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Love, Convenience, and the Pursuit of Happiness for Austen’s Spinsters

Both twenty-seven-year-old spinsters, Charlotte Lucas and Anne Elliot present two versions of Austen’s marriage plot, one of convenience and one of love. But might there be more to Charlotte’s happiness, and less to Anne’s, than we have supposed? The terms of their marriages define these women’s dependence on their conjugal partners; Charlotte may be economically indebted to her frivolous Mr. Collins, but Anne’s Wentworth has complete command of her happiness. The marriage plots of these two characters demonstrate the potential confines of love and liberations of convenience, paradoxical phenomena created by the straitened opportunities available to women in Regency society. In Persuasion, Anne’s initial relationship with Captain Wentworth cost her years of self-development and individual agency. When they are reintroduced, Anne’s emotional malleability makes her susceptible to Wentworth’s will, foreshadowing the post-nuptial dissolution of her personal identity. The example of the Crofts, as well as Louisa and Benwick’s romance, further corroborate Anne’s inevitable loss of autonomy. Conversely, Charlotte’s marriage to Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice allows her to construct her own freedom by running her home and minimizing financial and societal pressures without sacrificing her individual disposition.

In the eight years following her initial relationship with Wentworth, Anne lost her sense of self and remained emotionally stagnant. Though deeply in love, Anne was persuaded to break off the engagement by her closest friend, Lady Russell, who believed that should the nuptials occur Anne would “throw herself away at nineteen” and be “sunk by [Wentworth] into a state of most wearing, anxious, youth-killing dependance!” (27). What Lady Russell did not predict was Anne’s inability to move past the heartbreak of relinquishing her Captain, resulting in “an early loss of bloom and spirits” (28). The youth that Lady Russell hoped to preserve was lost in vain. Anne suffered from “her attachments and regrets” with no potential for relief by “change of place . . . or in any novelty or enlargement of society.” In a profound reflection by the narrator, it is acknowledged that Anne “had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older” (30). For the sake of duty and caution, Anne subjected herself to eight years of emotional isolation and ruminations of love lost; in the absence of its object, her feelings persisted, matured, and “clouded every enjoyment of youth.” When the interval of their estrangement ended, Wentworth claimed she was “so altered he should not have known [her] again,” a testament not only to her changed appearance, but also to her loss of self (53).

Before their reintroduction, Wentworth found professional success and, unlike Anne, was able to join a world larger than that offered by Kellynch Hall. Following Anne’s rejection, Wentworth joined the navy where he quickly rose the ranks, distinguished himself, and made a fortune (29). When speaking to his sister and brother-in-law, Mrs. and Admiral Croft, Wentworth admits that he was glad to be deployed at the time, for he “wanted to be doing something” (57). “Something”: it hardly mattered what. The important point is that Wentworth had the luxuries of distraction and professional purpose to heal his heartbreak and grow into a new phase of life. Upon seeing Wentworth again, Anne concluded that “the years which had destroyed her youth and bloom had only given him a more glowing, manly, open look, in no respect lessening his personal advantages” (53). The end of their relationship motivated Wentworth to throw himself into his occupation which allowed him to improve. His feelings had also been resolved at sea, so by the time he returned “he had no desire of meeting [Anne] again. Her power with him was gone forever” (54). Wentworth declared to his sister that “it was now his object to marry,” and even more resolutely revealing his lack of attachment to Anne, he was “ready to fall in love with all the speed which a clear head and quick taste could allow.” Had “Providence” not brought Wentworth to Anne again, he would have given his heart freely while she kept hers unchanged.

Without occupation or social mobility, Anne had nothing to inspire her healing, causing her love for Wentworth to fester. In the climactic conversation between Anne and Captain Harville, the pair debate the constancy of attachment between the sexes. She asserts to Harville, “You are forced on exertion . . . and continual occupation and change soon weaken impressions” (187). Anne passed the eight years of separation “quiet” and “confined,” falling victim to her emotions, while Wentworth, as she states, was taken “back into the world immediately.” Anne claims that women’s restriction to the domestic sphere causes their “feelings to prey on [them].” This violent image does not suggest a dormancy of emotion but rather a predatoriness that she cannot fend off or escape. In the next scene, Wentworth explains his thoughts and motivations, claiming to have not strayed from his attachment to her, though his words portray a different reality. Wentworth declares that he thought her completely unchanged when they met again– “to my eye you could never alter” (196). In response, “Anne smiled, and let it pass,” because, of course, he had believed her to be altered, of which she had been informed after their first encounter. Wentworth continues by explaining, perhaps unknowingly, that he had to fall in love with her all over again, for his feelings had not persisted like hers: “Her character was now fixed on his mind as perfection itself . . . but he was obliged to acknowledge that only at Uppercross had he learnt to do her justice, and only at Lyme had he begun to understand himself” (194). Anne’s happiness and, more drastically, her relief from crippling despair are entwined in Wentworth, but the same is not the case for him.

Upon their reunion, Anne becomes susceptible to Wentworth’s will because her emotional stasis has contributed to a lack of agency. While on a walk at Uppercross, Anne overhears a conversation between Wentworth and Louisa Musgrove, where the captain condemns a fickle nature, “It is the worst evil of too yielding and indecisive a character . . . Everybody may sway it; let those who would be happy be firm” (74). In these words, Anne hears a nod to her relenting to Lady Russell’s advice eight year prior. Though Wentworth claims to value strong dispositions, he asserts his will on Anne moments later by arranging for her to be driven home in the Croft’s carriage without her input. Anne muses, “he had done it. She was in the carriage, and felt that he had placed her there, that his will and his hands had done it, that she owed it to . . . his resolution to give her rest” (77). She is glad to have his command directed toward her and yields to it eagerly, embracing her passivity. Wentworth, in another instance, asks for Anne’s council and this simple and almost offhand “deference for her judgment” was a “great pleasure” to her (98). Anne is so feeble that at times she “desired nothing . . . but to be unobserved,” so Wentworth fills this lack of strength with his own (62). The dynamic between Anne and Wentworth is unbalanced because of her emotional dependency.

On multiple occasions, Anne positively reflects on the Crofts’ marriage, though Mrs. Croft, in many ways, has become an accessory to her husband’s occupation. Anne compares her past connection with Wentworth to that of the Crofts, “who seemed particularly attached and happy” (55). Mrs. Croft uses her power within the relationship a few times; taking the reins of the carriage (78) and calling the Admiral to order at an evening gathering (59). Yet, her purpose and contentment are defined by the Admiral’s position in the navy. She states that “the happiest part of [her] life has been spent on board a ship,” because when she and the Admiral were together, “there was nothing to be feared” (61). But when they were apart one winter, Mrs. Croft laments that she “lived in perpetual fright” and “had complaints from not knowing what to do with [herself].” Mrs. Croft’s love for her husband brought her into naval life, but her status as a woman does not allow her full access to the role and agency of an officer. Rather, she is permitted to participate by the grace of her husband and subjected to the pain of abandonment when she is left home.

The curious relationship between Louisa and Captain Benwick further demonstrates that a marriage of love in these circumstances requires the wife to adopt the interests and temperament of her husband. In addition to the shock that Benwick’s feelings for his late fiancé had subsided, Wentworth and Anne were surprised to find this couple compatible. Anne rationalizes the match by stating, “they would soon grow more alike. He would gain cheerfulness, and she would learn to be an enthusiast for Scott and Lord Byron” (135). Benwick might adapt his disposition slightly, but Anne concedes that Louisa must have already changed for their affection to take root, “Louisa Musgrove turned into a person of literary taste, and sentimental reflection . . . she had no doubt of its being so.” In a metaphorical sense, Louisa’s bright, cheery nature died in the incident at Lyme, paving the way for Benwick’s romantic interest in the subdued, quieter Louisa, born out of the physical trauma. Anne comments that “The day at Lyme, the fall from Cobb, might influence . . . [Louisa’s] character to the end of her life . . . as thoroughly as it appeared to have influenced her fate” (136). Louisa had to lose her defining characteristics to become a suitable wife for Benwick, and despite the trauma that occasions it, their marriage is widely supported by family and friends.

These examples of “successful” marriages of love—the Crofts and Louisa and Benwick—along with Anne’s lack of independence, subtly signal that Anne will lose her personal identity after marrying Wentworth. The critic Anne Frey suggests that “Persuasion portrays the wives of the naval officers as members of the organization . . . and that in becoming a “sailor’s wife,” Anne belong[s] to her husband’s “profession,” but “Anne will never become a naval officer herself” (221). As a woman who has lost her sense of self, belonging to this professional organization will seize more than Anne’s allegiance and physical cooperation. Her identity will become bound by the “glor[y] of being a sailor’s wife” and the “dread of a future war” (203). With marriage, her personal pursuits become that of her husband because of her great “tenderness” for him (203). During Anne’s conversation with Harville she relents that he (and his sex) can feel as deeply as women if “the woman [he] love[s] lives, and lives for [him]” (189). The expectation that love requires that a wife “live for” her spouse is a truth Anne accepts and embodies.

Charlotte Lucas chooses a different fate. To the dismay of her friend Elizabeth Bennet, Charlotte decides to marry the “conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, [and] silly” Mr. Collins, a man with whom she has no romantic attachment (102). Exploring the notion that Charlotte does not believe marriage and personal fulfillment to be synchronous, Melina Moe writes that from “Charlotte's perspective, personal fulfillment, growth, and happiness progress (or regress) with equal precariousness inside or outside the couple, and a loving marriage appears to her as an external . . . condition of her future internal well-being” (1091). Early in Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte declares her opinion on marriage to Elizabeth: “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance” (16). She believes that familiarity and compatibility at the beginning of a courtship do “not advance their felicity” in the future because couples will “always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation.” Even if love is the motivation for a union, Charlotte believes that this is no guarantee of a marriage’s success: people must take charge of their own fulfillment beyond what a union might provide.

Charlotte’s pragmatic outlook on love and marriage prime her to accept the proposal of Mr. Collins with complete satisfaction. At twenty-seven, with no other marital prospects or financial safeguards, Charlotte was pleased with her match, “she felt all the good luck of it,” though she viewed her future husband as “irksome” and lacking sense (93). Marriage had always been her goal not for the sake of romance but for “the desire of an establishment.” Elizabeth is distraught to hear the news of her friend’s engagement, but Charlotte justifies her decision. “I ask only a comfortable home,” she reasons, “and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connection, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most” (95). Charlotte intends to take advantage of the resources provided by her marriage to Mr. Collins to generate her own fulfillment. She would not be weighed down by the want of romance or the need for affection. Through her acceptance of Mr. Collins, Charlotte asserts her agency in designing the terms of her own happiness.

After her nuptials, Charlotte expresses her contentment in a letter to Elizabeth: “She wrote cheerfully, seemed surrounded with comforts, and mentioned nothing which she could not praise” (110). Charlotte reports that “the house, furniture, neighbourhood, and roads, were all to her taste” and that she is satisfied with the company of Lady Catherine. Having been under the jurisdiction of her parents for so long, Charlotte takes delight in the ability to run her own home. Mr. Collins provided her with this opportunity, yet he is not instrumental in the enjoyment of her new life; instead, it is despite his presence that she finds happiness. During her visit to the Collins’ home, Elizabeth notes that “when Mr. Collins could be forgotten, there was really an air of great comfort throughout, and by Charlotte’s evident enjoyment of it, [she] supposed he must be often forgotten” (118). One critic has attributed Charlotte’s contentment in her marriage to a “willful self-deception” (Weinsheimer 409). It is possible that Charlotte’s ability to tolerate the ridiculousness of Mr. Collins may involve some self-deceit, but it is important to recognize that her ambitions and desires toward the pursuit of personal fulfillment have been clear from the start of the novel. While Elizabeth is skeptical, Austen gives us no reason to doubt Charlotte’s testimony of happiness. Her husband is a social and economic necessity, but those factors are the beginning and end of Charlotte’s dependence on her partner.

Austen herself never married, though she had many romantic affairs throughout her life. John Halperin recounts that Austen had “a succession of admirers, a number of chances to marry, and several disastrous romantic disappointments” (719). Without straining for biographical connections, illuminating comparisons can be drawn between Austen’s own relationships and the ones she fictionalized. Her first love, Tom Lefroy, came into her life before her twentieth birthday, but left abruptly a few months later after the interference of his aunt who believed the match was financially unwise (Halperin 721). Their story mirrors Anne and Wentworth’s but did not, of course, end in the same happy manner. Austen’s relationship with Harris Bigg Wither much later in her life was far less romantic. He was mean-tempered, and his main asset was the security he could provide, much like Mr. Collins (Halperin 730). Austen chose neither a marriage of love nor convenience but, as is evident through her writing, she understood why other women might do so. Charlotte and Anne’s stories may have been the imagining of the lives Austen could have had with Lefroy and Bigg Wither. Each demonstrate that love may not be the ultimate liberator for a woman confined to the Regency era and happiness can still be found in its absence.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Edited by James Kinsley, Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • _____. Pride and Prejudice. Bantam, 2003.
  • Frey, Anne. “A Nation without Nationalism: The Reorganization of Feeling in Austen’s ‘Persuasion.’” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 38, no. 2/3 (2005), 214–34.
  • Halperin, John. “Jane Austen’s Lovers.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 25, no. 4, (1985), 719–36.
  • Moe, Melina. “Charlotte and Elizabeth: Multiple Modernities in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.” ELH, vol. 83, no. 4 (2016), 1075–1103.
  • Weinsheimer, Joel. “Chance and the Hierarchy of Marriages in Pride and Prejudice.” ELH, vol. 39, no. 3 (1972), 404–19.
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