As the novels of Jane Austen demonstrate, unmarried young women in Regency England had two choices: to get married or live forever as destitute dependents. Though Elizabeth Bennet proves a revolutionary heroine in Pride and Prejudice, she must still rely on a husband for economic and social stability, even though she is fortunate enough to marry someone she loves. In the pairing of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, Austen presents a promising, even progressive outcome for women looking for both security and happiness in marriage. However, excess pragmatism motivates Charlotte Lucas to accept the proposal of a man she cannot respect, and foolhardy passion drives Lydia to an irresponsible match doomed to penny-pinching. As Austen continually proves, even women similar to Elizabeth, who shrewdly seek marriages that blend safety with true love, often fall victim to unhappy partnerships, despite the measures they take to protect themselves. In Mansfield Park, Austen holds a dark mirror to Pride and Prejudice, exposing the capricious injustices inherent to marriage as a sole means of securing a future livelihood for women.
In Pride and Prejudice, when Charlotte accepts the proposal of Mr. Collins, Elizabeth reacts with pained surprise. It disgusts her that Charlotte, whom she knows to be intelligent and worthy, would consent to cast her lot with someone so ingratiating and unappealing. However, Elizabeth’s perspective is limited by her own experience. Younger, more beautiful, and comparatively wealthier than Charlotte, Elizabeth is not only privileged, but prejudiced by her privilege. In choosing Mr. Collins, Charlotte may not have chosen love, but she did choose respect. Charlotte and Elizabeth epitomize two contrasting forms of agency in the fates of young women seeking futures of stability and happiness. According to Melina Moe, author of the essay “Charlotte and Elizabeth: Multiple Modernities in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice,” the navigation of courtship becomes Austen’s “divisive lens for imagining future selves as well as justifying current happiness” (Moe 4). Through marriage, both Charlotte and Elizabeth successfully create futures of control and stability, a remarkable feat in a world so unstable for women who attempt to navigate it on their own terms. Though Elizabeth, with greater freedom to choose, finds a partnership of true affection, part of what she knows makes her marriage with Mr. Darcy so perfect is that it is a “union that must have been to the advantage of both” (Pride and Prejudice 382) in terms of both disposition and economic security. While Charlotte does not challenge her reality, she diagnoses it, using her intelligence and candor to make choices within the established order with a pragmatic eye. Guided by passion untempered by reason, Lydia dooms her future by tying herself forever to a reprobate, facing a lifetime of financial instability. The relatively happier outcome won by Charlotte demonstrates how Austen’s narratives reward women, to an extent, for their foresight in choosing a partner who can provide them with the safety that is essential to their survival.
However, while Elizabeth demands that Mr. Darcy amend his character flaws before she marries him, challenging the world around her, Charlotte does not. In her article “Sleeping with Mr. Collins,” Ruth Perry characterizes Charlotte as a “vestigial character” (Perry 1) whose attitude toward marriage stands within Pride and Prejudice for a receding premodern eighteenth century, before late eighteenth-century discourse gave rise to moral qualms surrounding “arranged or prudential marriages” (1). Charlotte accepts the meager opportunities that come her way in her oppressive atmosphere. Through Charlotte and her choices, Austen “offers social compromises rather than fractious challenges to the uncertain future of her moment” (Moe 7), shining a spotlight on painfully realistic outcomes for the economically and socially dependent young women of her time. Nevertheless, Austen lends a note of caution to Charlotte’s reluctance to demand more from her marriage. Though Elizabeth grows to sincerely consider her friend to have created a happy life for herself as the lady of her own home, Elizabeth concludes, dipping into the free indirect discourse of Austen herself, that “[Charlotte’s] home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry, and all their dependent concerns, had not yet lost their charms” (Pride and Prejudice 269). The ominous word “yet” infuses Charlotte’s future with the possibility that these charms may fade, leaving readers with the mere hope that Charlotte will be able to find joy in her relative independence, her friends, and her children. Elizabeth, meanwhile, demands the best for herself, securing the marriage founded on both love and security to which Austen implies her readers should aspire.
Nevertheless, Elizabeth does not earn her happiness without several fortuitous chances in her uncertain world. Austen, in her other novels, illustrates the shades of gray within a young woman’s path toward finding both happiness and security through the only avenue open to them: marriage. Elizabeth, after several hard-won struggles and remarkable amendment of Darcy’s character, unites pragmatism and passion in compatibility. In Mansfield Park, however, Austen illustrates a counter-narrative to the headstrong Elizabeth in the similarly magnetic anti-heroine, Mary Crawford, who, by all rights, might be taken for a typical protagonist of a novel defined by emerging nineteenth-century sensibilities of young women having it all. Like Elizabeth, Mary attempts to reconcile a desire for prosperity with her love for Edmund Bertram, who anticipates a modest future as a clergyman.
With self-governing, liberal allure, Mary is honest and proactive in her ambition for wealth. Indeed, her pragmatism sometimes leans too strongly toward avarice, as seen in her gruesomely mirthful hopes for Tom’s death. In his letters, Edmund, her reluctant critic, deprecates the influence of Mary’s fashionable London friends, writing to Mary’s demure antithesis, Fanny, “‘You know the weak side of [Mary’s] character, and may imagine the sentiments and expressions which were torturing me. She was in high spirits, and surrounded by those who were giving all the support of their own bad sense to her too lively mind’” (Mansfield Park 509). Still, though Mary may seem heartless, the constraint of her circumstances foregrounds the very real fears that drive her calculating attitude toward marriage and men. Mary understands that marriage is not only an act of love, but a step women must take to protect themselves against social marginalization. While Edmund lays his ultimate rejection of Mary at the door of her “perversion of mind” (552), it is, in fact, her candidness about the nature of marriage with which he ultimately finds fault. Edmund continues to feel an abiding love for Mary until their final confrontation, when Mary communicates her plans to contrive a marriage between their wayward siblings, Henry and Maria, to save Maria’s damaged reputation. Despite her faults, Mary only loses Edmund because she tries to help another woman avoid social ruin and permanent exile from her family.
Many readers have detected parallels between Elizabeth Bennet and Mary Crawford, as both possess great cleverness, imagination, and assertively independent personalities. Both characters demand more from their prospective husbands and marriages than their contemporaries. Elizabeth, however, operates according to a sense of right and wrong that Mary lacks, leading her to charge Mr. Darcy with changing his character for the better before they can marry. Though Mary acts according to a value system of her own, hers is a warped one that allows her to be heartless enough to wish death upon another person. Still, both Elizabeth and Mary draw upon remarkable courage to ask their would-be spouses to make the changes they believe would better the quality of their prospective marriages throughout the rest of their lives. While Elizabeth asks Darcy to rethink the high-handed manner with which he treats others, Mary asks Edmund not to enter the church, and, in less explicit terms, to bend his ideas of feminine virtue. While Elizabeth’s criticisms of Darcy catalyze the mutual affection that creates their successful marriage, Mary’s attempts to make Edmund compromise ultimately backfire. Mary, with her questionable morals, may not deserve the perfect marriage as greatly as Elizabeth does. Nonetheless, through Mary’s failure to synthesize pragmatism with passion, Austen portrays a cautionary warping of Elizabeth’s happy ending.
Like Charlotte Lucas, Fanny Price, the true heroine of Mansfield Park, occupies a particularly fragile position of social and economic dependency in her household. Though Elizabeth and Mary indisputably need to marry well, Fanny and Charlotte live in even greater precarity. Their dependency constrains their abilities to make more demanding choices in their prospective marriages. Unlike Charlotte, however, Fanny exhibits agency in refusing to marry for social advantage, challenging the social system and liberating herself from many pre-nineteenth-century views of marriage. However, just as Charlotte engages in a half-rebellion against an unstable future by uncritically accepting the singular option that came her way, Fanny only asserts herself through quiet, passive resistance. Though Sir Thomas accuses Fanny of exhibiting “willfulness of temper, self-conceit, and every tendency to the independence of spirit which prevails so much in modern days” (385), her primary weapons of self-protection appear in her quiet judgment and her martyrdom. While Elizabeth and Mary speak out to defend themselves and demand marriages of equality and mutual respect, Fanny suffers in silence as she waits for Edmund to come to the realization that she suits his tastes in a wife better than Mary ever could.
While Charlotte marries a man she does not love with her eyes open, Fanny marries the man she has consciously loved since her childhood. Nevertheless, as Susan Gilbert and Sandra Gubar suggest in The Madwoman in the Attic, a shadow of irony haunts the conclusion of Mansfield Park. As Austen describes Fanny’s future happiness in her marriage, predicting it to be “as secure as earthly happiness can be” (573), Austen implies that the future is uncertain and at the mercy of interpretation. From this statement, Gilbert and Gubar assess that “Fanny is destined to become the next Lady Bertram, following the example of Sir Thomas’s corpselike wife” (Gilbert and Gubar 94). They speculate that Austen creates an ending with sufficient irony to suggest that perhaps she is not sincerely praising her heroine’s match within an old, wealthy family bound by traditional values. In this way, Austen delivers a conclusion symptomatic of a society that requires women to compromise their self-expression in favor of comfort and stability, even though Fanny herself, raised in an environment of belittlement, may not be aware of the powerlessness she is accepting.
Mansfield Park presents the union between Fanny and Edmund as a moral bandage to the festering sore of immorality within the Bertram household. The problem in Mansfield Park, especially by contrast with the successful union between the complementary Elizabeth and Darcy, exists in the preference of both Edmund and Fanny for uniformity in their partnership. In the atmosphere of Mansfield Park that has been so isolating to Fanny, Edmund has “recommended the books which charmed her leisure hours, encouraged her taste, and corrected her judgment” (Mansfield Park 33), and, in essence, “formed her mind” (85). Edmund, by power of uncomfortably paternalistic influence, shapes Fanny’s personality and marries her, rejecting Mary, who is honest about her desire to protect herself, in favor of Fanny, who subjugates her own needs to prioritize Edmund.
At the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, Darcy, too, behaves with an idealized image of a wife in mind. He explicitly outlines his qualifications for a wife in front of Elizabeth, but the lesson of Pride and Prejudice lies in the fact that, although Darcy recognizes his ideal wife in Elizabeth, Elizabeth contradicts many of the standards of accomplished women to which Darcy originally held women of his acquaintance. Elizabeth demands sufficient compromise to ensure her marriage will be a healthy one that satisfies the needs of both partners. Making a similar attempt, Mary takes a stance of outright rebellion against the elements of Edmund’s character that she feels would force her to take a powerless position in their marriage. However, in the end, Mary is unable to reconcile security with passion, and she fails to achieve the ideal marriage she desires. While Fanny succeeds in marrying the object of her affection where Mary does not, Fanny’s marriage with a man unwilling to compromise in his relationship paints a potentially unsatisfactory future, permanently subduing her active agency.
In Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park, Austen explores the multiple paths and outcomes that early nineteenth-century marriages could and did take. Pride and Prejudice exemplifies the standards of compromise that create the foundation for secure and lasting marriages. Through the ambiguous ending of Mansfield Park, Austen demonstrates the uncertainty and, therein, the injustice of marriage as the only path to financial and social protection for women. Pride and Prejudice, too, is not without potential frustrations within the ultimate fate of its heroine. Despite the positive picture Austen sketches of the future happiness of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy as a married couple, the reader never becomes intimately acquainted with the post-marriage Elizabeth Darcy, whose happiness remains as much at the mercy of her husband as that of Fanny, Charlotte, Mary, and every other young woman, real or fictional, seeking security in Austen’s England. Similarly, Fanny’s passive agency is questionably rewarded, as is the rigid practicality of Charlotte, who sacrifices passion for stability, perhaps, tragically, having no other choice. Through Mary, who is sometimes mean-spirited, but revolutionary in the same way as Elizabeth, Austen demonstrates that society often fails to reward women who advocate for marriages that blend pragmatism and passion.