Ah, the tender-heartedness of youth! Dear Emily – she of EmilyBooks – baulks at the hard-nosed cynicism of the opening lines of Pride and Prejudice (‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’) and hopes that this is Mrs Bennett speaking and not Jane Austen. Dearest Emily, I’m afraid this is not so: but if we untangle what Austen is saying we might find a core of romantic love there after all.
A glib over-view of Austen’s novels would be to see them as frothy comic romances set in Regency England. It’s that aspect, of course, that has attracted pastiche-writers (most notably Georgette Heyer), novelists who feel they owe themselves some light relief (PD James, Val McDermid), and television producers with a hefty costume budget. And heavens, let’s not knock their achievements: what would the world be without Colin Firth (that’s the human-rights-campaigning Mr Firth, obviously, not the wet-shirt-wearing one: because that would be frivolous)? And Austen does indeed provide us with plots that, boiled down, are girl-meets-boy/series of hideous complications/girl marries boy. But Mills & Boon books do that (I think: there are limits and I’ve never read one). What Austen does is slyly, perceptively, and remorselessly, reveal the material world in which her books are set.
And that world is one of huge anxiety (whose isn’t, I hear you ask). The specific anxieties of early-nineteenth century England were economic and political, and the two were inextricably bound together. There was rather more to the Napoleonic Wars than Sean Bean smouldering around Spain, more’s the pity. As usual, it is terribly easy for us to forget that we see everything through the prism of hindsight, but Austen’s contemporaries did not know that they were going to win. Waterloo and St Helena still lay in the future. Austen’s England was facing blockade as well as the constant threat of invasion. All those handsome young officers hanging around in the South of England where the novels are set: they’re militia, ready to fight on the beaches, in the streets and in the fields should the French (and the Spanish, and the Austrians) make a landing (ah, we’re seeing Dad’s Army’s Private Pike in quite a different light now, aren’t we?).
On top of all that – oh, and there were some terrible harvests as well – life for women was – well, tough. If you were lower class, of course, your best hope was domestic service or the terrifically hard life of a farmer’s wife. Harriet Smith’s marriage to the really very sweet Robert Martin in Emma does not offer her a life of lying on sofas being fed strawberries and cream, but you will have noticed that Austen still thinks it is an awful lot better than any other realistic prospect for Miss Smith. And if you were genteel, and used to having someone else empty out the bedpans, scour the cooking pots, black the grates and heave the coal in? Well, my girl, your choices are: use such education as your parents have seen fit to provide and become a governess (see Jane Eyre and, indeed, Jane Fairfax in Emma to get a good idea why you wouldn’t want to do that); hang around the family home forever as the despised Poor Relation –Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park can be our poster-girl for that unhappy fate – or find some man who will marry you. And by ‘marry you’, I mean put a roof over your head, food on your table and clothes on your back, while conferring his social status on you. The woman we should all have our eyes on in Pride and Prejudice isn’t Elizabeth Bennett – we just know she’s going to be fine – but her friend Charlotte Lucas. When Charlotte marries Mr Collins, that’s not Austen being cynical. It’s reportage. Austen is so completely fabulous precisely because we don’t fall in with Charlotte’s social circle and think ‘good for her’. Every cringe we feel is a little blow for feminism and reminds us that Austen must have – must have – read Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the great achievement of which was to persistently add ‘and women’ to the radical reforms being demanded by the readers of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. We’re still having to do it: but not as much.
The desolating truth of Pride and Prejudice is that no man of means is in need of a wife. He can purchase all the services she might provide, frankly, and he comes as a self-contained package of land, wealth and social status. But he might be lonely. So, dear Emily, you win: Jane Austen is a hopeless romantic, because her heroines avoid all the pitfalls of the age and class in which they live and truly, deeply, marry for love. And even more excitingly, the men they marry love them. I call that a result.