When Charlotte Lucas accepts Mr. Collin’s proposal of marriage, Elizabeth Bennet reflects in a moment of free indirect discourse that her friend “has sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage” (P&P). Blurring the line between the narrator and Elizabeth’s inner voice gives authorial weight to this sentiment and makes it seem irrefutable. Yet in the subsequent treatment of this subject, Austen makes it clear that Charlotte, who is neither insensible nor crude, has accepted Mr. Collins with her eyes wide open. “Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony,” marriage had always been Charlotte’s object, we are told; it was the “pleasantest preservative from want” for a woman in her position (122-23). “‘I am not a romantic,’” she tells Elizabeth. “‘I ask only a comfortable home …’” (125). These are sentiments that Austen still espouses years later, when she writes to her niece Fanny Knight in 1817: “Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor—which is one very strong argument in favor of Matrimony” (13 March 1817). If Charlotte Lucas is willing to marry Mr. Collins just because he is a man in a respectable position, her successful suitor is hardly more fastidious. For Mr. Collins, women are interchangeable too: one is as good as another. He only wants encouragement to make his selection.
Yet when Elizabeth Bennet visits Hunsford several months later, after Charlotte is settled into married life, she is pleased to see her old friend taking satisfaction in her pleasant establishment while wisely encouraging Mr. Collins to work in his garden and leave her to the enjoyment of their comfortable home. Although the reader is told that Charlotte deliberately chooses not to hear Mr. Collins’s longwinded and embarrassingly self-congratulatory speeches, Elizabeth’s appraisal of their marital situation is that her friend is tolerably happy. She remarks to Darcy that Charlotte is “‘one of the very few sensible women’” that could have carried off a marriage to Mr. Collins with success. “‘My friend has an excellent understanding—although I am not certain that I consider her marrying Mr. Collins as the wisest thing she ever did. She seems perfectly happy, however, and in a prudential light, it is certainly a very good match for her’” (178).
Thus Elizabeth attests to the success of the match, despite the absence of romantic love on either side. We are not allowed to imagine that Charlotte Lucas has let her “excellent understanding” lapse, nor that Mr. Collins’s person or company has any attractions for her. Nevertheless, he has a respectable position in the world and will come into the property of Longbourn when Mr. Bennet dies. The text corroborates the realism of such material considerations in marriage when Elizabeth Bennet confesses teasingly that her own regard for Darcy began when she saw “‘his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.’” Both Jane Austen and her character Elizabeth Bennet are sympathetic to Charlotte’s cheerful adjustment and genuinely glad to see her make the best of “her home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry.”
One is surprised by Austen’s acquittal of Charlotte in this closer look, because to modern sensibility the inviolability of bodily experience is a supreme moral consideration. In our day, the institution of marriage with a repellant man would be an insupportable form of prostitution. Yet Charlotte Lucas willingly undertakes all the offices of her new station, from visiting Lady Catherine de Bourgh several times a week to sleeping with Mr. Collins. That they share the conjugal embrace is proved by their “‘expectation of a young olive-branch’” (237). There is not the slightest whiff of sexual disgust about the matter: not from Charlotte, nor from Elizabeth, nor the narrator. However one feels about the marriage—and it can be argued that Charlotte is in fact an appropriate mate for Mr. Collins—the physical repugnance that we in the present century feel at the idea of sleeping with Mr. Collins is entirely absent in Jane Austen’s treatment of the matter. The “better feelings” that Charlotte Lucas is said to have sacrificed do not, apparently, include squeamishness about sex with a pompous and sycophantic man. In this, as in so much else, Austen reveals her eighteenth-century sensibility, for Charlotte Lucas Collins is a vestigial character, left over from an era of pragmatic rather than romantic matches, before the discourse of the later eighteenth century created unbridgeable moral conflict over arranged or prudential marriages.
Sexual disgust was an invention of the eighteenth century, one dimension of an evolving sexual identity for women that could control their sexual reactions without interference—whether political or protective—of a network of kin relations. A somatized reaction compelling enough to regulate women’s sexual preferences and habits, sexual disgust can hardly be found in the repertoire of earlier English written experience. Even rape is recorded more as pain at physical force than psychological horror at unwanted intercourse felt as an invasion of the self.1 The ribald escapades of such Restoration texts as The Wandring Whore, with their gross physical acts, hardly left any place for sexual disgust or sexual delicacy. It is hard to imagine an early eighteenth-century heroine like Moll Flanders, or a character from one of Delarivier Manley’s fictions, as capable of feeling sexual disgust. Only when the experience of sexual intercourse began to be invested with meaning greater than other bodily experience—only then could its mishandling horrify and shock.
Frances Sheridan’s The Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph (1761), Elizabeth Griffith’s The History of Lady Barton (1771), Georgiana Spencer’s Emma: or, The Unfortunate Attachment (1773), and Henry Mackenzie’s Julia de Roubigné (1777)—these novels depicting the tragedy of marrying without love were part of an emerging discourse about marriage in the later eighteenth century. They built a new attitude toward sexual experience that, when introjected, would construct women as the right kind of sexual property: neither prudish nor coquettish but trustworthy and warm-blooded. Women had to learn to make distinctions between the right kind of sex and the wrong kind of sex. They had to learn a new kind of physical revulsion for sexual experience when not accompanied by the new sentimental version of romantic love that was supposed to infuse ordinary sexual and domestic relations. They had to feel viscerally how wrong it would be to have sexual relations with the wrong man. This refinement was necessary to develop an inner consciousness of the double standard. If women were to stay put as the sexual property of one man and one man only, they had to be trained to feel repugnance for physical relations with anyone else. The new popular wisdom set up expectations of disgust for sexual acts without love, and even for lustful feelings that had no admixture of moral admiration or mutual social respect. The emphasis on a woman’s sexual allegiance to a mate, rather than her obedience to a father, also signaled the realignment of kinship along a conjugal axis rather than a consanguineous axis.
Were there no literary representations of sexual disgust before the eighteenth century? Cannot one find expressions of sexual disgust in Renaissance drama, for example? Certainly Hamlet’s charge to Gertrude that she lives “In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, / Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty” (III, iv) is an expression of sexual disgust. Yet these lines express a more generalized disgust at the fact of human sexuality, and in particular women’s sexuality, at the whole rank world, rather than disgust with a particular sexual object. Hamlet is sick about sex, and his revulsion extends to Ophelia; he is not distinguishing between a proper sexual object—she to whom he is attracted—and an improper object—she by whom he is physically repelled. In his disturbed state of mind, all women are appalling in their sexuality—potentially deceptive and seductive.
Nor do other early literary examples of sexual aversion, when examined closely, hold up as instances of that peculiar revulsion to sex with the wrong person that signals a violation of one’s psychological self and not just one’s bodily self. In Comedy of Errors, there is a male servant—Dromio of Syracuse—who is pursued by the fat, greasy, kitchen wench whose lust he does not reciprocate. He dodges her advances and mocks her size and aspect to his master. But his distaste is played as farce, as slapstick, rather than as the effect of a revulsion that reaches to the very core of his being. The fact that Dromio has no interiority in this dramatic characterization obviates that intensity of feeling and keeps his resistance to Nell’s advances comic.
In Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s The Changeling (1622) there is a character, Beatrice, who feels repugnance for the man she is bound to have sex with. She is deflowered by him offstage in an unholy quid pro quo; for although she finds De Flores repulsive she submits to him because he has obeyed her wishes and killed her unwanted fiancé. Hardly an innocent woman, her complicity in the murder complicates the audience’s feeling about the sexual payment he demands. Moreover, in the course of the play she warms up to him because they are really soulmates in evil. In the end, there are hints that she has continued their sexual liaison voluntarily because she has come to trust and admire him. Whatever sexual disgust she may have felt for him originally is dissipated by this development in their relationship.2
The invention of sexual disgust is part of what Norbert Elias has written about as the progressive regulation of instinctual life. The “civilization-curve” as he calls it, from the middle ages to the nineteenth century, entails the suppression of instinctual and bodily experience from the shared public life of a society and the progressive containment of this bodily experience in private, domestic life. Elias gives examples from table manners, bathroom behaviors, and sexual mores. “The tendency of the civilizing process,” he writes, is to make all bodily functions private, to put them “behind closed doors” (189). Moreover, “the greater the transformation, control, restraint and concealment of drives and impulses that is demanded of the individual by society,” the more elaborate and complicated the conditioning of the young. Elias refers to the discomfort and embarrassment that people feel when that conditioning is violated, and the association of “delicacy” about bodily matters with a higher degree of civilization. I would add that disgust is an important somatic sign marking the complicated conditioning of bodily response, and that sexual disgust, in particular, evolved to condition women’s sexual choices. That is, no one expects a heterosexual man to be so put off by the vulgar mind or loose morals of an attractive woman as to be unwilling to have sex with her. As with Dromio of Syracuse in Comedy of Errors, sexual disgust in a man is played for comedy and the object of that disgust derided. For a woman, sexual disgust is more serious. It is supposed to operate as a restraint on her desire for inappropriate men, to confine her sexual activity to intercourse with a single partner from the right social class in a legitimate marriage. Sexual disgust is a visceral response that helps to define the social and moral limits of acceptable sexual behavior. It must be understood as one of the bodily forms of discipline that Foucault has famously explained as providing the invisible regulatory mechanisms for policing the most important rules of social reproduction.
Perhaps examples from two novels of the later eighteenth century will further clarify the emotional response that I am calling sexual disgust. There is no reason to believe that Jane Austen knew either one of these books, although they certainly were in circulation in her lifetime. The first is Millenium Hall (1762) by Sarah Scott, the mid-century bluestocking; in the early history of Mrs. Morgan, one of the original founders of the community of women, is an instance of sexual disgust of the sort I am trying to define: revulsion from sex with a particular person because of his unattractive character. Forced into a loveless marriage by her vicious conniving step-mother and her weak father, Mrs. Morgan experienced the worst kind of servitude of body and spirit in fulfilling her martial obligations to a man who neither loved nor respected her. Of the sexual dimension of the union, the narrator has this to say:
Sensible that his wife married him without affection, he seemed to think it impossible ever to gain her love, and therefore spared himself all the fruitless endeavours. He was indeed fond of her person; he admired her beauty, but despised her understanding. … Those who know Mrs. Morgan best, are convinced that she suffered less uneasiness from his ill-humour, brutal as it was, than from his nauseous fondness. (135)
Not given to “fruitless” romanticism, Mr. Morgan did not bother to court his wife, but took advantage of his marital rights to indulge his fondness for “her person.” Despising her mind but glad of her personal beauty, his “nauseous fondness,” his sexual appetite for her, devoid of even friendship, was the most insupportable aspect of the marriage for her. For Mrs. Morgan, historically precocious as a literary heroine, sexual pleasure was impossible without caring, mutual respect, or at least common interests; and sexual congress without any sort of mutuality was repulsive. The quick roll in the hay that would have been possible in a novel by Fielding or Haywood, or the clear-sighted calculation that was part of the sexual adventures of Defoe’s female protagonists, was out of the question for this new kind of sentimental heroine.3
Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria; or the Wrongs of Women (1797), also depicts a sensitive woman called upon to endure the embraces of a morally and physically repulsive husband. She describes Mr. Venables in the morning, dirty and unkempt, “lolling in an armchair, in a dirty powdering gown, soiled linen, ungartered stockings, and tangled hair, yawning and stretching himself,” exhibiting the signs of a squeamish stomach “produced by last night’s intemperance,” which he took no pains to conceal. Although she had married him with the illusion of love, Maria was soon disabused of her fantasy and learned the true character of the man to whom she had yoked herself. Echoing Sarah Scott’s description of marital relations that disgust, Maria describes her feelings frankly:
My husband’s renewed caresses then became hateful to me; his brutality was tolerable, compared to his distasteful fondness. Still, compassion, and the fear of insulting his supposed feelings, by a want of sympathy, made me dissemble and do violence to my delicacy. (101)
As in the situation described in Millenium Hall, it was worse for a woman of “delicacy” to have to endure a sexual connection without love than to put up with mere brutality of language and behavior. To have to fake sexual willingness did violence to a woman’s feelings, to her sense of herself; it was an affront to her consciousness, a psychological violence worse than physical violence. That the performance of a bodily function could be so unsettling, and invested with such significance, shows that sexual practice had entered a realm beyond the merely physical. It is as if being forced to eat or drink something distasteful could shake one’s identity, violate one’s sense of self, make one feel dirty and dishonest.
A woman’s relation to sex was coming to stand for her integrity as a woman, to be identified as the expression of her deepest self. Wollstonecraft, for all her radical belief in free love, helped to consolidate this sentimental meaning of sex for women by writing about it as if it were the center of their emotional experience. By taking women’s sexual feelings seriously, she sometimes made it seem as if sentimentalized sexual relations were more essential to their self-definition than any other aspect of their lives. “How does the woman deserve to be characterized,” she asked in Maria, “who marries one man, with a heart and imagination devoted to another? Is she not an object of pity or contempt, when thus sacrilegiously violating the purity of her feelings?” (Chapter x). Sexual activity could only be a positive experience when the heart and imagination of a woman accompanied it. When they did not, it violated the purity of her feelings and welled up as sexual disgust. This was a far cry from the Renaissance belief in woman’s insatiable sexual appetite or the Restoration and early eighteenth-century expectation that lust was wholesome, natural, and inevitable in men and women.
Although the beginnings of this discourse of sexual disgust can be seen in many places—The Athenian Mercury, The Tatler, The Spectator, sentimental comedies, conduct books, and finally in novels after about 1740—the classical statement of this repugnance for pure physicality, with or without marriage, was probably Daniel Defoe’s Conjugal Lewdness or, Matrimonial Whoredom: A Treatise Concerning the Use and Abuse of the Marriage Bed (1727). Begun in the 1690s although not published until 1727, Defoe’s treatise even-handedly warns men and women alike that sexual enjoyment, without mutual affection and regard, is morally reprehensible and bad for your health. He speaks of the degeneracy of the modern age in which marriage, that “divine Institution is made a Stalking-horse to the brutal Appetite” (33).
Defoe’s attention to the psychological dimension of sexuality is fairly novel in this period. The seventeenth-century sex manuals and works of anatomy and advice, such as Culpepper’s Directory for Midwives or Aristotle’s Master-piece: or, the Secrets of Generation Displayed, did not moralize about attitudes, practices, or legalities. They simply gave the facts of physiological excitation and reproduction as they were understood. Defoe’s treatise, subtitled “The Use and Abuse of the Marriage Bed,” argues first and foremost, that one must take seriously the business of marriage, which is “all that can be called happy in the Life of Man,” and “the Center to which all lesser Delights of Life tend, as a Point in the Circle …” (96). Defoe grants that moderate sexual pleasure is appropriate in marriage where there is mutual affection and especially where there is the desire for children. But the point which he repeats again and again—and the point for which he apparently wrote the book—is that married couples must keep a lid on excessive sexual desire, even for each other, and they must temper their lust with politesse in the bedroom. “Married persons must keep such modesty and decency of treating each other, that they never force themselves into high and violent lusts, with arts and devices: always remembring that those Mixtures are most innocent which are most simple and most natural, most orderly and most safe” (55). Married persons must not make use of each other as sexual objects; they must try to retain their sense of their whole relation to one another at all times. “It is a duty of matrimonial Chastity to be restrained and temperate in the use of their lawful Pleasures,” Defoe wrote (55). He condemned the expedients that human invention might dream up to fan the flames of desire—some of which have been updated and re-cycled in our own day in magazines sold in supermarkets offering advice on “how to keep passion in your marriage.” His concern historicizes the place of sexuality in marriage—indeed, in human life—and reminds us how much attitudes have changed in 274 years.
Defoe warned that criminally immoderate sexual appetite, whether inside or out of marriage, would enfeeble the body and take its toll on the health of one’s offspring. “Palsies and Epilepsies, Falling-Sickness, trembling of the Joints, pale dejected Aspects, Leanness, and at last Rottenness and other filthy and loathsome Distempers” could be expected in later years of those who overdid sexual activity in youth. Defoe’s metaphors are mechanical and hydraulic: sex uses up the body’s vitality; ill health will result “if the Fountain is drawn dry, if the Vitals are exhausted, the Engines of Nature worked with unreasonable Violence …” (91). As for the progeny of unions too self-indulgent about wanton sex: “Nature speaks plainer in her Reproofs of that Crime than I dare do,” Defoe claimed, and the revolting effects were visible for several generations: “The Product of those impure and unlawful, however matrimonial Liberties, carry the indelible Marks of their Parents unhappy Excesses and Intemperances in their Faces,” where “scrophulous Humours break out, in Scabs and Blisters” and in the “blotch’d and bladdred Skin of their Posterity” (61-63).
Such titillating detail combined with physical revulsion was a new combination in 1727 and both reflected and contributed to changing popular attitudes towards sex. Defoe fulminated against contemporary licentiousness masquerading as marriage. Too many modern couples were willing “to gratify their vitious Part in the formality of a legal Appointment,” he wrote, without “one Ounce of Affection, not a Grain of original, chast, and rivetted Love, the Glory of a Christian Matrimony, and the essential Happiness of Life …” (105-06). He describes the delicious freedoms of marriage—how “she freely strips off her Cloths in the Room with him; and whereas she would not have shew’d him her Foot before, without her Shoe and Stockings on, she now, without the least Breach of Modesty, goes into what we call the naked Bed to him, and with him; lies in his Arms, and in his Bosom, and sleeps safely, and with security in her Virtue with him, all Night” (58). Initially describing this openness as peaceful and innocent—a wife sleeping in her husband’s arms was like a child on its mother’s bosom—he soon warms to his message that, however sanctified, these freedoms are fraught with dangers and one must beware “wanton excesses” and “criminal indulgence”—excesses and indulgences he suggests with pornographic effect. Thus he enlists the aroused energy of his readers in the service of disapproval, mingling descriptions of physical desire with moral disapprobation and physical disgust until a whirlpool of feeling is set up around the marriage bed.
Human sexuality—especially female sexuality—was no longer to be unselfconsciously accepted as part of physical life, but needed to be scrutinized, judged, and regulated. Richardson’s Clarissa was probably one of the earliest texts to naturalize a certain female delicacy regarding these matters. When Clarissa writes about Solmes drawing his chair so close to hers that “squatting in it with his ugly weight … he pressed upon my hoop,” one feels the threat of sexual violation. Solmes is vile: the word “squat” conjures up the toad shape of Milton’s Satan “close at the ear of Eve” in his first attempt to “reach / The organs of her fancy” (IV, 800-02). Solmes’s weight trespassing on Clarissa’s hoop also suggests his bodily impatience to force himself on a more private circumference. His physical proximity makes Clarissa move involuntarily to another chair, her panic betraying her reason and giving her brother and sister too much advantage. “I could not help it—I knew not what I did,” she tells Anna Howe, illustrating the power of even a sexually insinuating gesture to shake her composure and frighten away her self-possession (87).
In another episode, Clarissa’s brother, James Harlowe Jr., deliberately insults the finely tuned heroine by insinuating that she has sexual feeling like the rest of animal creation—in this case, for Lovelace. He sneers a line at her from Virgil’s Georgics (Book iii, l. 244) which, in its original context, refers to the use of animal mating cycles for agricultural advantage: amor omnibus idem (All feel the same love) (244). If it were not for his cruelty and greed, one could argue he was simply teasing Clarissa as Anna Howe has already teased her—about her “throbs” and “glows” for the virile villain. But styling such attraction not as sentiment and feeling but as brute animal instinct appalls her and makes her squeamish, and the reader shares her shock and enters into her way of thinking. Clarissa then reinscribes her squeamishness about being placed in Nature’s animal continuum when she writes to Anna about her brother’s “vile hint.” Coming as it does from her crude brother, accompanied by the threat of being carried off to uncle Antony’s moated castle and forced to endure visits from the repulsive Mr. Solmes, the notion that all “love” stems from the same primal instinct of species survival—that gradations of feeling are ultimately traceable to this one great reproductive imperative—places the sex drive in a context that naturalizes Clarissa’s squeamishness and makes it seem the only civilized response to a brutal and threatening situation.
Defoe’s Conjugal Lewdness helped to create the climate for Clarissa’s response by arguing that without the right kind of consciousness, sexual intercourse was bestial. Twenty years before Richardson dramatized the matter in Clarissa, Defoe argued for the all-distinguishing importance of separating lust from love and argued that sex had to be accompanied by love or else it brutalized the sensibility. Although he castigated spouses who used the marriage bed for wanton pleasure, he reserved his worst opprobrium for those who married with only “slight and superficial Affection.” Such persons “are to me little more than legal Prostitutes” (102), he wrote, insofar as they provide sexual services without engaging the affections. He considered parents who forced their children to marry without love as guilty of rape, and gives an example a dialogue between a knight and his lady in which she testifies “’twas no Marriage, ’twas all Forced, a Rape upon Innocence and Virtue … I was dragged to Church, I did not go, I tell you, ’twas no Matrimony, tho’ ’twas a Marriage; I was ravished and nothing else” (175). When a woman suffers sexual violence from a man who is not her husband, he wrote,
she has her recourse to the Law, and she will be redress’d as far as redress can be obtained. Where the Fact is irretrievable, the Man should be punished, and the Woman is protected by the Law from any farther Force upon her for the future. But here the Woman is put to Bed to the Man by a kind of forced Authority of Friends; ’tis a Rape upon her Mind; her Soul, her brightest Faculties, her Will, her Affections are ravished, and she is left without redress, she is left in the Possession of the Ravisher, or of him, who, by their Order, she was delivered up to, and she is bound in the Chains of the same Violence for her whole life.
HORRID abuse! (198)
Defoe’s language both sensationalizes and heightens the horror of sex without love. What appears to have been felt as an irritant or annoyance a bare forty years earlier, at the end of the Restoration (for sex was never a pleasure where unwanted), here is constructed as a violation of a woman’s deepest self. What was probably regarded as an unpleasant duty among other unpleasant duties is here written of as a primal affront to her fundamental being. Defoe regards sex as both more important to an individual’s identity than it had ever been thought of before, and less a socially significant act that constituted marriage within a community. Thus, marrying where there was no affection and mutual regard—however obediently it might reproduce society—was not properly marriage in Defoe’s treatise but matrimonial whoredom. And conversely, marrying to satisfy lust without the matrimonial urge to create a family and live a domestic life was not marriage but conjugal lewdness.
These were the earliest English literary antecedents of what now seems to us to be a natural response of sexual disgust to the idea of sleeping with, say, Mr. Collins. That Austen could construct Charlotte Lucas as rational and unsentimental about marriage, cheerfully undeterred by the idea of sex with that insufferably obsequious man, shows that by 1797 or even by 1811 it was still possible to hold an older, less psychologized, conception of sexual relations. As we study ideological change, we have come to see that earlier cultural formations often linger in a later historical period, co-existing with those attitudes that have come to replace them. Thus temporally successive ideological positions can be held simultaneously in the same society. Raymond Williams called these lingering elements the cultural “residual,” constructed on the basis of “some previous social and cultural institution or formation” but “still active in the cultural process, not only and often not at all as an element of the past, but as an effective element of the present” (122). He emphasized that this cultural residual often had “an alternative or even oppositional relation to the dominant culture,” but that it survived alongside of it, often for a long time, before dwindling into the archaic. I am arguing that Austen’s treatment of the Lucas-Collins marriage is part of the cultural residual, co-existing with the emerging ideological formation of sentimental love-in-marriage.
Nor is Austen’s novel unique in portraying marriages that are happy enough despite the absence of attraction, romance, or even compatibility between the principals. In discussing loveless marriages in late eighteenth-century fiction, J. M. S. Tompkins compares Mrs. Strictland in Clara Reeve’s School for Widows (1791) to Charlotte Lucas Collins and observes that neither is condemned for her practical choice. Reeve’s Mrs. Strictland, says Tompkins, “painfully learns enough patience and tact to live not uncomfortably beside her boorish spouse. … She holds to her bargain, takes comfort in her children, and, after the first revolts, finds even in her confined circumstance opportunities for charity and mental growth. The picture is done in sober tones, without satire and almost without humour, but there is a quality of unassuming realism about it, a simple attention to important things, that commands respect” (164). In the terms Tompkins uses to describe married life, sex was not necessarily considered one of the “important things” in late eighteenth-century fiction.
Pride and Prejudice occupies an intermediate position in this history of perspectives on sex and marriage. Austen’s novel contains both the older and newer way of thinking about these matters in the diverging views of Charlotte and Elizabeth. If Charlotte Lucas, with her pragmatic sense that marriage to a small-minded and hypocritical man was preferable to an impoverished and dependent old age, expresses the common wisdom of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Elizabeth Bennet, with her independent manner and her handsome suitor, is an example of the newer sort of nineteenth-century heroine. That Jane Austen herself understood both impulses for marrying—the older, unromantic, practical reasons as well as the newer demand for sexual attraction and sentimental love—can be seen by her double response to Harris Bigg-Wither, who proposed to her in 1802.
He was the brother of her friends Elizabeth, Catherine, and Alethea Bigg, and he was heir to Manydown Park. At first she accepted the tall, stammering young man, but thought better of it overnight and recanted in the morning. Caroline (Mary Craven) Austen, daughter of Austen’s brother James and his second wife, Mary Lloyd, set down her own meditations upon the facts of the case as she had heard them spoken of in the family:
Mr. Wither was very plain in person—awkward, & even uncouth in manner—nothing but his size to recommend him—he was a fine big man—but one need not look about for [a] secret reason to account for a young lady’s not loving him—a great many would have taken him without love—& I believe the wife he did get was very fond of him, & that they were a happy couple—He had sense in plenty & went through life very respectably, as a country gentleman—I conjecture that the advantages he could offer, & her gratitude for his love, & her long friendship with his family, induced my Aunt to decide that she would marry him when he should ask her—but that having accepted him she found she was miserable & that the place & fortune which would certainly be his, could not alter the man—She was staying in his Father’s house—old Mr. Wither was then alive—To be sure she should not have said yes—over night—but I have always respected her for the courage in cancelling that yes—the next morning—All worldly advantages would have been to her—& she was of an age to know this quite well—My Aunts had very small fortunes & on their Father’s death they & their Mother would be, they were aware, but poorly off—I beleive most young women so circumstanced would have taken Mr. W. & trusted to love after marriage … (Austen-Leigh 121-22).
I have always thought, somewhat facetiously, that Jane Austen rejected this man because she could not endure the name Bigg-Wither. But Harris Bigg-Wither was, even more than Mr. Collins, a good match “in a prudential light”: more sensible than Mr. Collins, the brother of her close friends, and heir to a fine old estate, it was an unexceptional connection. As Caroline Austen says, most young women would have accepted him “& trusted to love after marriage.” That Jane Austen, who must have liked him well enough humanly, was miserable when she envisioned being married to him, shows her elevated expectations of marriage. She was not attracted to Harris Bigg-Wither and could not, in the words of Wollstonecraft, violate “the purity of her own feelings.”
The same dialogue is there in Austen’s fragment of a novel, The Watsons, written a few years after the Bigg-Wither proposal, in a conversation between Emma Watson and her older sister. “‘I would rather be a Teacher at a school (and I can think of nothing worse) than marry a Man I did not like,’” declares Emma Watson. “‘I would rather do any thing than be a Teacher at a school [’]—said her sister. [‘] I have been at school, Emma, & know what a Life they lead. … I should not like marrying a disagreeable Man any more than yourself,—but I do not think there are many very disagreeable Men;—I think I could like any good humoured Man with a comfortable Income’” (318). Emma Watson wants to “like” the man she might marry, whereas her older sister simply wants to avoid a disagreeable husband, which her tolerant imagination tells her are rare anyway. Emma Watson, her sister thinks, has more refined expectations than she, for having been raised by a rich aunt the promise of a handsome dowry allowed her to be more choosey about the matter. As for herself, it was not necessary that her “heart and imagination” be captivated; good humor and a comfortable income would make her happy enough.
Sexual disgust, of course, is the other side of attraction: both emphasize the “person” of the other. If Austen does not imagine Charlotte Lucas’s sexual disgust for Mr. Collins, neither does she imagine powerful physical attraction between her couples destined for marriage—not until Persuasion in any case. Although some of her heroes are handsome, Austen was also perfectly capable of creating heroes whose attractive qualities are spiritual and intellectual rather than physical—Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon, for example, or even Edmund Bertram or Mr. Knightley, whose stature is mentioned only once, but whose rationality, education, and moral judgment are paraded throughout. So although in Pride and Prejudice the scenes with Darcy and Elizabeth have enough erotic energy to satisfy modern readers, there is the irreducible fact in the same novel of the evident happiness of Charlotte Lucas, which neither the author nor her sprightly heroine try to diminish. Alone in her chamber at Hunsford, Elizabeth meditates “upon Charlotte’s degree of contentment,” “her address in guiding and composure in bearing with her husband,” and is forced to acknowledge “that it was all done very well” (157). Written in an era before love was universally expected to accompany marriage, this subplot is an interesting window into an earlier sensibility. For Charlotte Lucas was created when marriage was still a matter of practicality rather than romance, a means to perpetuate society rather than the occasion for isolating from society two people who hope to find in each other their entire happiness.
1. Susan Staves quotes the testimony of a woman who has been raped in her article about scenes of attempted rape in the fiction of Henry Fielding. The statement she reproduces from the trial testimony of 1768 is powerful in its flat, unemotional description of force. Susan Staves, “Fielding and the Comedy of Attempted Rape,” in History, Gender & Eighteenth-Century Literature, ed. Beth Fowkes Tobin (Athens and London: U Georgia P, 1994): 86-112.
2. I am grateful to Curtis Perry for these Renaissance examples of “sexual disgust” and for his clarifying discussions of this issue.
3. Sarah Scott’s Mrs. Morgan was modeled on Mrs. Delany, whose journal circulated privately in the later eighteenth century. That manuscript included anecdotes of her first marriage to Alexander Pendarves, a man nearly 40 years her senior, who was fat, dirty, and physically disgusting to her and made no attempt to be agreeable to his young wife.
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