in large mixed parties, it is impossible that every moment should be employed in conversing together. Jane should therefore make the most of every half hour in which she can command his attention.” (15).In Pride and Prejudice, not only is the time available to find a suitable spouse limited, but timing itself is of the utmost importance to securing a proposal, or the acceptance of a proposal, two very necessary aspects of a successful courtship.
The speedy passage of time which characterizes youth in Pride and Prejudice is thrown into even greater relief when contrasted with married life, or the lives of those aged beyond marriageable years, for whom time is suspended and life slowed down considerably. The frenzied activity of young people like Lydia and her ilk, for whom time passes extremely quickly, is succeeded by a life of leisure and inactivity in which time necessarily slows down because there is very little to do. For the moneyed and educated classes, leisure becomes paramount, while the Mrs. Bennets of the world can only live vicariously through machinations to marry off their daughters and nostalgia for their own youth. Mrs. Bennet herself is a prime example of the inevitable shift that takes place after marriage; although she admits that there was a “time when I liked a red coat myself very well - and indeed so I do still at my heart” (21), she is no longer able to experience pleasure first hand, and must be content with indulging her daughters rather than herself. Mr. Bennet, an intelligent and educated man, finds contentment in his books and his humor, but his wife has no such options; “The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.” (3) and her only pastime is complaining about her ‘nerves’ (3). Even the meagre consolation she finds in marrying off her daughters is self-defeating; as she speaks of Jane’s impending nuptials, she declares that “…it was so pleasant at her time of life, to be able to consign her single daughters to the care of their sister, that she might not be obliged to go into company more than she liked. It was necessary to make this circumstance a matter of pleasure, because on such occasions it is the etiquette…” (75). In other words, her one occupation is to be taken from her, and she will be left with nothing but her ‘nerves’ for company. Even Lydia, whose marriage seems so volatile and fragile, once married, is drawn out of the ‘untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy, and fearless’ (234) world she once occupied, and settles down, after a fashion; “…in spite of her youth and her manners, she retained all the claims to reputation which her marriage had given her.” (291). That a ‘wild’ youth should be followed by a long expanse of tedium is by no means confined to the lower rungs of the social hierarchy; even Lady Catherine de Bourgh is compelled out of sheer boredom to invite the supremely irritating Mr. Collins to Rosings extremely often, as Elizabeth discovers when Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam come to stay, and “Her ladyship received them civilly, but it was plain that their company was by no means so acceptable as when she could get nobody else…” (129).
The lethargy and inactivity of married life is a result of the rigid class system in England at the time, and thus can be afforded because the characters of Pride and Prejudice are primarily gentlemen and aristocrats; ‘trade’ is frowned upon and fortunes are inherited or married into, but never earned. The higher in class a character is, the more likely they are to look down on working individuals such as stewards; Miss Bingley says of Wickham’s vices “…considering his descent, one could not expect much better.” (72) and “The Netherfield ladies would have had difficulty in believing that a man who lived by trade, and within view of his own warehouses, could have been so well bred and agreeable.” (105). Evidently, idleness is a status symbol; even Mr. Collins, most servile and low of all, leads a sedate life of leisure and comparative privilege while the officers whom Miss Bingley deigns to mention only to insult the Bennets are nevertheless more often mentioned in connection with Lydia’s flirtations than any actual military duties they might have.
The pace of life is expected to slow after matrimony even for men, as Elizabeth`s uncle points out to the housekeeper at Pemberly when he tells her “If your master would marry, you might see more of him.” (183), however the similarity between the male and female condition in Pride and Prejudice begins and ends at the slowness of later life. There is no age beyond which the gentlemen becomes unmarriageable; the desirable Mr. Darcy is ‘eight and twenty’ (276), only a year older than Charlotte Lucas, who came so perilously close to spinsterhood. This means that there is no concentrated rush towards marriage early on; a man has all the time in the world to choose a wife, and there is no shame associated with bachelordom if he should choose not to marry at all. In addition, men do at least have the option of pursuing employment, even if it means losing the pride associated with the aristocracy, and have the benefit of more formal and practical education than most women, even among the upper classes. This means that, while life may slow down in some ways, and time may stretch a little, there is always a way out or at the very least the management of an estate to stem the tide of boredom and offer purpose and meaning to their existence.
The total lack of career prospects and relative ignorance of women make a life of genteel idleness inevitable, while the unreasonably short period of time in which they are expected to marry or else be regarded as failures creates a rush into matrimony in which speed and wealth rather than mutual compatibility or companionship are valued in a match. In this way, Jane Austen documented the relativity of time a hundred years or so before Einstein; she demonstrated that it is entirely subjective to the kind of life a person leads. In the world of Pride and Prejudice, a young woman is given a meagre six or seven years in which to establish a future for herself by finding a wealthy and agreeable husband as quickly as possible, and to that end socializing and living life to the full for those few years and then the rest of her life to reap the benefits she has sown by staying quietly at home and marrying off her daughters.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Pamela Norris. London: Everyman, 1996. Print.